Game Review #4 - Panzer Dragoon Saga (Sega Saturn)
It wouldn't be a stretch to call Panzer Dragoon Saga the crown jewel of the Sega Saturn. Not only is the Saturn the only place you can play the game, it had a limited release of 30,000 units, and rumor has it that less than half of those games actually shipped. There's a bunch of Saga games sitting in a warehouse somewhere, probably. For this reason, it's not uncommon to see the game listed on Ebay for $800-900. I managed to get Saga back in 2015 for an absolute steal because the case had a scratch on the back, but even still, selling it is tempting for the high return alone. Is the game good enough for me to not sell it? Or perhaps a more appropriate question: Is the obscene price worth it?
For many people, it's going to depend on how they determine a game's value. Is Panzer Dragoon Saga fun? Yes. Can you play it anywhere else? No. Are there any other games like it? Not to my knowledge. That last bit is where the idea might creep into your mind that at the right price, it could be worth it. Keep in mind that I didn't pay the crazy prices you often see online. I was patient and waited for someone who wanted to sell the game quickly.
But enough about the mystique of the game. How does it play? That's what is most important, after all...
Unlike previous games in the series, Saga elects to focus more on the backstory of the world and rather than being an on-rails shooter, became a turn-based RPG. But it's not that simple: The game play retains a Panzer Dragoon feel to it. You see, the player rides on a dragon much like previous games, and that's when they can encounter random battles/bosses. During battle, a meter fills up at the bottom of their screen. When one meter fills up, they're allowed to attack. Enemies have their own speed at which they can attack. This makes it possible to get off multiple attacks before your enemy takes their turn. There are three meters in total that can fill up, and depending on how many are full, give you access to a variety of abilities.
To make matters even more interesting, battles are carried out in such a way where your positioning is important. Once again maintaining series ideas, the player can change their position in relation to their opponent throughout a battle. This is reflected on screen, but also with a small chart showing whether your position is North, South, East, or West in your HUD. Also on the chart is a color coded way of showing where an enemy's blind spot is (Marked by a bright green color), which means you'll be safe from attack. There are also red spots, which mean the enemy can unleash their strongest attacks on you; something you'll want to avoid if possible. A blank portion of the chart means that it's neither safe or dangerous, but something in between. You can still be attacked, but it won't hurt as much as when you're in the red.
Note: This is best played on RGB SCART on a CRT TV. This still looks to have been captured ona far inferior composite connection.
These two ideas for turn-based combat alone make the experience infinitely more enjoyable than vanilla turn-based game play... at least in my opinion. I should mention that I'm not a big fan of JRPGs if the game play is basic. I'd much rather have something action oriented. So it takes a JRPG with a unique hook to keep me playing (Pokemon, Undertale etc.). Saga has this quality in spades. With the two aforementioned game play elements, the experience would be fun, but it goes even deeper than that.
For one thing, many enemies you face will have a weak point, marked clearly on-screen with a "WEAK" text in red. This can be at any position depending on the enemy, but often you will find for bosses or tougher foes that their weakness is in the red. So there's a risk/reward element to the battles as well. You can play it safe and stay away from red, but it may cause you to take more damage or take longer to win. And taking longer/taking damage will decrease your money earned, experience points, and potentially cause you to miss out on some items. See, if you defeat an enemy flawlessly, the game rewards you with an item you can potentially use or at least sell later on.
There's also the sheer amount of variety in what you can do with your turns. Filling up your gauges will allow you to do a few things:
1. Shoot your gun at the enemy
2. Fire off the dragon's lasers
3. Use an item
4. Use your dragon's berserker ability
5. Adjust your dragon's type
6. Adjust your gun type
That's a lot of options. You don't get all of these at first, but instead throughout the first half of the game as your dragon evolves.
One nice thing are the berserker abilities. This is another returning aspect from the previous games which have been adapted for turn-based game play. There are many different classes of berserker ability that I won't get fully into, but they can range from healing yourself to extra powerful attacks. You'll get more and more access to these abilities as you level up. I can say that by the end game, I was using these all the time because they were so satisfying. My favorite was a screen clearing attack where a giant fiery phoenix appears and just cleans house. That was how I beat the final boss of the game, in fact. It's not some invincible easy mode, though. Players get a BP (Berserker Points) count just like their hit points. There's a great balance that you'll need to keep an eye on to succeed in battle.
Some of the berserker abilities obtained depend on what type of dragon you use. I briefly mentioned before that the dragon you ride can change into different forms. These forms have different aspects that are focused on: Attack power (Dragon lasers), Spiritual power (Berserk abilities), Defense (How much damage you take), and Agility (How fast your meter fills up). The thing is, you can really only focus on two of these aspects at a time. Maxing out your attack power means you'll have weaker berserker abilities (And the BP cost will be higher) and vice versa. Agility and defense are linked, so maxing out defense means your meters below will fill up slower. I found this to be a great way to balance game play, and many enemies have different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, there's one enemy in the game that spends time charging up a powerful attack. If you max out agility, it's possible to fill up your meters fast and kill it before the monster can get its powerful attack off. Of course, your defense will be much lower, so it's a risk.
