Panzer Dragoon II Zwei on the Saturn is a once-in-a-system’s-lifetime experience. My only beef is with the name: why, Sega? What’s wrong with you? I don’t mind the German, but don’t then chicken out and add an extra number! *sigh* Ah well – Sega have made many far worse decisions.
Let’s not bring the mood down with negative Sega talk though! Along with Nights into Dreams, Panzer Dragoon II Zwei or Panzer Dragoon 2 for short, showcases the Saturn at its best. It is genuinely startling that this game was released in 1996. Not because of the mechanics – the control of your dragon is actually slightly cumbersome – but because of the extraordinary atmosphere and all round feel to the game.
That’s what make this game stand out from other rail shooters of the era. Lylat Wars aka Star Fox 64, undoubtedly Panzer Dragoon’s main competitor for the genre crown, pales by comparison in the story/presentation department. While Star Fox is a highly mockable and always silly take on Animal Farm in space, Panzer Dragoon 2 contains a foreboding, mysterious and always beautiful fantasy world reminiscent of Team Ico’s games. It’s cinematic and I don’t mean that it has a dramatic or well told story – there are cutscenes throughout the game, but I’ve never watched a single one. I just haven’t ever felt the need to. Instead, the levels possess a cinematic quality that reminds me of those desert landscape shots found in old-school movie epics like Lawrence of Arabia.
I love the variety of environments in this game: a post-apocalyptic grey ghost town, a lush green forests, a deep red sunset caked with snow, brown desert canyons, and the list goes on. The game is great to look at, and when I say that I don’t mean the graphics are good in a technical sense (although, on that front, screenshots really don’t do the game any justice so I’d recommend watching the video at the bottom of this post to get a slightly better idea). It’s more to do with the sense of scale and grandeur the game gives off at all times. The world is highly organic: no two parts of any level ever look the same. The Metroid Prime series had a similar attention to detail, and much like those games, the combination of the music and the fantastical environments in Panzer Dragoon 2 evoke emotional responses and tell stories without words.
Wonderful atmosphere and environments notwithstanding, there’s a solid set of game mechanics here too. Controlling the game with the standard D-pad controller is fine, but the best way to play in my opinion is with the analog controller. The game is optimised for the analog stick, so your reticule moves quicker and more smoothly than when using the d-pad. (There’s a weird bug that makes the special “berzerker” move activate at random moments when you use the analog controller, but you can correct that by changing the controls in the options menu so X does nothing. It’s a really weird bug that had me puzzled for a while, but at least the fix does the trick)
You have 3 attacks – standard shot, homing missile, and berzerker missiles. You build up your berzerk bar by targeting enemies to use your special berzerk attack, which shoots missiles rapidly at all enemies on screen for a limited time. The other two attacks, shot and homing, work the same way as in the first game, and while the berzerker doesn’t change things up a great deal, it gives a little more depth and variety to the original’s overly simple mechanics. You can still swivel your view around 360 degrees, and the control/camera is improved over the original so you can move smoothly in any direction without the jarring transitions. The ability to look around you was a cool and interesting idea in the first game, and it retains the ability here to give the world more epic sweep than other on-rail games. The environments feel more dynamic and alive as a result, and it makes you less aware of being on a fixed track.
Playing through the game takes around an hour and a half, and the game gives players a few different ways of playing through the seven stages. In the screenshots I’m rocking the default “Normal” mode, which shows the basic HUD. You can switch all of it off for full cinematic effect, while there’s also the “Full” mode, in which the game reveals itself as a more arcade-y, score attack experience. Like any decent rail shooter, there are point bonuses for killing bosses quickly and getting combos (killing multiple enemies simultaneously with homing shots).
There are also multiple routes through most levels. It’s not obvious where routes branch off, so I found it a bit obscure to be honest, but it is at least in keeping with the game’s subtle and organic feel. At the end of each stage, the difficulty of the route you took and the percentage of enemies shot down are tallied up, and you’re awarded with Evolution points, which serve to evolve/upgrade your dragon over the course of a playthrough. Evolved dragons have on them a fresh lick of paint, more health, bigger berzerker bars and larger homing missile capacity, so its well worth your while getting good. Getting all of the available points in a level is a real challenge, especially in the later stages, and the ability to unlock new dragons provides good incentive to replay the game.
One of the high points of Panzer Dragoon 2 for me is the climactic final stage. This game ends with what must be one of the coolest and most intense boss fights I’ve ever played, as you face off against another dragon in a wild one-on-one dogfight. It is a completely exhilarating ride that is like poetry in motion to watch. But if you suffer from motion sickness I wouldn’t recommend trying it. I’ve added a video at the bottom if you want to see the boss fight in all its glory, but it bears a badass warning.
I’m going to leave it there for Panzer Dragoon 2. It’s a fantastically unique game that holds up very well today. I know I said it already, but the 1996 release date is remarkable given this game’s accomplishments. A clear forerunner of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, I’d recommend Panzer Dragoon 2 to anyone interested in the viability of videogames as an artistic medium. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that this game made it into the Smithsonian Museum’s exhibition, The Art of Video Games.
Stage 2 playthrough
Final boss fight (spoilers)