More noise than signal

Panzer Dragoon Saga — Sega Saturn

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Sega’s Saturn console was, by any possible commercial yardstick, an abject failure. Countless words could be written to describe how this happened and how much of an atrocity it is, but this isn’t the place. Let’s just say that the might of Sony’s marketing machine and Sega’s critical underestimation of the market for newfangled 3D games resulted in the machine’s premature failure. There should be no sour grapes about this, simply put the better console won. It’s currently still in use with games produced for it, giving it an almost unheard of lifespan that only the Gameboy beats.

But quality of hardware is almost irrelevant; it’s the games that ought to count. That’s why many were baffled by the publics seemingly insatiable appetite for average PS fare when there was so many clear ‘triple A’ titles on the Saturn. Sega Rally, Nights, Burning Rangers, Sonic R, Marvel Super Heroes, Virtua Cop, Daytona USA, Street Fighter Alpha 2, Virtua Fighter 2; nothing seemed to spark much enthusiasm outside of the hardcore Sega acolytes, most of whom loved the chunky black box with disturbing ferocity.

It was almost a parting gift from Sega for the dying machine that they bestowed Panzer Dragoon Saga on the world. The two previous games had been on-rails shooters, good-looking, fun to play but never likely to revolutionise the way you thought about gaming. News that the third of Team Andromeda’s dragon based outings was going to be an RPG was met with a few raised eyebrows and doubting remarks. When finally delivered, it was clear just how misplaced those doubts were. They had delivered the best game on the Saturn, and one of the all-time great games that will be remembered fondly by anyone lucky enough to get their hands on the fairly limited release.

It is a time of civil war. The Empire rules with an iron fist. Edge is a young soldier on an Empire ship assigned to work at a mine, with orders to investigate…something. Their captain, who Edge looks on as a father, looks set to announce that they’ve found something. Unfortunately, something has found them. Civilisation is rebuilding itself following a collapse, and the genetically engineered monsters of the previous era still roam the land, killing humans if given the chance. They seem to be getting stronger recently, but even for that it’s an abnormally strong and well-armoured one that interrupts proceedings. They barely manage to drive the monster away, but things take a turn for the worse.

Another imperial ship arrives on the scene, but opens fire on the stationed soldiers. Edge is knocked out for a while, coming to in time to see the other ships leader, Craymen ordering his lackeys to kill the captain. Which they do with aplomb. They also seem to be making off with something from the dig site, which looks suspiciously like a girl sleeping in some sort of chamber. Edge tries to intervene only to be knocked down a chasm, seemingly to his death. Some force field stops him from making a loud splat on the chasms floor, although by this point he’s unconscious again. The poor lad doesn’t have a lot of luck in coming around, as this time faced he’s soon faced by a number of the overgrown crab-like monsters which caused the earlier bother, after a managing to have a brief wander around to pick up a nifty gun.

While you have had some opportunity to get used to the control methods by having Edge wander about the dig site, so far this has largely been a long, prerendered cut scene. It’s a fairly common scheme used by RPG’s nowadays, long intros so you have some idea of the character of the heroes and villains with other cut scenes going over important plot developments. It’s used here in perfect balance with the actual action / fighting / exploration aspects, and you never feel that you’re twiddling your thumbs as the story arc suddenly jumps forward ten steps over the course of another lengthy cut scene, which was a problem I have found with the Final Fantasy series on Sony’s beast.

The scenes themselves are impressive. The Saturn’s FMV capacity was never it’s strongest point, but even it can’t ruin the aesthetics of the work here. Newer games have benefited greatly from technologies relentless march towards a shinier future, their rendering techniques growing to the point of having spin off films. While Saga can’t match that realistic quality, it can match it on stylistics. It carries through to the action scenes too, as the whole thing just feels part of a well thought out and rich world. The locations are convincing too, and this is a hugely important part of caring about the world.

None of which would be worth a toss if the characters weren’t interesting. Edge himself may initially fall into a nicely stereotyped character, out for revenge against Evil No.1 who killed/kidnapped/maimed Friend/Family Member/Pet No.2. What’s important is that over the course of his quest as he tries to catch up with Craymen is that he does develop from this simplistic worldview as he notices how he has the power to right some of the injustices doled out by both sides of this war, to the extent that the initially fiercely Empire loyal Edge ends up having to accept the guidance of Craymen against a greater evil, putting his feelings aside for a better future for this troubled land.

