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.

When Edge is revived and you begin play, you explore a small cave area and are soon rescued by an armored flying creature, a dragon. We have seen this play out before in the two previous Panzer Dragoons. You then take command of the creature and fly through the mountains and mining caves, the skies adorned with banners and flags, rail lines and mine cars, trees and waterfalls, caves of brown and lakes of green. You are not running on a rail but flying freely around the environment, and you are encouraged to explore your surroundings. You can acquire needed items from obelisks and crates, and can even knock automated rail cars off their tracks or send banners swaying in the breeze.

Here is where the battle system is introduced. When you engage enemies in random encounters, your dragon can maneuver around your opponents in a full 360-degree circle. This surrounding area is divided into four quadrants; most opponents have quadrants marked in red where they are most dangerous, unleashing their most powerful attacks, and quadrants marked in green where they cannot detect you. As you fly, a series of three power meters fills up, and when one or more are full, you can unleash an attack. This includes your hand pistol which fires on a single target, the dragon’s homing beams that fire on multiple targets, or the dragon’s bezerk attacks, which cause the greatest damage but drain your “berzerk power” meter. All of the combat takes place in real time, which means your enemies are also moving and repositioning themselves for the ideal attack.

This is a masterstroke of innovation for the genre. RPGs have nearly always followed the same formula since the very beginning, which is derived from pen-and-paper role-playing games. The heroes line up on one side of the screen, the enemies line up along the other side, and each party takes turns rolling 20-sided dice to inflict damage. Rinse, repeat. This move into real-time action opens everything up, allowing for some genuine tension and excitement, forcing you to be engaged in every battle and not merely mash buttons (or worse, set your characters to “auto” so you just zone out entirely). Again, we see the fusion of arcade shooter and adventure games, and the possibilities for further innovation remain vast.

The world of Panzer Dragoon is vast, encompassing four discs, but the story is surprisingly short. You are not burdened with side quests or asked to deliver some neighbor’s groceries or help some farmer catch his runaway chickens. You are not sent hopping across multiple kingdoms in an effort to pad out the play time. The story runs long enough to say everything that it needs to say, and while you explore many regions in your journeys, you will travel through them fairly quickly. Skilled players who explore all the areas and search to uncover all the secrets in this world should expect a playtime of 12-15 hours.

By RPG standards, this is scandalously short, but I find this refreshing. I don’t wish to commit months to a single adventure videogame, especially one that has been cynically padded out. At one point in the game, your dragon evolves into a higher form and can morph into a variety of shapes and forms, each with different attributes and powers. Not only is this a spectacular visual effect (you’ll spend a lot of time just morphing your dragon for kicks), but it adds to the replay value, encouraging you to play through the complete adventure multiple times. This is not something that happens with most adventure and role-playing games. Most of the time, once you’ve reached the ending and you walk away, you’re gone for good.

Panzer Dragoon Saga looks absolutely sensational, as Team Andromeda pushes the Sega Saturn to its limits. They were one of the few software developers to understand the system’s multi-processor hardware designs, and they take advantage of the dual CPUs, the two Video Display Processors, and even use the SCU Digital Signal Processor to crunch extra polygons and visual effects. There are some truly spectacular moments, such as rolling ocean waves and forest fires and sand worms in the desert. There are subtle lighting effects for morning, daytime and evening, such as when you visit a trading caravan beyond the deserts. Polygon models are highly detailed and feature subtle lighting and shading effects. The monster designs are a wonderful mutation of organic machines, like giant bugs melted into stone.

The musical score is also worthy of distinction. Its songs consist of romantic melodies played in minor keys and evoke lost memories and conflicted emotions, matching the autumnal visuals perfectly. In 2018, a 20th anniversary soundtrack album was released on LP, newly remixed and recorded by the composer Saori Kobayashi. Very few videogames are solid enough to justify their own soundtrack album, but this is one that is absolutely worth a purchase.

Panzer Dragoon Saga features an extensive collection of CG animation scenes, which is the reason why it takes up four discs. These are highly involving and sophisticated by the standards of the time, and I found myself equally engaged in my recent playthrough as I was when I first experienced it in 2000. In addition, all of the dialog has been voice-recorded, including during gameplay, which was something of a milestone at the time. The presentation is highly professional and clearly meant to compete against the mighty Final Fantasy 7. Most audiences never had a chance to compare the two, as Saturn’s fading fortunes doomed this title to cult status.

Several retrospectives have been written on the making of Panzer Saga, which was being created as Sega suffered financial turmoil at the hands of Sony (in Japan, Saturn competed evenly until 1997, and still managed to wrestle second place from Nintendo 64). The mood surrounding Team Andromeda was grim and gloomy; here was a proud company with a tradition of innovation and success, and yet everything was crumbling around them with seemingly no salvation in sight. In addition, two members of the software team died during production, one to suicide, the other to a motorcycle crash. This spirit of loss and decline marinated into the bones of the game, and it’s as though we are playing through a lucid dream about the decline and fall of Sega itself.

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