Rightfully called one of the best RPGs of all time, Panzer Dragoon Saga finds itself in the highly praised company of ‘Suikoden II’ and ‘Chrono Trigger’, but unlike these staples of the genre it gets a lot less attention and has never seen release outside of its original appearance on the short lived Sega Saturn.
It’s been well documented and globally maligned fact that the core code for Panzer Dragoon Saga was lost due to the internal shakeups of Sega at the time, which coupled with a very limited release outside of Japan has escalated this title to legendary prices for collectors.
Graphically, the game is pushing out full 3D environments on a system that was never designed to be able to do so, working miracles on the hardware of the Sega Saturn. This has been accomplished in a number of ways, including some smaller internal locations and vast open (but slightly empty) fields, and works extremely well. It’s not held up as visually well in terms of character models, we’ve come a long way since the era of 3D on the Saturn, but the world design and characters are at once both fantastical and grounded in reality, and a sense of carefully crafted choices forming the setting as a whole is in every location, NPC and enemy you’ll encounter. Menus have held up better, and still feels fluid and work extremely well given how fiddly some of the systems could easily have been.
In terms of soundtrack, this game has a fantastical score that is perhaps one of the best ever composed for any game, and in this I include the mighty ‘Final Fantasy’ series and the legendary ‘Grandia’ score. Only ‘Child of Light’ has left a bigger impression on me than Panzer Dragoon Saga, and even then I find I’ve come back to this more often through Spotify and other mediums. Composers Saori Kobayashi and Mariko Nanba have done masterful work here, and even if every facet of the game were purely mediocre, it would still shine as an amazing case of sound design and soundtrack.
The narrative of Panzer Dragoon Saga is extremely well paced and feels thoroughly unpadded, meaning that unlike more open RPG stories, a condensed version of this story would take only perhaps an hour and a half (making it an amazing film should anyone ever decide to adapt it) and is quite the intense journey. We follow a young man called Edge who has been hired by the Empire to help guard a mining complex that quickly comes under attack by one of the wild beasts that stalk the wastelands that have become of the world. The encounter almost wipes out his squad and leads to the revelation of a young girl trapped in stone, but before any of this can be explored a rogue branch of the Empire calling itself the Rebellion arrives to slaughter the survivors and make off with the sleeping woman. Left for dead, Edge instead survives an insane fall into the underbelly of the mines and there he encounters a Dragon, forming a powerful psychic connection an setting out to seek both vengeance and answers. While this may sound like a typical JRPG tale on paper, the magic lies in the way it’s told, following the feel and pacing of a Studio Ghibli movie and providing a very deep and calm experience punctuated by moments of action and drama. It’s a title that is expertly directed and though the team behind it had never tackled an RPG before, it manages to bring a personal sense of scale to an epic story.
Exploration of 3D space on the Saturn was had to do, but somehow the team managed to create an environment where you can both explore on foot or from the air in order to better navigate your environment. Here you’ll collect items, alter Edge’s gun and interact with NPCs before diving into battles on the world map, all through the use of an interesting curser based system that initially sounds fiddly but in fact quickly becomes second nature. Combat takes place in a new version of turn based combat that is exclusive to this title, three active time gauges slowly load and when used trigger attacks of differing kinds (largely split between Edge and his Dragon) but can all be triggered when full to cast spells. Depending on your skill level you have a wide range of attacks and skills to hand, and you manoeuvre in real time around battles in 3D space to find safe spaces, target weak points and buy yourself a moment to recharge (these are marked on a tiny map as clear, red and green areas). Your Dragon also changes form, balancing its traits in different ways to better suit the battle at hand and learning which form and tactics work best for what enemy types is pretty important as your battle grade dictates the experience that drops after the fight is over. This manages to lock down the shooter based feel of the original two entries in the series in a manner that perfectly scales it to RPG mechanics and add a layer of tactical play that’s great fun to dig into. Levels and skill balance out here, with low-level playthroughs for established players being easily accomplishable and a focus in following the story over excessive grinding.
Overall, it’s an amazing title and one that we strongly recommend people play, but (and this is important) it’s one that we can’t recommend people buy. As there are no ports and original discs are rare this game reaches insane prices. Not everyone is lucky enough to pay this on original hardware on a disc and honestly with the right setup (Saturn Emulators can be fiddly to organise and run) the experience can be just as good on fake hardware. It’s a rare occasion that we recommend a title be played in this manner, but we can’t justifiably recommend anyone pay such a high value for a single game. Instead play a rom, then go out there and sign every petition going to show Sega how badly a new version of this game is needed. It would be amazing to see this game in HD on the PlayStation 4 and perhaps finally earn the audience it deserves.