Panzer Dragoon Saga – “Rated M for Mature”

Because of my fondness for RPG’s in general, I was rather cautious in approaching “Panzer Dragoon Saga”, one of the last great works in the genre, released during the late nineties. It was the final chapter in Team Andromeda’s saga, lead by Yukio Futatsugi, and also coincided with the death of the Sega Saturn. Above all, I was curious in watching how the aesthetic and narrative elements of previous “Panzer Dragoons” would translate into a full blown RPG. For these were subtle and relatively simple elements, that relied mostly on two or three, generally mute, gorgeous FMV clips, as well as the unique audiovisual nature of the post-apocalyptic world described via in-game sequences.

The game starts, as its forbearers did, with a FMV. Once again filled with subtleties and elegance, portraying characters not only through voice acting in a strange language (purposefully created for the series), but also through body language and visual imagery, all of which very rare for a 1998 Japanese game. Sadly, the narrative starts off on a somewhat simplistic, clichéd manner, following the story of a boy named Edge, who seeks vengeance against the Empire who had his buddies killed. This was quite bothersome to someone like me, who enjoys plots that suck you in, and almost made me reconsider playing it.

Fortunately, “Saga” pays off on many levels, starting with its wonderful atmosphere. Flying through the game-world on a dragon is, still today, a marvel for the senses, as you delve into a Jean Giraud (aka Möebius) inspired canvas, brimming with alien landscapes and strange magical creatures. In “Saga”, you can actually explore these sets without restrictions (in opposition to the rail-shooting nature of previous “Panzers”), which allows you freedom to engulf all the aspects of such an engrossing world, as you listen to Saori Kobayashi’s score – a calm, soothing mixture of electronic beats and acoustic sounds. Not all exploration is as grand as the flying of Edge’s dragon, I’m afraid. The on-foot exploration is horrid, as it uses the same targeting mechanic as the flying portions, (which becomes rather cumbersome, since it was designed for shooter-driven sequences) and portrays sites with the same graphics engine, which was clearly suited for large, wide open areas, lacking detail and definition in rendering small spaces, like villages and houses, that end up looking ugly and bland.

The nature of combat also evolved, specifically, into a turn based manner, as the player is asked to commandeer the dragon through a series of simple inputs. But before thinking this is another of those slow, boring combat systems that RPG’s are known for, let me reassure you, the nature of “Saga’s” combat is highly dynamic and entertaining. All because it uses a system where you can, in real time, move your dragon, as you wait for an “Active Time Battle” like bar to fill up. This becomes crucial in employed tactics, as enemies have different attacks according to your spatial position, and different weaknesses as well. This, as well as other elements, adds to a strategic, engaging combat system, that privileges tactic maneuvering and enemy observation over mindless grinding or button smashing.

As soon as the atmosphere and combat were starting to lose interest, the story started twisting and turning, gaining a lot of momentum by fleshing out the wonderful lore that could be felt in its prequels. The final stages of the epic plot have some wonderfully written dialog, presenting morally ambiguous characters with conflicting ideals and philosophies, and revealing interesting interpretations on the human condition. The final sequence, a voyage to a higher plane of existence (in a clear homage to “2001”, already present in previous games) is as astonishing as a videogame finale can be, and instantly became one of my favorite endings for a videogame. Because “Saga” is, on many levels, a work of vision, an artistic construction that, to this today, soars highly above its competition in terms of tone and language. When compared to most of Square’s “Final Fantasy” titles, that boast their grand epic plots, filled with their silly j-pop characters and outrageous, over the line aesthetics, “Saga” comes out as a subtler, more adult work, that privileges character depth and expression over visual hyperboles. Only when you can discern this, will you understand why such care was given to the game world and the underlying script, through the consistent use of FMV and voice acting for nearly every scene. Though it is a relatively small game (and even there, Team Andromeda seems to have predicted a new, more interesting narrative paradigm), and one that is not without caveats, it remains as one of the finest examples of the genre’s potential for story development. It has masterpiece written all over it, you just have to use your mind to see it.

