After playing Panzer Dragoon Saga, I found myself a bit torn. Here was a game from the Sega Saturn widely heralded by RPG fanatics as one of the greatest games in the genre, and it didn’t completely blow my mind. It’s my own fault; no one is immune to the unstoppable force of the hype machine, and I came into the experience with preconceived notions after hearing for years that it sits pretty amongst the best games in the genre. I’ve recently replayed Final Fantasy 7 – the other ‘big deal’ JRPG of that console generation – and though it’s not a personal favorite, it’s easy to see how it maintains its place as one of the best JRPGs ever made. I have trouble saying that PDS withstood the test of time as well as other RPG greats.
And yet, there’s no doubting that Panzer Dragoon Saga is a very good game. It’s easily the best RPG I’ve played on the Saturn, and one of the best RPGs of its generation. As the third installment of a series that started out (and continued afterward) as rail shooters, PDS combines unique gameplay with its own brand of original storytelling and style. You’ve probably never played anything quite like it, and unfortunately you probably never will. Unless, of course, you’re playing this very game.
Players assume the role of Edge, a mercenary guarding a remote excavation site for a huge kingdom known as ”The Empire,” which is assuming control over most of the civilized world. The Empire had been looking for something at this site for many years, and suddenly, it had finally been found in the form of a pale, otherworldly woman. No sooner is the discovery made than an Imperial captain by the name of Craymen shows up with his fleet, kills off all the guards and hightails it with the woman, betraying The Empire. Edge miraculously survives the attack and is found by a Dragon, who mysteriously chooses Edge to be his rider. Now equipped with the means to exact his revenge, Edge seeks out Craymen. His goal is complicated a bit by The Empire, which now seeks to capture Edge’s Dragon for no other reason than to bolster its own military might.
While the premise is nothing we haven’t seen before, it’s made effective for many reasons. The atmosphere and general aesthetic is one; Panzer Dragoon Saga‘s art style and music give the world a dull look…in a good way. I’ve heard many people say that the game has a feeling of loneliness or solitude, but that doesn’t seem quite right; Edge meets a decent amount of people on his quest, so he’s not that lonely. To me, it seems more like a sense of tragedy or hopelessness. Tragedy strikes from the get go, and I always got the feeling the game was warning me not to continue, in light of more calamity. The emotions are negative, but the power of the game to invoke these feelings within me is a plus – make no mistake.
Also, while it’s true that Edge meets a lot of people, he only interacts at length with a handful of them. We don’t learn much about where these characters are going or where they’ve been. We’re not saving every town from some sort of monster problem and becoming their glorified saviors. Many people, I feel, would view this as a negative for an RPG, but I see this as a positive. It feels more real to only reach a personal level with a select few. On the flipside, it’s equally real to have people hate Edge for no reason other than programmed prejudice (and continue to hate him for the entirety of the story). This mirrors real human interaction more closely than other game narratives to me. Video games might be escapist entertainment to an extent, but it’s hard to want to escape to a land where no one acts anything like how I’ve seen humans actually act. Panzer Dragoon Saga succeeds with flying colors in this regard, as well.
So, what’s wrong with the story? The beginning was intense, and the end was just as riveting. The middle, however, is just a jumble of seemingly unimportant events other than the occasional interaction with Azel, the woman who was unearthed at the beginning. Panzer Dragoon Saga is an extremely short game – I finished it in about twelve and a half hours – and I’m surprised it managed to find time to send me on silly fetch quests in the interim. I’ll begrudgingly admit that some important things happen during these fetch quests, but I don’t buy that there was no better way to push the story along.
Gameplay in general is a pretty mixed bag. When Edge navigates the field, he sometimes moves on foot or with his dragon. For the most part, it’s standard RPG fare. However, when on the back of the dragon, moving through the map is cool, as players can be required to move forward and backward as well as upward or downward in altitude. It’s not going to be the game’s selling point or anything, but it was certainly a nice touch.
On the other hand, dungeon design in PDS is pretty awful. The first few dungeons were excellently designed with small puzzles and easy-to-navigate areas. This sets the pace for something completely unlike the rest of the game, where the dungeons consist of either endless samey-looking corridors or extremely wide open fields, wherein Edge has to comb the entire map to find any points of interest. It was pretty disappointing to see the quality of dungeons take such a huge nosedive, even if the focus of the gameplay is supposed to be combat.
Speaking of which, PDS has a neat take on combat. Edge has three gauges in combat. They fill up slowly over time, and Edge can take an action as long as one is filled up (some actions cost two bars). There are three types of attacks: Edge’s gun attack which focuses fire on a single target, the dragon’s laser which spreads damage to many targets, and Berserks, which are the equivalent of magic spells. There are also four “quadrants” in each battle – in front of enemies, behind enemies, or to the left and right sides – which Edge can move through freely. Lastly, Edge can change his dragon’s form during battle by raising one of the dragon’s parameters at the cost of lowering another. For example, by switching the dragon to an attack form by raising its attack power, its magic power will decrease, causing spells to be less effective and cost more MP.
These elements come together to make an absolutely brilliant battle system. The switching of dragon forms allows players to use their own personal favorite strategies, while also allowing on-the-fly decisions. Depending on the enemy Edge faces, some quadrant positions are more dangerous, while some are completely safe. Certain enemies have weak points which can be accessed from certain sides, usually from the same side where they can unleash their strongest attacks. The semi real-time combat, along with the quadrant system, forces players to think about their positioning relative to the enemies and places an emphasis on well-timed attacks – something which more RPGs ought to incorporate.
Conceptually, this is an amazing battle system. The problem is that PDS never really takes full advantage of the strategic nature of the combat. For starters, enemies in random battles are usually easy enough to kill without even paying attention until near the end of the game. PDS nobly tries to give players incentive to do well anyways by awarding bonus experience for winning swiftly with a minimum amount of damage. Even so, it’s not really that tough to earn bonus experience in most battles, even without trying too hard. Boss battles can be more entertaining, but still fall short. They seem to be more in line with how I imagined the random battles should be; while not obscenely hard, they did punish me for trying to get away with mashing attack buttons while talking to people on the phone. Even so, I only lost two battles in this game, and both of them were complete flukes. The difficulty could have been ramped up a bit.
It’s easy to see why Saturn fans hold Panzer Dragoon Saga in such high regard. It’s easily the best RPG I’ve played on the Saturn, and I bet I would have been infatuated with it if I had played it back in the time of its release. It’s too bad that a few things hold it back. Worse yet is the fact that we’ll probably never see this game re-released; even the director of the game said that if he had the chance, he would remake it as a shooter game. That’s a damn shame. No, I probably wouldn’t say that PDS is still one of the best RPGs ever made, but it’s not hard to imagine a game with the same style, tone, and combat system becoming a huge hit nowadays. I hope someday, somebody realizes just how ahead of the curve this game was in the innovation department, runs with those ideas, and creates the unparalleled masterpiece that PDS has been hinting at for all this time.