It carries over into the minor characters as well, even those with few lines somehow seem to be complete, well rounded characters rather than bolted on to tell you where to find the Mystical McGuffin No.3. It’s an impressive achievement, one rarely managed by any game. One thing that should perhaps be pointed out is that the voice acting remains entirely in Japanese, due to time and money constraints on the conversion. Saying that this adds character to the game doesn’t exactly sound right, but it’s certainly preferable to a badly dubbed English version that is often foisted upon an unsuspecting public. It certainly fits well with the music, at any rate.

If there’s one thing the Saturn could justifiably say it was leagues ahead of its Sony rival it was the on-board sound. It’s Yamaha chipset is used to astonishing effect, sounding for all the world like a professionally mixed score. To have this generated in real-time by the Saturn is another great feat in a game full of them. The tunes themselves are among the most atmospheric and absorbing soundtracks I’ve heard, which again helps so much in being sucked up into the world of the game.

As alluded to previously, the story starts off as a simple quest for vengeance that takes on layer upon layer of twists and complexity as Edge travels through the world. He has to question exactly why the Empire was so keen on protecting and excavating the dig site, and what exactly are Craymen’s plans? Is he actually less of a threat than the Emperor is to the countries own stability? Why are these monsters suddenly growing in power and numbers? How does the woman carried off by Craymen’s ship fit into the story?

Well, that’s quite an important part of the story. She’s revealed to be named Azel, and you reluctantly have to fight her on several occasions. She also rides a dragon, Atolm. This is a bit of a bugger for Edge as he’s taken a bit of a shine to her, and killing her isn’t a great way to gain her affection. He can’t get through her seemingly blind devotion to Craymen and his cause, and it’s this devotion that helps Edge to start to question the world around him.

The fights themselves follow the random encounter pattern that’ll be familiar to most. Later games like Grandia show that it really isn’t necessary to have enemies just appear out of the ether to challenge you, but this doesn’t seem to have caught on too well. Once in an encounter, it’s not quite the common turn-based affair. You have three action bars that charge over time, and actions require you to use these bars. A shot from Edge’s gun burns one bar, and one of the dragon powerful Berserker spells burn up two.

This adds a welcome element of timing and strategy to the game, as you may want to go for an all out attack hoping for a quick K.O. or perhaps holding a bar in reserve to heal yourself may be more prudent, an so on. There’s the usual array of attack and healing spells, and each enemy has a weak point that you can use to your advantage to pummel them, especially with the Sniper add-on to Edge’s gun. You don’t have to remain stationary either, indeed flying around or behind your opponent is necessary to avoid their attacks and to find their weak spots. Certain critters can only hurt you if you are directly in front of them, say, so flying to their side allows you to safely butcher them.

How quickly the bars fill depend on what type of dragon you are. After reaching a certain experience level your dragon gains the ability to morph and change it’s properties, such as increasing its defence at the expense of speed, hence taking longer for the bars to fill but taking less damage while doing it. The four basic properties are speed, defence, spell power (spiritual) and attack power, and you can pick nearly any position in-between. Again, this gives great flexibility in how you decide to play the game and that can only be a good thing.

The game will probably keep you occupied for a good thirty hours, so it’s good value for money. As RPG’s go, it has more replay value than average as there are a few extras that you may miss on a first play through, like the two final and powerful forms of your dragon’s evolution. The 100% completion rate is difficult to make, but surely you’ll want your name to live forever in myths and legends by achieving it?

Picking flaws in the game seems trivial. Perhaps you could say that the in game graphics look a little dated and spartan compared to today’s efforts, with the ever-present Saturn low-res texture problem. This is a limitation of the system rather than the game though, so it seems churlish to take it to task for this while they still remain some of the best the machine has seen. Many of the spells are impressive, and the design of the main characters the dragons and the large bosses are superb.

There is innovation throughout this game, from boss fights where you actually have to use your head rather than just plug away continually to the design of the world to the dragon’s changing ability to the involving storyline that doesn’t follow the same tired path many others do. I really can’t think of any flaws apart from those that would be levelled at the genre as a whole, and this is (I think) the best example of the genre yet. Excellent and absorbing in every way, it may well be worth the £100+ that this goes for on eBay nowadays.