RPG Gems: Panzer Dragoon Saga

By Patrick Molloy on January 10, 2012, 9:56AM EDT

Modern gamers -- those brought up on fancy, high tech polygonal magic -- scoff at Final Fantasy VII's texture-less character models and low-res prerendered backgrounds, claiming that these are grounds for a remake. Yet the ravages of age have been harsher on Sega's Panzer Dragoon series.

While the first two titles were simple arcade-style shooters, they amazed gamers of the mid-90s with a gorgeous game world, drawing equally from the likes of Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa and the works of French artist Moebius.

It's a strange mixture of fantastic organic creations and high tech wizardry, the likes of which haven't been duplicated in any other medium. Unfortunately, the Saturn was hardly a 3D powerhouse, and what used to be daring and gorgeous is now pixelated, choppy, and in some areas, downright offensive.

The same visual issues plague the third Panzer Dragoon title, Panzer Dragoon Saga. In some ways, they're even worse -- the first two titles were shooters which took place on the back of a dragon, flying high above the smeary textures and low polygon landscapes. Saga is an RPG, where you'll spend a much time walking around on foot -- where the technical issues are even more apparent.

And yet, once you get into it, none of this really matters. In the old titles, the story was simply told through CG cutscenes, and the world existed only as a background to fly over. When you're interacting with the environments, walking through them or talking to their inhabitants, it shows how much effort was put into creating a completely unique setting and culture.

Panzer Dragoon Saga feels like you're walking through a museum detailing a lost culture that never was, from a forgotten period of humanity's history that has never existed. The only concession is that the world's unique, made-up language (dubbed "Panzerese" by fans) was ditched in favor of Japanese. But since the game was localized without English dubbing, relying instead on subtitles, it still feels foreign to Western gamers, even if it's not in the same manner.

The battle system also takes a radical departure from the norm. All battles are fought in mid-air, as you're flying on your dragon. The action takes place in real time, with three power bars that charge over the period of a few seconds. At any point, you can pause the battle and choose to attack -- if you've built enough power, you can attack multiple times, or unleash a single, more powerful attack.

Positioning is also extremely important -- your dragon flies in one of four quadrants surrounding your enemies, and can move between them at will. Your radar, at the bottom of the screen, will mark which zones are safe and which are dangerous. If you're flying in a green zone, the enemy can't attack; if you're in a neutral zone, the enemy can use a weak attack; and naturally, the red zone indicates that the enemy can use a fierce attack.

Obviously, you'll want to spend as much time as possible charging in the green zones to avoid damage. However, enemies often have weak points in other positions, encouraging you to fly in the face of danger to finish battles efficiently.

The enemy's attack patterns often change multiple times during battle, forcing you to adapt and figure out the optimal positioning, timing, and type of attacks to use. Furthermore, you have precise control over the development of your dragon, determining how fast it is, how powerful its attacks are, and other statistics.

Panzer Dragoon Saga is, however, remarkably short. Despite utilizing four discs -- mostly for pixelated, heavily compressed video, which looked frighteningly bad compared to Square's efforts -- the quest clocks in at roughly fifteen hours. Considering that the English game often fetches triple digit prices in the aftermarket, it's somewhat of a rough investment. But it's a totally unique game, with a world and combat system completely unlike anything else.

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