Status symbol or a genuinely underappreciated classic? Review of Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Panzer Dragoon Saga is a fairly obscure title that has nonetheless attained a notorious status amongst certain game collector circles. The reason for its notoriety is twofold. It’s one of the most unique JRPGs ever made. It also had an extremely low print run in the West, so it’s got all the makings of an absurdly expensive cult classic. To add insult to injury, the developers lost the source code, which has certainly helped to build mystique around this title that very few people get to experience through legal means.
The game is a follow up to a series of rail shooters which take place in a visually striking post-apocalyptic setting which takes design cues from Ghibli movies and Moebius artwork. Saga differs from its predecessors in the fact that it’s a RPG, which means you get to freely explore this exotic game world. The best part is that you do so by riding on a pet dragon which shoots lasers – pretty neat, huh?
Saga sets itself apart from the melodrama of its contemporaries by being a solemn experience: much of the game time is spent exploring mysterious ruins by yourself. You don’t have any companions to accompany you on your journey. There aren’t any upbeat moments and characters you come across are decidedly grounded. Simply put the tone of the experience is much more serious and contemplative than in other, more popular JRPGs released in the late 1990s. Due to this more serious tone and sparsity of characters, the storyline is easy to follow and you rarely lose track of what your goal is.
The desolate and somewhat melancholic mood is often accentuated by the soundtrack that effortlessly juggles different sounds, from being mysterious when you explore ruins to pompous when fighting against massive enemy fleets. While the game is rather subdued in its quiet moments, it also offers very bombastic and cinematic fights against massive bosses.
The battle system, which is a hybrid of real time and turn based action similar to that of Final Fantasy 7-9, adds a sense of spectacle to the battles. Random battles take place in a separate reality from the areas you’re exploring, and in them you’re often flying onwards automatically. There’s an element of positioning involved as you can dodge enemy attacks and exploit weaknesses by circling around your enemies. As far as your offensive capabilities go, you can choose between shooting lasers or using your firearm. You’ve also got a selection of spells, both offensive and defensive. The battles aren’t tactically demanding, but at least during the early stages of the game the novelty of the system alone keeps the combat engaging.
As for whether the game is worth all the hype, it largely depends on how much into retro gaming and JRPGs you are. The experience is novel and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The game is a technical marvel for the system it’s running on and it has a unique art style, but it hasn’t aged very well visually due to low draw distances and blurry textures.
Title: Panzer Dragoon Saga
Developer: Team Andromeda
Platform: Sega Saturn
Released: January 29 1998 (Japan), June 5 1998 (Europe)
PEGI Rating: 11