Overall: 5/5

P.S: A thank you is in order to Dieubussy, the Bernard Shaw of Videogames, for such a lovely recommendation. Hugh Grant.

  1. First of all thanks for playing this game. I feel less lonely already. Also, my congratulations, it’s always a thrill to see there’s a new post in this blog and new text to read!
    This was a particularly well-written text, which covers a great deal of the excellence behind this (now) legendary game. One thing which I always regard as essential to Panzer Dragoon, is the pervading atmosphere of mystery in a society lost between myth and organic technology. Amidst this cold, post-apocalyptic setting, the growing relationship between a young boy (or girl, such as in ORTA) with a mythical creature, the dragoon, displays an impressive and rare warmth that flouts the hostile and dangerous world where the characters inhabit. The development of strong bonds between so different creatures has seldom been captured as magnificently as in this series, and while drama elements befit an RPG such as this rendition, one can’t but praise the attempt to express similar values in the remaining episodes, arcade action games from which no drama elements are expected.
    Also I point out the very nature of this large and scarcely populated world, where the majority of places only harbors wild life and ancient contraptions, so deeply mysterious and evocative of an unknown past, distinctive of the early Panzer Dragoon artwork by either Ryoshiro Kutsuzawa, or by Jean Giraud himself (who actually contributed with some designs such as the one later used for the cover of the Japanese version of the original 1994 game).
    Finally one word about the on-foot exploration: while it is true that this game features an awkward model of exploration, with visual markers popping up on a posterior layer to that of the 3D engine, one must understand the reason for such a choice. Firstly, this game runs on a console that had very acute difficulties in processing complex 3D engines, something which by itself limits the depth of detail the creators could use – hence the possibility to summon a cursor or aim that could help him interact with the scenarios. Secondly I have my reservations on the assertion that there is any 32-Bit RPG, running fully in 3D graphics with anthropoid characters and a controllable camera, able to attain superior visual detail than this one in particular – also bearing in mind that the different hours of the day affect these open environments from a visual standpoint.
    I was happy to know you respect these FMV scenes. Despite Saturn’s inferior video playback quality in comparison to its counterpart, Sony Playstation, Team Andromeda has always made a great effort in order to create convincing FMV cutscenes. Yet, the team was also cunning enough never to abandon the concept of “high resolution full motion animation sequences” which appeared between game segments.
    Thank you for this text!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 13th, 2008

    Surely the greatest feat of the game, is really its game world; mysterious and evocative of an unknown past as you say. I specially enjoyed how silence and the minimalist music scores helped grow this sense of awe and admiration for a such a strange land. For it is true that less can be more, and Saga’s designers seem to be aware of this fact.
    I understand the limitations of the Saturn, and can even comprehend the calvary it must’ve been producing this game (the whole series, actually), with all of the self-imposed limitations that ensued from the use of the platform. Maybe if they had enough money and/or time, TA would’ve chosen some other graphic model to depict the on-foot exploration. I disagree this was the best I’ve ever seen on this generation, or the best that could be achieved. Of course, that if you merely compare it with 3D engine RPG’s, the comparison is a bit biased, since 99% used pre-rendered backgrounds. I would guess that even with the same engine, some smart tweaks could’ve been made to lighten its failings, as opting for wider areas, like say, the ones in “Omikron”. Of course, those would have to be imbued in the game world in a seemless way, which would be complicated given the setting’s post-apocalyptic nature, but not impossible (I can think of one or two ways of doing that on top of my head). I guess that even using the by then standard of pre-rendered backgrounds (much) better results could be achieved, though it would certainly break the visual consistency of the game. Summing it up, I think there were options, though I, like you do, am quick to dismiss these imperfections, considering financial and logistic constraints. But I didn’t want to give it great relevancy, I mean, It’s not that its a great flaw or anything… one could say it’s a small crack on a beautiful edifice.
    I Thank you, not the other way around man… Thank you for the “Panzers”, It would’ve probably taken me years before I would set my eyes on these if it wasn’t for you. Keep up spreading the word, Shaw!

  2. You bet!

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