Panzer Dragoon Saga has the admirable and tragic gaming status of being a rare gem. This status means that anyone that visits even one gaming website regularly will have read about it in one of the many articles with titles like ‘The Best Games Nobody Played’ or ‘Top 100 Games’. So like most gamers, I had read about it but never played it and I thought it was about time I did.
The problem with approaching a game like this is that the tragedies behind its development and its ultimately disappointing sales on a cult system, has given it a status that it might not have had if circumstances had been different. So I approached the game with skepticism. I’m going to assume that anyone reading has a basic rundown from one of the aforementioned lists and I’m not going too spoil much.
Let’s start with my favourite part of the game; the battle system. I like turn-based battle systems but with few exceptions, I don’t like grinding. Panzer Dragoon Saga’s battle system is turn-based but it isn’t static. You only control the dragon and battles generally take place in the air. What changes up the system is that you can move your character in combat. Usually front, back or either side of the enemies you face. This adds both an important strategy element and also lets you feel far more in control than the average RPG. The enemies also move making it much like a naval battle where two ships are constantly maneuvering to avoid and inflict attacks. You have three bars, representing turns that fill as your dragon waits. You can attack when at least one is full but allowing two or three enables a more powerful attack (berserk), or a series or short attacks. The bars are also used for healing or using items. The key strategy is usually to get your character in a position where the enemy can do the least damage while preparing for and then striking in a weak spot, as hard as you can. Although you are able to grind away as much as you like, the dynamic nature of battles means that you don’t necessarily have to be really strong to overcome some enemies. Merely knowing their attacks and being vigilant can get you through with the exception of some enemies that are fought through attrition.
A further element of strategy deals with how you train your dragon. You are able to raise attack, defence, magic (berserk attacks) and speed at the expense of each other. For example, if you want a fast attacking dragon with weak magic or a slow defensive dragon that can unleash powerful berserk attacks. You are also able to adjust this at any time meaning that you can style your dragon to suit defeating certain enemies. Different styles will also unlock different types of berserk attacks. In addition to this, your dragon changes forms after story points along with two hidden forms you acquire through side-quests. Although I thought the training was very cool, I honestly didn’t take advantage of this much during the game as I never found enemies difficult enough to warrant a change in strategy and found the basic attacks (hand gun, dragon laser) to be the most effective. The option is there though and it does allow you to adjust your dragon to your style of play.
To go from best to worst; the most disappointing aspect of Panzer Dragoon Saga (PDS) are the visuals. Obviously the game is now 12 years old but it is burdened further by being one of those early 3D games that just hasn’t held up overtime. If you remember other contemporary games though you can still picture how it must have looked when gamers were still used to 2D sprites. The in-game graphics are extremely grainy and the draw distance is horrendous. The FMV’s are better and there are plenty of them but even these haven’t aged very well.
If you ignore the visuals, the main gripe any RPG enthusiast would have with PDS is its length. Despite spanning four CD’s, it really isn’t all that long. 10-15 hours is about what you can expect but a completionist could get a bit more. At first the game world appears enormous but by halfway through the second CD it becomes clear that the whole game is set in a very small area and there is even some backtracking. Most RPGs pad out length with battles (especially random battles) and PDS is thankfully different. Although it uses random encounters, not all the areas include them. You can actually avoid many through player skill. This is usually by avoiding alarms or sometimes floating enemies. If the game had included random encounters throughout, the game would have been an average of two hours longer and a lot more frustrating. You can still grind away but it is mostly optional and your character doesn’t have to be that powerful to finish the game. The game does have some areas that drag on unnecessarily but the overall pacing is good, always leaving you some down time after major battles or developments. I ended up finishing my run in just over twelve hours (by the game clock) and I did use a playguide. So it could be a problem for some but the length didn’t bother me at especially since the story had wrapped up neatly by the end.
As I said before Panzer Dragoon Saga has got a reputation that could lead to exaggeration from fans but I truly believe it deserves to be called a masterpiece by the standards of the time. I have never played an RPG quite like it and I’m glad I took the time to find and experience it. If I could choose any game to be totally remade, it would be this one. Despite how poorly it has aged, it isn’t hard to imagine the world the creators wanted to convey and technology along with the normal time and budget constraints is what limited them. Everything from the (still innovative) battle-system to the graphics could really be brought out beautifully on the modern consoles. There is so much that could be expanded upon without cheapening the experience. The world of Panzer Dragoon is one of the more unique I have seen in video games and it deserves to be seen again.