Everyone has hobbies: music, sports, working out; the possibilities are endless. Over time, I cycle through phases. Sometimes, I’ll be into comics and start collecting more trade paperbacks or go broke trying to find omnibi. After a few weeks, I lose interest and move on. Anime used to be one of the regular rotations watching shows and collecting the ones that I like, however, I’ve been less interested this past year. The last is, of course, video games.
This last one is usually the most consistent and has been for a long time. Unfortunately (for my bank account) I have been getting into retro game collecting recently, most notably the Sega Saturn. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t know that this console ever existed. The console generation that it was a part of was so dominated by the N64 and the PlayStation that the Saturn fell off pretty quickly.
After spending too much money, here I am with a Saturn and a couple of the rarer games for the system including Panzer Dragoon Saga and Burning Rangers. But today, let’s talk about the former. For those who don’t know, the Panzer Dragoon franchise began on the Saturn as an on-rails shooter similar to Star Fox from Nintendo. However, what is so much better about these games is the deserted environment with relics of the past scattered about adding a mystery to the world.
Shadow of the Colossus presented to me a similar feeling that I found oddly appealing. Being isolated in this world where there wasn’t much of anything but evidence of a civilization long gone was calming for some reason. While the first two Panzer Dragoon games accomplish this, the third runs with it. Unlike the previous two games, Saga is a full-blown JRPG. It was released in the US in 1998 with an incredibly limited print run of anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 copies (I’ve seen varying figures).
Not only this, but since the Saturn’s architecture was so complicated, along with reports of the source code for the game being lost, there have not and may not be any future re-releases. All of this together makes the game incredibly expensive. The question is, is it worth it? Well that depends on the person. All I can say is, for me? Yes it is.
You start off as a mercenary named Edge guarding an archeological dig site for the Empire. Quickly, things turn south and your entire crew is murdered by a traitor to that Empire, Craymen. He steals what looks to be a girl who was being excavated out of the cave wall and escapes but not before one of his men shoot Edge resulting in him falling off of a bridge seemingly to his doom.
However, he fall doesn’t kill him. What will are some beasts that have cornered him. With his back against the wall, all he can do is shoot at them to no avail. Suddenly, beams of light come down and destroy the creatures. And that’s how you get your dragon.
The story in the game is minimal in terms of sheer number of cutscenes and length. However, the handful of characters and some of the background info you can find in the world, flesh it out brilliantly. In the entire game, there are no other party members besides Edge and his dragon. On paper, this sounds like it could become boring without much variation. However, the combat itself is so fun, it never did. As you traverse areas flying on the back of your dragon (whom you can name) random battles will occur. However, they are not common, and you can tell your danger level by the color of your radar. Once you are in one, there will be an enemy in front of you. However, you can move around the enemies and reside in one of four quadrants shown on the bottom of the screen. These quadrants will either be green, red or transparent. Green means that the enemy cannot attack you, red means the enemy can perform a powerful attack and transparent means that can hit you with a normal attack. While you are maneuvering around them, they are also maneuvering around you to try and get you into that red zone.
While this is happening, you have three bars that are constantly filling up. These allow you to take an actions. Using one bar will let you either shoot Edge’s gun which hits one target for high damage, shoot the dragon’s homing laser which is less powerful but can target multiple foes or you can use an item. Two bars can let you unleash a berserk attack (or magic spell) which consumes berserk points (like magic points). These are powerful and flashy attacks that can deal serious damage. In a nutshell, that is the core combat and it stays fun from beginning to end.
The other big component to combat is the dragon evolution system. Once you get to a certain point on the first disc, you can change the way your dragon’s stats are allocated on the fly which drastically changes its appearance as well. There are 400 stat points that can be spread across four categories: Attack, Defense, Spiritual and Agility. Each category can have a maximum of 200 points invested, but there are tradeoffs. Do you want your berserk spells to do more damage and cost less BP? Well your regular attack strength will suffer. How about wanting to be able to zip around the battlefield with high agility and have your action bars fill up more quickly? Well you won’t be able to take many hits. Another option is always to be well-balanced and be categorized as normal. It’s a fascinating tradeoff system that can be changed at any point from the menu.
Not only this, but depending on what category of dragon yours falls under, it will learn specific berserks related to that class. For example, there are attack berserks that will only unlock if your dragon is an attack form. If you fall under the normal category, you will will randomly learn berserks from all trees. This truly lets you customize your playstyle. Most of the game I went for high attack, pretty high agility and okay defense.
The rest of gameplay involves the aforementioned exploration of areas on the back of your dragon and on foot sections around settlements and towns. The on foot sections are the low point of the game but necessary to speak with characters and go to stores. Everything is modeled in 3D which was impressive at the time along with full Japanese voice acting which sounds great.
While the Saturn wasn’t built to be a 3D powerhouse, the artistic design of Panzer Dragoon Saga helps salvage some dated visuals. The FMV sequences look slightly better but not by much. The dragon and all variations of it look awesome and encourage you to change it up every once in awhile just to see how it’s appearance differs.
The last thing to mention is the soundtrack which is fantastic. Composer Saori Kobayashi has been more or less a career Sega composer and her work on Saga is glorious. Every track fits the location that it plays in perfectly. If the soundtrack wasn’t so expensive, I would already own it.
In my opinion, this is the great forgotten RPG. Because of the failure that was Sega of America when it came to the Saturn, the game launched on a console already on the way out. If more people would have been able to get their hands on it, I think many top ten JRPG lists of all-time would look a little different. I can truly say that I have never played a game like Panzer Dragoon Saga and probably never will again. Unfortunately the value question comes into play. This is a short JRPG at around 15 hours. A short game doesn’t correlate to it being a bad game, but for the asking price it is currently fetching, (which is way more than what I paid for it less than a year ago) I can’t say that it is worth it. If you can speak Japanese, well then the game will only cost you around $40 for the Japanese copy and by all means pick it up. If nothing else, I’m hoping this article will at least get the name Panzer Dragoon Saga into the heads of gamers as it is a franchise that deserves to breath again.