Luckily, your dragon type can be changed at any time outside of battle. You will need to wait for a meter to fill up to change it mid-battle, however.
World traversal in Saga is another extension of previous games in the series. The world is devoid of human life, but filled with monsters and ruins from a bygone era. The game isn't fully open world, though. Players can select levels from a map. These levels are fairly open and need to be explored themselves for various reasons, and that's when you'll be riding on your dragon/encountering enemies. One cool thing is that for the first and only time in the series to date, you'll have full control over the dragon. I must say, the dragon handles well too. You hold down the B button to fly, and can stop on a dime. Pressing A brings up a reticle which can overlap various objects in the environment, allowing you to interact with them. Once you get used to this different way of doing things, traversal is a breeze.
There are some sections of the game where the player will be on foot. This includes a camp set up for your dragon to recover/saving your game, a village which acts as a hub for many story elements, and a couple of other places that I won't spoil for story reasons. In general, I was less impressed with these sections than the open levels you can traverse on your dragon. There's not much you can do on foot save for advancing the story and obtaining items. These sections serve their purpose, but certainly aren't a highlight. Oddly enough, these on-foot sections had some slow downs, but the vast open areas filled with enemies rarely had framerate drops in comparison.
My only criticism of the game play involves the save system. The game elects to have players save at small terminals called ancient devices or at your own camp. You can't just pause the game and save, unfortunately. Saga isn't a particularly difficult game, so it didn't come into play often, but there were a few sections where I was expected to save my game half way through a level, then complete it with several boss battles before I could save again. Some of these boss battles are epic and can last upwards of a half-hour depending on your strategy, so if you die, you not only have to go through that long boss battle again, but experience all the stuff that came before it. Imagine if you could only save mid-way through a Zelda dungeon, and dying at the boss battle forced you to do that second half all over again. Ocarina of Time auto saved once the boss was reached, so you didn't have to do a bunch of stuff all over again if you died.
The most egregious example was toward the end of disk three, where there are two difficult boss battles in a row after going through a long section without being able to save, You can lose an hour of game play if you die at this particular boss, and unfortunately I did... I was not pleased to say the least. In fact, I didn't play the game for a few weeks after that. Maybe that was a bit unfair, but some of it had to do with playing it at a busy time of year too. If there ever is a remake of this game, I hope they include the ability to save whenever you want. To me, this is something that needed to be implemented in 1998. Only being able to save at certain points is not a good mechanic for an RPG and was a practice from the previous generation of games.
So the game play is fantastic and unique, but what about the story? Players fill the shoes of Edge, a young man working as a mercenary hired by the empire (Villains in the previous games) to guard an excavation site filled with ancient artifacts. Edge and his friends uncover a girl trapped within a wall at the site, but before they can figure out who she is, are attacked by a renegade group of empire defectors called the Black Fleet. Edge is shot and all of his friends are killed, but he survives. Down in the excavation site, he comes across a dragon, who chooses him as its rider. Edge swears revenge on Craymen, the leader of the Black Fleet, and begins his journey.
After leaving the excavation site, Edge encounters a short man named Gash, who offers to help lead him out of the valley and desert, to a caravan where he could potentially learn of Craymen's location. From there he learns that Craymen has used the girl from the wall, Azel, to reach a great tower located to the East, which is the key to ultimate power in the world. Edge eventually finds the Black Fleet and takes out much of their forces, but is confronted by Azel. After defeating her and the dragon Atolm, she leaves and threatens to kill Edge if she gets in Craymen's way again. Edge reaches a village called Zoah, where he meets a mechanic named Paet. In exchange for ancient parts, he agrees to tell Edge some secrets to finding the tower's true location.
This sets off a sequence of events where the lines are blurred between what truly makes a villain. I don't want to say much more, but I did appreciate how nothing was black and white. There was just a whole lot of gray (With the exception of the empire). This story is also not about saving the world, but rather, the internal struggle of protecting the world from humans or granting them their independence. A fascinating idea for sure. There are several plot points at the end which I can't discuss for spoiler reasons, but I did enjoy how the origin of the dragon was explained and tied in to the previous games. In fact, this game explains a lot of the happenings of the first two games just before the final boss battle. They happen as "visions", which I enjoyed. It gave the cut scenes a cinematic feel to them.
On the other hand, I felt there was some missed potential. Not a lot of time is spent outside of the primary characters. I was satisfied with how Gash developed, and to some extent Craymen, but someone like Paet and his politician father could have used more fleshing out. We know that Paet is smart, quick to anger, and hates religion, but we don't know the reasons for most of these things. We know that his father is a sneaky politician, but it feels like an afterthought. There are also several named characters that do unique things depending on where in the story you are or the time of day, but little else outside of that. I feel that having these secondary characters get more involvement would have enriched the story.
