Review by Cinder6

"A decade later: Is it worth the price of admission?"

If you own a Saturn, or have at least paid some attention to its catalog, odds are you have heard of Panzer Dragoon Saga. It's that legendary game, the one that regularly commands over $200 these days. A game that's long been on my wish list, I finally bit the bullet and purchased a copy at a local store. Ever wonder at all the praise the game receives? Wonder no more…

First, the niggling details. The graphics are what you'd expect from the Saturn. Being one of the few fully 3D RPGs at the time, the visuals are dated, but still manage to feel solid; the game boasts some of the best 3D models on the Saturn. The FMVs are done particularly well, with a lot of emphasis on facial expressions. The sound is fantastic, with effects familiar to anyone who played the first two Panzer Dragoon titles, and background music that fits perfectly with the environments. Too often do games have great visuals, but unfitting sounds or music. Not so with Panzer Dragoon Saga. Everything goes together, resulting in a truly immersive experience.

Every piece of dialog is spoken in this game—a rare feat even for modern games, where unimportant townsfolk are usually relegated to text-only. In Saga, every character, no matter how trivial, receives a full voiceover. As a result, no doubt to save both time and money, the spoken dialog remains entirely in Japanese, with English subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen. While some may complain about this, the voice acting really is top-notch, conveying believable emotions. If you don't understand Japanese, the difference in language helps to further immerse the player, making the game world feel truly alive. This effect is helped even further with the opening and ending cutscenes, which are spoken in Panzerese, the fictional language of the series that's comprised of Japanese, Latin, and German.

While most RPGs—even those considered classics by most, such as Chrono Trigger or the earlier Final Fantasies—have a formulaic approach, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a breath of fresh air. Gone are inventories and lengthy equipment lists. The battle system is something not found in any other RPG, and draws its roots from its on-rails brothers. Even the story is non-conventional.

Exploration in Saga takes on a different tune than other games. In order to access anything—be it a doorway, treasure container, NPC, story object, and so forth—you need to pull up the crosshairs and center them on the item in question. While this may sound tedious, it gives the advantage of not needing to waste time flying over to treasure containers, as you can simply shoot them out of the sky. You can walk through doorways from across town. It takes some getting used to, but ultimately speeds up the more mundane aspects of gameplay.

While it still has some of the common tropes, what most players comment on is the fact that, even by the time you start the fourth and final disc, you're still unsure of just who the villain is. Characters have much deeper motivations than the typical mind-bendingly evil magician that wants to take over and/or destroy the world. As a result, this leads to much (entertaining, hopefully) guesswork on the player's part as to exactly what's going on. And the ending: perhaps one of the most memorable in gaming—like many great stories, it can spark a wide variety of interpretations, from the happily optimistic to the overwhelmingly tragic.

If there's one complaint Saga consistently receives, it's length. There's no dancing around the issue: Panzer Dragoon Saga is a short game, especially for an RPG. While most players report an average first playthrough of 19-24 hours, I was able to finish the game in 13, with no guides whatsoever, and a fair amount of secrets discovered. Don't let this turn you off to the game, however: while the game has brevity, it's not due to a lack of story; rather, it's due to a lack of needless time sinks. Saga eschews the standard conventions and has none of the dreaded fetch or collecting quests. Very little time is spent wandering through towns. There's no pointless menial task you must do because a greedy townsperson won't tell you something without you first going through a great amount of personal risk (well, I admit, there's one, but it ends up important to the story, and it takes all of 15 minutes). This game is pure story, with no unimportant “extras”.

A great story needs a great battle system to go with it. Fortunately, Panzer Dragoon Saga is only happy to oblige. Like many other parts of the game, the way it handles combat is unique. The protagonist, Edge, never fights by himself, yet this is a solo RPG (one of the few). He also never fights on foot. Every battle, be they big or small, happens on dragonback. Again borrowing from its predecessors, you have two primary methods of attack: Edge's gun, and the dragon's breath weapon, which comes in the form of a series of homing lasers. Enemies have a varying number of targets, with most of them (including bosses) having one or more weak spots. While you can aim the gun at any visible target, it is usually less powerful than the lasers. On the other hand, the lasers will only hit the closest targets, so precision shots become a problem; it takes a balanced combat approach to take down your enemies.

Furthermore, the battle field plays a much more important role than usual. Rather than having the enemies on one side, and Edge on the other, you have to move around. Four quadrants make up the field, and you can move in 90 degree rotations around the enemy. Your radar has color representations of damage zones: red means you will take extra damage, clear is average, and green denotes safety. These zones can change, based on enemy movements. And while you're jockeying for the dominant position, looking for weak spots, the enemy constantly vies for that critical vantage point to do the most damage.

Turns are based on a similar system to the ATB found in many Final Fantasy games. Instead of one bar, however, you're given three. As a result, you can stay in hiding in a green zone, building up your power gauges, then swing out to deliver a series of crushing blows to the enemies. To balance this, the gauges do not build up while moving. Additionally, the magic attacks in the game (called berserk attacks) take up two (or even three) bars, with the exception of healing abilities (which only take a single bar).

Finally, while the game features no equipment aside from gun upgrades, you can change your dragon's type after a certain event in the story. An attack-based dragon is weak in magical ability, as is the reverse. A defense-oriented dragon has poor agility, but greater damage-soaking prowess. Additionally, keeping full all three power gauges yields different benefits, depending on dragon type, ranging from continual healing to the ability to counterattack.

Now, to the heart of the matter: Is this game worth the price? Is any game worth $200 or more? Panzer Dragoon Saga is so unique, from nearly every aspect, that there is no other game that's quite like it. Not only that, the story (always the main consideration for an RPG's worth) is top-notch, and non-formulaic. Rest assured that this experience is unlike any I have ever encountered in all my years of gaming. It is for this reason that I have to say: Yes, Panzer Dragoon Saga is indeed worth the price. If you are an RPG fan, seek out this title; it won't disappoint. If you aren't, or you're new to the genre, it's probably best to try other (cheaper) games first.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 07/09/08

Game Release: Panzer Dragoon Saga (US, 04/30/98)

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