PANZER DRAGOON SAGA. 10/10
The fate of Panzer Dragoon Saga is absolutely nothing other than frustrating. Only 2,000 copies of the United States version of the game exist (so I'm told), and to score one of these copies, you must be ready to pay well over $200 on ebay. If there is any love in Sega, we will someday get a rerelease or (if someone gets really brilliant) a total remake. It is quite possible that never, in the history of gaming, has a title so elegant and well-produced managed to hide itself from the gaming audience this well.
Before I finally played the game, my imagination created many expectations about it based on the glowing reviews it received, most of which were hilariously off and I believe addressing expectations people may have should come first. In particular, some people saying “better than Final Fantasy VII”, a recent phenomena at the time, is most misleading of all. This game is absolutely an RPG, but comparing it to any other just does not work, which makes this game hard to score. Much like the similarly brilliant Vagrant Story, released years later, Panzer Dragoon Saga builds upon nothing but its own vision—something that any seasoned RPGamer should really appreciate after all the Final Fantasy knock-offs out there. Every single aspect of the game's method of delivering story, battle system, exquisite art, or structure fails to elicit deja vu for any game before it. What this provides is totally unmatched levels of immersion into the world the developers made for us.
The setting of the game is an unnamed world that once thrived with incredibly advanced civilization. This civilization created “towers”, or sorts of factories for monsters used as weapons. Eventually, these monsters went out of control and led to the destruction of the glorious civilization, and hundreds of years later the game takes place, after survivors of the catastrophe constantly struggle to live in spite of the monsters that linger from the “Ancient Age”, and a powerful empire formed from amidst them. This has been the setting of the Panzer Dragoon series, and the compelling concept provides the lifeblood of the game's story. To expand on this point, it is important to realize that the story of Panzer Dragoon Saga—much like its two predecessors—does not rely very heavily on character development or intensely-epic scenarios (big “dramatic moments”) as, say, the Final Fantasy series does. While these do occur, the player will mostly experience the story more enraptured by the sheer atmosphere and character of the setting. I say this is “important” to realize because many RPG veterans may go into the experience and feel that the story is flat-out weak. To be honest, there could be some truth to this, but I for one am far too overwhelmed by the uniqueness of the story to be overly critical of its fine points. Also important to note is that the story (along with everything else in the game) is perfectly paced for the sixteen-or-so hours it lasts.
Most people understand that Panzer Dragoon Saga is the third game of a series, preceded by shooting games, of all things. Yet as disjointed as an RPG following shooting games might sound, the incredible change in genre was done in a very natural way. In the shooting games, the player controls a dragon-rider, shooting down bogies from the rather ominous “Empire” and biological weapons—to the player, this means monsters that can shoot beams and missiles at you. Saga features the same situations, except changed into a turn-based system. That is to say, the player and the enemies take turns blasting at each other, and with many different options such as firing the rider's gun, using items, dragon beams called “arrows of light”, a growing list of spells called “berserk” attacks, and attacking different parts of an enemy mean a great deal of strategy is involved in the combat. The game also involves some on-foot exploration, which is rather limited (no battles on-foot, after all, and there's only one real town and a certain hideout), but it does involve the buying, selling, and conversation that one expects in an RPG. And, of course, there is the pervasive storyline, presented in the form of cutscenes and some low-res (this is the Saturn after all) FMV.
The majority of exploration is done on the back of the dragon, and in hostile areas, you will face random encounters with enemies, and afterward rewarded with experience points, for gaining levels, and money. The battle system achieves the perfect balancing act; it is not so simple that it gets boring, nor does it drown in complexity. The developers knew this is not a forty-hour game, and you realize that the depth of the battle system is absolutely fitting for its length—had the game been shorter, it would have been too complex, but longer, not deep enough. It manages to be exciting, as you can fly around targets (pausing the charge time of your turn), looking for weak points or avoiding danger. One of the most exciting aspects of the battles is the change in dragon forms that can be done inside or outside battle, changing the stats, and thereby customizing the dragon to certain situations. The way these layers of depth are added on are skillfully paced, as is the crescendo in difficulty. The battles are neither unreasonably hard nor easy. The challenge is satisfying but it does not pull you out of a game that is meant to be an “experience”.
The music is also quite unique for an RPG, in line with everything else about Panzer Dragoon Saga. To get the bad news out of the way, much of the music accompanying the early FMV sounds of rather low-budget cheeseball fare, just as many game composers seem to have had difficulty adjusting to writing for movie sequences. Everything else is as it should be and the description of everything else about the game applies here as well; the music is never overpowering, and has recognizable character. When taking time to appreciate some of it, I was quite impressed by the clever and seldom-heard usages of percussion and rhythms, along with some really nice samplers, giving it a sound that most people might associate with traditional Asian, maybe. At the same time, these sounds are put together with some techno synths that sort of remind the player that he/she is playing a game, with shooter roots.
The movie sequences and cutscenes comprise a large portion of the game, and thus demand some discussion. They are surely the reason why Panzer Dragoon Saga spans four discs despite its short length, with probably well over an hour of FMV and yet more time in real-time cinemas. Like any well-paced RPG, the story is paced well so that it properly counterbalances the gameplay. Also, absolutely all the cinematics are voice-acted in Japanese, for the bulk of it (for 2,000 lousy copies we cannot expect English dubs, much less a decent one), and in the intro and ending movies, the fictional “Panzerese” language written for the series. The English subs are very well done and natural-sounding, far exceeding the standard of the time. The direction of the FMV shows a fascinating contrast to those of a certain other FMV-packed series, Final Fantasy. In Final Fantasy VII and up, CG cinemas were used entirely for action or other story moments that simply would not have been done the slightest bit of justice in the game's realtime graphics, and the camerawork and overall cinematogtaphy were invariably brilliant and seriously applied lessons from filmmaking. In contrast, Panzer Dragoon Saga uses a great deal of FMV for the (far less frequent) action as well, but also for a good deal of decidedly slower scenes that really did not require terribly fantastic visuals, and it may even strike some as odd how much is used just for conversations between characters. The fact that the cinematography and direction are less than mind-blowing (in all cases) does detract a bit, simply because their quality is not up to the high standards of the rest of the package.
Moving into the technical standpoint, my argument bears repeating; this game really should be remade. While the creativity and style of the visuals are a key cause of the sublime atmosphere, technical issues of the Saturn are the culprit of one of the only things that could pull a gamer out of the world Panzer Dragoon Saga creates. Constant texture-warping and really close draw-in distance, in particular, serve as the least pleasant reminders of the good old days of gaming, along with FMV that would have been artistically stunning (perhaps even by today's standards) if it was not so low-resolution.
It is always awe-inspiring to see the different aspects of a game (or any piece of art) work together so beautifully. In cases as fine as Panzer Dragoon Saga, the game has its own, single spirit, as if the game was somehow made entirely by just one person—otherwise an effect seen almost exclusively from Squaresoft. Whether or not that fact alone warrants a perfect score is admittedly questionable, but I stand by it nonetheless because the experience is totally irreplaceable by any other.