Team Andromeda / Sega
What can be said about a game that’s held in such lore, such high regard, that hasn’t been spoken of already? One of the most coveted exclusives of our generation – potentially lost forever. Never to be rereleased. The genre of the role-playing game, painstakingly perfected within a realm that showcases a fever dream of raw emotion, apocalyptic abyss and dread. Dark, and at times, hopeless. A rock star company – one that had surfed the highest waves of success during the mid-nineties, now in shambles and desperately looking for a savior as the juggernaut that is their latest competition threatens to crush them in what then felt like a final gambit of survival. These were the times and trials of Panzer Dragoon Saga.
It’s the 21st of May in 1998, and Sega have just announced plans to unleash their trump card – a mysterious, yet powerful new console will be vying for market share and living room supremacy, an orange swirl in the form of what is to represent the next generation of gaming… the Sega Dreamcast. The design of the machine – slick and sharp. The graphical showcase – incredible. The list of developers on hand to support the new hardware – exciting, to say the least. The tech world is absolutely buzzing now that Sega is finally making a real comeback, seemingly stronger than ever. But what to play until the new system arrives? With brand new Sega on the brains of every video game enthusiast on the planet, it seems a little passé to dust off the Genesis for another round with ToeJam & Earl. No, the people need something a little more current to sink their teeth into. Thanks in no small part to last year’s record smashing hit, Final Fantasy VII, role-playing games are the hottest things since peanut butter on pancakes. But Final Fantasy holds turf on Sony’s PlayStation, and the stinky old Saturn doesn’t have anything nearly as cool as a dude with beach blonde hair wielding a ginormous knife sword. Or does it? What about that latest Panzer Dragoon game that released less than a month ago? Did that even come out? It’s hard to believe Saturn games are still releasing given the ditch that Sega has dug itself into over the last five years. Maybe acquiring a copy of that would get the hype train rolling again… if the stores still have it.
The rail shooter turned RPG that is Panzer Dragoon Saga was difficult to find at launch and is even harder to track down now. With only 20,000 copies of the game available on day one in North America (all of which sold out within 48 hours) and retailers that were reluctant to stock slow moving Saturn games at anything less than bargain prices, Saga had a tall mountain to ascend from its inception – dwarfed by the likes of games releasing on the more mainstream PlayStation and Nintendo 64 platforms. For a game that was heralded as one of the greatest of all time, Panzer Dragoon Saga’s initial release went virtually unnoticed outside of hardcore gaming circles. But for those who did manage to play it, what was it that made the game so good? Were the near perfect reviews of the game gifted to it out of quasi-sympathy for a swan song release that was laying it’s console to rest? Or was there something beneath the surface of what is now a cost prohibitive, extremely elusive game? Something that made the game more than just another gem on the shelf? In a lot of ways, Panzer Dragoon Saga belongs to a genre of its own, and it’s one that’s definitely worth exploring.
Upon booting up the game’s first of four discs, the player is introduced to Saga’s main character, Edge. A quiet, yet driven protagonist, Edge is thrown into chaos at the onset as his friends are murdered and he himself is shot, sent falling to his death, only to be rescued by a mystifying dragon. Edge, swearing revenge on the malefactors that attacked him, sets off on the back of his new dragon partner and embarks on what could easily be classified as one of the most unique stories that I’ve ever experienced. The mood and setting of the game is a unique blend of cyberpunk meets fire-and-brimstone. Edge traverses through a desolate, murky world that is dominated by two competing factions, the Empire and the Black Fleet. The story takes a principal turn when Edge eventually crosses paths with another one of the game’s main characters, the ever intriguing Azel. The two of them form a deadly rivalry turned friendship as the story progresses in a way that (I’ll say without giving away too much of the story) is very engrossing. The relationship shared between Edge and Azel is rich and thought provoking – always leaving just enough to the player’s imagination. The displays of loyalty and dependability that Edge portrays with his dragon are also executed really well and had me developing feelings of sentimentality for his flying companion.
The gameplay in Panzer Dragoon Saga could best be described as RPG simplified. There’s no nursing of party members here (in fact, Edge and his dragon are the only characters that the player controls throughout the entire game) or undertaking tedious side-quests in order to really progress through the game. Somewhat linear, with just the right amount of freedom for exploration, Saga does a great job of guiding the player through its story (though I did get lost/stuck a few times) and doesn’t cram the conventional RPG trappings into the experience. Keep in mind that before this, Team Andromeda had worked on the original Panzer Dragoon and its sequel, both of which are rail shooter games belonging to a genre that couldn’t be more different than your afternoon with Suikoden. By way of random encounter battles (fought in real-time/turn-based fashion – very unique for the time), the dragon can level up via experience points, therefore allowing it to learn new skills and change in form. Now, although that may sound typical of the RPG genre, Panzer Dragoon Saga’s battle system is something that may need to be seen in action to afford understanding. Edge can direct his dragon to flank around enemies in real-time, allowing it to dodge attacks and also search for the best spots to strike from, making battles feel much more engaging than other turn-based RPGs of the era. Recovery items and weapon upgrades (for Edge’s sole weapon, a gun) can be purchased from shops situated in towns and camps as Edge explores on foot while the dragon rests.
In the presentation department, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a flat-out attack on the senses as the game operates in full 3D… all the time (no sprites used in this game – practically unheard of in RPGs at the time) and incorporates voice acting throughout the entire story, regardless of whom Edge speaks to (also a rarity in 1998). The designs of the characters are all somewhat subtle, yet appropriate looking for the world in which they inhabit as Team Andromeda wanted to resist creating extravagant, “spiky-haired” personas similar to the ones used in popular games of the mid to late nineties. Gorgeous FMV cutscenes are sprinkled in throughout the game, the quality of which rival anything that the PlayStation was dishing out at the time, and only help to further draw the player into the game’s compelling tale. And if all of that wasn’t enough, Saga’s soundtrack is one of the best that I’ve ever heard. Flawless in it’s own eerie sort of way, setting the tone for the gloomy adventure at hand – think The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask while spinning this one. A desolate, near abandoned world never looked or sounded so astonishing. Everything that I mentioned regarding the performance of the game is impressive but it’s almost awe-inspiring when one realizes that they’re experiencing it all on a Saturn.
Without overstating things, Panzer Dragoon Saga is worth every dollar that it commands – a must play for not only RPG enthusiasts, but also fans of the video game medium in general. In the year 2020, I can’t help but think of the ironic journey that the game has experienced. At its beginning – Saga was a game that was almost completely disregarded upon release, the unspoken for copies of which were promptly tossed into discount bins. Fast forward twenty odd years and its exceptional qualities have been made crystal clear to the masses, bringing the game full circle and into the ranks of gaming’s elite: deservedly one of the most sought after releases of all time. With an unforgettable story, cast of characters, soundtrack, and overall history, Panzer Dragoon Saga is without a shadow of a doubt, legendary.