Instead, they fade into the background. Even Paet, who plays a big role midway through, sort of fades into obscurity toward the end of the game. One of Craymen's henchmen, who killed many of Edge's friends, also could have used more development. Perhaps a personal rivalry with Edge could have made things a bit more interesting? I felt the worst example, however, was the emperor. Edge is so focused on his crusade against Craymen that he doesn't even realize the evils of the empire. The emperor is sort of the generic bad guy of the story, but there is little build up to that. We rarely see him directly, but do bear witness to some of the empire's atrocities. I should mention too that the game's final boss is not an ever-present character form the game, and can only be discovered through random bits of text scattered throughout the story. To me, as cool as this boss was, I would have liked a reveal to come much sooner so there could be more build up. Instead it is only revealed in the final act of the game. It made things a bit less climactic, although the battle itself made up for it.
I feel that most of my problems with the story tie into the game's relatively short length for an RPG, clocking in at 12-16 hours depending on how much wandering around and side quests you do. To me, there was still plenty to be fleshed out. Not the main story itself, but all of its odds and ends. The side or secondary characters needed a little more time in the limelight. The final boss, especially, needed to be revealed sooner, I feel.
Finally, I should mention that there are some side quests, so it does pay to talk to every person. Many of these things are vague, so I missed out on a few of them. I didn't realize I was supposed to do something until it was too late, some of the time.
In terms of looks, Saga is a technical achievement on the Saturn. I'm not sure if it's quite the best looking 3D game on the system, but it's certainly in the top five. For 1998 on a console that wasn't known for its 3D games, it was an ambitious title to be sure. The FMV cut scenes look solid for their time, and the in-game models, dare I say it, look better than its next closest contemporary, Final Fantasy VII. However, where the game struggles is with pop in. In the large exploratory areas of Saga, it is fairly common to see the static sprite of the area's background, only for a big rock wall to pop up in front of you. This doesn't happen in the more confined areas to be clear. Only in the big, open levels. As I understand it, only the Nintendo 64 could handle large, open levels with 3D polygons at this point, so it's understandable. In certain levels, this makes it hard to navigate, and you'll find yourself opening up the map screen often.
What's truly odd about the graphics is that they become bad during in-game cut scenes. They are noticeable downgrades to the general game models. For instance, in the cut scene where Gash is introduced, I mistakenly thought he was one of Craymen's men. I couldn't see the half-mask he was wearing, because his face looked like it had been caved in by a meteor. I'm not sure why the graphics only take a hit during these in-game cut scenes, but I'm glad that they were few and far between. They're muddy, less detailed, and hard to look at.
Overall, however, these graphics are pretty good for 1998. They're not going to reach Ocarina of Time levels, but the styles are different anyway. The FMVs are put to good use here. So much so that the game spans four discs!
I mentioned in previous reviews that I felt the Panzer Dragoon games had atmospheric, but not terribly catchy soundtracks. In Saga, I feel the series has found a happy medium between these two styles (Much like Super Metroid did in 1994) and put together a fantastic score. Memorable, but distinct in its techno, ancient feeling. There are several boss themes here which I adored, but the standout that just won't leave my head for some reason is the first random encounter battle theme. It just echoes in my mind every so often. Many of the levels embody a nervous sort of feeling; like something could be sneaking up on you at any time... and it's true! Monsters are all around.
The score also does a fine job of upping the intensity. There was one boss battle in particular where I asked myself "Why am I nervous? I've got this." - And I realized it was 100% the music getting into my head! It's that good.
In the sound design department, the SFX are another standout. The sounds of lasers flying, the enemy taking hits, explosions, and even healing yourself have impact to them. When my dragon takes a hit and cries out loud, I feel that.
My one criticism of the sound in Saga is that they didn't fully commit with the voice acting. You see, the game starts out in a language called Panzereise, a fictional tongue which seems to be inspired by a few real-life ancient dialects. However, after the opening, the characters speak in Japanese with English subtitles. Sometimes these subtitles don't fully match up with the dialogue, but it's not too common of an occurrence. The end game also sees the text go back to Panzereise, which made me feel like there were time constraints at play. However, I would have liked to hear an English dubbed version, with the option for Japanese subbed if the English version sucked. :P
Overall, the game play is what truly makes Panzer Dragoon Saga stand out. To my knowledge, you can't play a game like this anywhere else but on the Saturn. Certain aspects of it have aged for sure, like the graphics and the save system, but not the game play. In fact, I'm shocked that no one has tried to emulate this style. It's amazing, and I think it could easily draw in the kind of crowd that doesn't usually play JRPGs, just as easily as drawing in those who love the genre. The story is also unique, and even though I wish certain things were fleshed out more, it would only supplement an already great adventure. It's best not to criticize a shorter game that's already great on its own. It is perhaps better to say that Saga never manages to overstay its welcome, not by a long shot.
In other words, I am willing to completely overlook the minor flaws in favor of what I can only call game play that transcends the genre. I hope that this game gets remade some day, not only to improve upon its minor issues, but so more people can experience what is rightfully called "The adventure of a lifetime". In the meantime, if you have a spare $800 laying around... just kidding. Emulate it first, then decide. That's my recommendation.