Panzer Dragoon Saga (Saturn)

Panzer Dragoon Saga for Sega Saturn

Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998, Team Andromeda for Sega Saturn)

And so we come to Sega Saturn’s crowning masterwork, the most beloved and revered title in its vast library, and a magnificent demonstration of the system at its absolute peak. 

Team Andromeda’s Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Zwei were magnificent experiments in world building, in crafting a strange alien world filled with human tribes, mechanistic empires and strange hostile creatures. They transcended their arcade roots, offering more than Space Harrier with flying dragons. These games gave us hints at the vast world that lay just beyond the horizon. Panzer Dragoon Saga breaks free from the rails and brings us to those horizons, and the experience is everything you hoped it could be. It is not a shoot-em-up, but an RPG that takes the foundations of its predecessors and runs with it.

Panzer Saga was created by programmers and designers who were not fans of role-playing games, and so their work is infused with their own arcade sensibilities and a burning desire to stretch the genre’s boundaries. They had little interest in cliched plots about 1,000-year villains and kingdoms in peril and magic-empowered teenagers who look like they’re going to a rave party. They could care less about Tolkein-inspired fantasy tropes or conventions that go back decades. Their inspiration leans more towards dystopian science-fiction, of Moebius and Blade Runner and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. The mood is somber, grim, disillusioned. This videogame is running with Soundgarden in its veins.

The story does not involve a hero who must “save the world” or conquer some ancient evil force, but instead must struggle to live with the world as it exists. The main character, Edge, is a hired soldier for an empire that is excavating ancient ruins and mountains in search of relics and technologies from a lost age. An advanced civilization created vast machines and bio-engineered creatures and weapons of unspeakable power, but they vanished from the earth. What became of their society? Did they destroy themselves in a nuclear war? Did they victims of a climate-induced catastrophe? Or did they simply fade away slowly over centuries? Such questions are never answered, and this mythic past hangs over everything. The present world is caught in a struggle for survival between nations and empires, to say nothing of the deadly creatures, to think about such matters.

Edge and his superiors guard an excavation site. After an attack by giant hard-shelled crabs in the caves, a mysterious woman is found embedded in stone, frozen in a suspended state. Who is she and how did she get here? Before such questions can be answered, the camp is suddenly attacked by a renegade imperial faction led by a man named Crayman. His henchmen shoot Edge’s superior officer without warning, and then shoot Edge, knocking him into a bottomless ravine. They escape with the entombed woman in their armored airships.

Then an interesting thing happens. An unnamed spiritual force assigns you as the avatar for Edge, and then revives him by lowering him into a pool of water far below the surface. There has been some debate among fans whether Edge has been fully revived and you are assisting him, or if he truly did die from his wounds and you are animating a corpse. This question will hang over the story’s ambiguous ending like a shadow over a tomb, and it is one that was deliberately left open to interpretation.

That subtlety, that willingness to avoid simple good-versus-evil melodrama and embrace moral complexity, lies at the heart of Panzer Saga, and it is that quality that I admire the most. As the story progresses, we meet tribesmen, merchants, soldiers, Crayman and the mysterious woman Azel, and loyalties, motivations and desires are rarely fixed. These are not “heroes” or “villains” but frail humans who are motivated by a morality painted in shades of grey. These people are not conquerers but simply struggling to survive. Everyone has their reasons.

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