Half of Panzer Dragoon Saga (Saturn)

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.

panzer dragoon saga box

Goodbye, Panzer Dragoon Saga. I hardly knew ye.

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.

panzer dragoon saga 0

The ability to observe characters and objects from afar allows for lots of cool optional moments.

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.

panzer dragoon saga 2

The radar in the top right is not only useful for showing what you can interact with, but also the colour indicates the odds of being randomly attacked. In this case, blue = safe.

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.

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7 comments

  1. Red Metal

    Now that I think about it, there has only ever been one instance of me playing a physical copy of a game that had more than one disc. That would be Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Every other time, such as Resident Evil 4, it was a digital download, thus circumventing that issue entirely. I could imagine it would get very frustrating clearing the first three discs of a game only to learn that the fourth disc doesn’t function for whatever reason. It’s not like a book where you can see if any of the pages have been torn out.

    Personally, I would like to see more of Sega’s Saturn games get released as digital downloads. I heard there are a lot of underrated gems on that console, and it looks like Panzer Dragoon Saga is one of them. And then Sega lost the source code to a game they made. Sheesh, they’re as bad as Square when it comes to their decision-making skills.

    I’m not sure if any game, regardless of quality, justifies spending over a hundred pounds. Granted, you would probably be able to sell it for a similar price once you finished it, possibly even making a small profit. I wonder if there are any replacement discs being sold on eBay?

    Although I did spend $120 (about £77) on my copy of Earthbound, and I still think it was totally worth it; it’s easily the best Mother game. Then again, that was back in 2011, which was before it was released on the Wii-U’s Virtual Console.

    • veryverygaming

      Wow, just the Twin Snakes? At first I thought my experience was similar to yours because the Gamecube was my first disc-based console, and on that I had the Resident Evil remake which was on two discs, Twin Snakes, RE4, Tales of Symphonia… those are a few that come to mind. Never had any problems with any of those thankfully, two discs isn’t so bad. But then I remembered that despite not owning a PS1 one of my first RPGs was Final Fantasy VIII on PC, published by Eidos. The PS1 version was on 4 discs while the PC version had a ridiculous 5 discs (the extra CD is an “install disc”). I played that game to death, as did two of my friends who had the game on PC too. Thankfully we were always able to lend each other individual discs when we inevitably started losing them!

      It goes to show that multi-disc games are basically a terrible idea. If it was just one bad disc with Saga then I would get a replacement disc, but unfortunately in this case it’s two bad discs, which would cost a considerable amount to replace. It’s telling that when I contacted the person I bought Saga from to explain the problems I was having, they apologised saying they hadn’t tested the 3rd and 4th discs. Negligent maybe but at the same time I can’t exactly blame them since unless you’re at that particular part of the game there’s basically nothing to test except the title screen and a message to change discs! Not good. I’m lucky to know in advance that the 4th disc is messed up: Saga, unusually, lets you access battle tutorials via the title screen of any disc, and on the 4th disc the game locks up when entering a battle.

      More Saturn games accessible on modern consoles is never a bad thing. The original Panzer Dragoon has been re-released several times over the years (I know this well since I have the PC version as well as the Saturn one), Nights into Dreams is downloadable on modern consoles, as is Radiant Silvergun, one of the most expensive Saturn releases and for me, crazy as it sounds, one of the best reasons to get an Xbox 360 😛 But yes, the Saturn library has a lot of games that remain unique to it to this day, far more than most other consoles.

      This comment is getting out of control length-wise so I’ll only add that as much as I enjoy playing games in any form, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this Saga episode it’s that there’s something extra special about having a game in a physical form, particularly if it’s a game you personally love like Earthbound.

    • veryverygaming

      Good point! It makes you wonder. The Dreamcast was pretty lacking for RPGs so this could’ve helped them out. I think they were desperate at the time to play catch-up with Sony, and well, you’ve got to have something to compete with FFVII right? PS1 has Resident Evil? Saturn has Deep Fear. In hindsight though I suspect you’re right and they should’ve “pulled a Shenmue”.

      • Nikyle

        Yh. I’m pretty sure they new the Saturn was dead at this point. I’ve never played it but to released a AAA title on a dead console just seems like a wate. In anything maybe they could have had two versions (like how Sonic Adventure 2 made it to the Gamecube). The Dreamcast did have a lot of attention at the start and like you said it lacked RPGs.

  2. moresleepneeded

    I have not played this game. I thought the backstory of the nomads worshipping the ancients, while the empire simultaneously demonises and uses the ancients technology, was an innovative story. It also seems interesting that the non-playable characters can have contradictory and complex personalities, rather than the simplistic characters in other games. I always thought some of the non-playable characters in the Zelda games also add substance and complexities to the societies presented in the games. I am not sure if that includes Majora’s Mask, where the towns include relationships between less important characters, but is presented as an important part of the game. It is interesting about the computer graphics and the cinematic animations, considering the Sega Saturn games started to use animations to progress the story and used improved graphics compared to the rest of the game. I am also unused to learning that a Sega Saturn game uses four discs, I have only had to use one disc for other games.

    • veryverygaming

      When I wrote that part about the backstory, I was thinking “moresleepneeded would really like this game”! It’s up your street, that’s for sure. I agree with you about the Zelda series, and I think also the Final Fantasy and Earthbound/Mother series are good when it comes to NPCs. Those series have a lighter tone than Panzer Dragoon though, there’s some dark themes in Saga. The closest game I can think of is Alundra, which is a Zelda clone but it has a very dark storyline that revolves around a series of mysterious deaths in a single village (I wrote a review of it a while back: https://veryverygaming.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/the-adventures-of-alundra-ps1-review).

      Finally, you make a good point about multiple discs. The PS1 was filled with multi-disc games – blame it on too many RPGs filled with voice acting and FMVs – but the Saturn not so much. I guess you can blame that on too many arcade ports and platformers! I had a look through my Saturn games and aside from Saga the only multi-disc game I own is Deep Fear, which is only on two discs by comparison.

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