What really surprised me about Panzer Dragoon Saga is how it tells its story. The basic plot outline itself is nothing too unusual: a group of rebellious nomads worship the Ancients, seeing them as gods, while the evil Empire portrays the Ancients as devils while exploiting the Ancient’s technology. Our plucky young hero is motivated by the death of a loved one to seek revenge against the evil Empire. It’s a familiar set up, and I’m concerned I’ll never find out how it ends.
I’m having issues. Not life issues – as of now there’s a stable home life, bills paid (mostly), studies OK, clean bill of health – but issues with Panzer Dragoon Saga. And not with the game itself, which is extremely good, but with those damn discs. Having completed the first two discs (of a total four), the third and fourth discs aren’t being read by my Saturn. I’ve cleaned the discs, but the best I can manage is the title screen of disc 3, and even that seems to have been a one-off. Net result: I’m returning the game. Woe is me.
My disc problem is a big let down, because although Panzer Dragoon Saga stays close to RPG conventions, there are a number of surprising departures which make this game feel fresh and exciting. In many ways this game reminds me of Xenoblade Chronicles (despite a 13 year age gap) and Ico/Shadow of the Colossus (I’m certain Team ICO were inspired by the Panzer Dragoon world). Unlike the Final Fantasy series which gives you an airship about two thirds or three quarters through the game, Panzer Dragoon gives you the power of flight in the shape of a dragon right from the start. In fact, every single battle in the game takes place with your main character seated on your dragon, as does most of the exploration – really the only time you get to stretch your character’s legs is when stopping in villages and campsites.
This game gets full marks for atmosphere. The frequent CG cutscenes that fill the first two discs of the game are highly cinematic, well-directed affairs. Many of the shots in these cutscenes linger, giving the game a contemplative feel, even during dramatic sequences. Plus these cutscenes actually look good and suit the tone of the game, not something you can say of most videogames of that era.
Inside and outside of the cutscenes, characters will say things I don’t think any other character in a JRPG has ever said. Sentiments like “I’m not sure what to believe”, for example, are commonplace among the NPCs you meet. And even with only a small roster of NPCs dotted around, you get a genuine sense of this as a whole world, a real place. And just like the real world, complex moral ambiguity is all around. The inhabitants of Saga are filled with contradictions. In a conversation with one of Saga’s rich cast you’ll see intelligence, knowledge, humbleness and objectivity. Turn to a different topic of conversation with that same character though, and you might find some combination of stupidity, ignorance, arrogance and bias. It’s the complete opposite of most RPGs where you enter a new town or area only to speak to the all-wise, benevolent village “chief” or mayor of the town, while everyone else is utterly generic village member #10. In this game you’re far more likely to find that the local shopkeeper is the wisest and most useful and authoritative person around.
There are also optional conversations you can listen in to, things that have no bearing on the gameplay but, again, really flesh out the world and give it a sense of character. In a small caravan, a woman and a girl sit doing needlework. The girl is shy and won’t speak to you, but if you observe the pair from afar the girl will confide in the woman that her father has been away for a long time hunting for game. That’s not an invitation to a quest, that’s just life in this roving caravan of hunters.
It’s remarkable to me that characters and settings like this came out of a pair of on-rails shooters. It’s testament to just how imaginative the environments of the original Panzer Dragoon games were. (To put that into perspective, has anyone out there ever wondered what everyday life as Fox McCloud might be like, let alone how an average citizen of Lylat might live?! I doubt it.) Saga turned out to be a fantastic opportunity for the developer, Team Andromeda, and by extension us, to fully explore the unique, evocative settings and characters of this great series. In practice that means an epic journey which alternates between exploring perilous ancient ruins and befriending mysterious nomads. Put simply, this game does a fantastic job of realising the world of Panzer Dragoon in an RPG.
Before the wrap-up I’ll touch briefly on the battle system. Battles are similar to the airship battles in Skies of Arcadia, but Saga is much more active. It boils down to managing your position relative to the enemy. Usually there is at least one position where the enemy can’t attack you at all, plus a spot that’s more dangerous for yourself but allows you to hit the enemy’s weak point. I love how the game incentivises you to fight a good battle by ranking every fight. Battles are also cinematic affairs that pack a real audio-visual punch – at times the enemies and their attacks, particularly bosses, are on a par scale-wise with something like Shadow of the Colossus.
So what a shame I won’t see anymore of Saga, not for some time at least. Half an excellent game is still excellent, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
A post-script: some of you might be wondering about the cost/difficulty of procuring this game, and although I’m only halfway through the game I’m going to address it as best I can. Although I have extremely positive feelings about this game, which I hope this post expresses, this game is emphatically not the best I’ve ever played, and I doubt it’ll be the best you’ve played either. It is, I feel confident in saying, one of the Saturn’s best games. But for all that it does to distinguish itself, this game is an RPG and a late nineties one at that – most of the conventions of the genre are here and present. And that alone is enough to make me stop short of declaring Saga a total genius masterpiece that begs to be played regardless of its current price tag of several hundred dollars/over one hundred English pounds.
Can a single game justify such a steep price tag? I doubt it, but maybe that’s just the talk of a cheapskate bargain warrior. There’s little to no chance of a re-release of this game, since the rumour goes that Sega lost the source code (d’oh), but Sega Saturn emulation has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, so there’s that. I know I’ll be looking at various options for continuing with this game, but the damage has already been done. Damn discs.