Panzer Dragoon Saga
|Panzer Dragoon Saga|
European cover art
Panzer Dragoon Saga (アゼル パンツァー ドラグーン RPG Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG?) is a 1998 role-playing video game (RPG) for the Sega Saturn, published by Sega and developed by Sega's Team Andromeda studio. It is the third game in the main Panzer Dragoon series and the only instalment that is not a rail shooter, combining role-playing elements such as random encounters with the 3D shooting elements of previous games.
The player controls Edge, a young mercenary who battles an empire on a flying dragon and encounters a mysterious girl from a vanished civilization. Unlike the other Panzer Dragoon games, whose gameplay takes place while flying on the dragon, the player has full 3D movement and some areas are explored on foot. The battle system mixes real-time and turn-based elements, with the player circling enemies on the dragon to expose weak spots and escape dangerous positions.
Development of Panzer Dragoon Saga began around the same time as that of its predecessor, Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (1996). According to director Yukio Futatsugi, the need to blend the series' shooting elements into an RPG with full 3D and voice acting - both unusual for RPGs at the time - made it the most difficult Panzer Dragoon game to develop. Two staff members died during its two-year development, which Futatsugi attributed to the stressful working conditions of the video game industry.
According to GameRankings, Panzer Dragoon Saga is the most critically acclaimed Saturn game, winning praise for its story, graphics, music, and unusual battle system. It has appeared in several "greatest games of all time" lists. As Sega had shifted its focus to its next console, the Dreamcast, the game had a limited release outside Japan, attracting a cult following. It has not been rereleased and is now a rare collector's item. After its release, Sega disbanded Team Andromeda; several staff joined Sega's Smilebit studio and went on to develop the final game in the series, Panzer Dragoon Orta, released for Xbox in 2002.
Unlike the other Panzer Dragoon games, which are rail shooters, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a role-playing video game (RPG). The player controls the young mercenary Edge, who flies a powerful dragon. Gameplay is divided into three modes: traversing large areas on the dragon, battling enemies, and exploring on foot. The game uses a random encounter system, whereby battles are triggered randomly as the player flies.
Movement is not "on rails", and the player can explore the 3D environments in all directions. A targeting reticle is used to interact with locks, doors, and other elements; on the dragon, this can also be used to fire lasers to activate triggers or break objects. On foot, Edge can talk to non-player characters and buy items including health potions and weapon upgrades. Different zones are accessed via a map screen, which changes as the game progresses. Campsites serve as rest areas and save points.
Panzer Dragoon Saga's battles take place while flying on the dragon. They mix real-time and turn-based elements, with three action gauges that charge in real time. When a gauge fills, the player can make a move, such as attacking or using an item such as a shield or poison cure. Waiting for multiple gauges to charge facilitates more options, such as making multiple moves in quick succession, but this gives the enemy more opportunity to attack. The speed at which the gauges charge is governed by the dragon's agility attribute; if this is higher than the enemy's agility attribute, the player can make moves more frequently than the enemy, and vice versa.
During combat, the player can circle the enemy to expose weak points and escape dangerous positions. Changing position temporarily stops the gauges charging. Likewise, enemies may change position to force the dragon into vulnerable areas; a radar at the bottom of the screen indicates safe, neutral and dangerous areas, with the front and rear areas typically posing the most danger. Weak points can sometimes only be attacked from dangerous areas, and enemies' attack patterns often change mid-battle, forcing the player to adapt.
The player can attack with the dragon's laser, which strikes multiple targets simultaneously, or Edge's gun, which focuses damage on a single target and is useful for striking weak points. Edge's gun can be upgraded with power-ups including three-way fire and the "Sniper" modification, which deals additional damage to weak points. The dragon's "berserks", the equivalent of magic spells in other RPGs, have effects including powerful attacks, healing, and boosting the dragon's defense or agility. Berserks require berserk points (BP) and sometimes multiple action gauges.
The dragon can be morphed to change its attack, defense, agility and spiritual attributes. Boosting one attribute diminishes another; for example, boosting the attack attribute reduces the spiritual attribute, meaning berserks require more BP, while boosting means gauges fill faster at the expense of defense. Certain berserks are only available in certain dragon configurations.
Edge, a mercenary hired by the Empire, guards a site where artefacts from an ancient advanced civilization are being excavated. Fending off an ancient monster, he discovers a girl buried in a wall. The site is attacked by the mutinous Black Fleet, who seize the girl and kill Edge's companions. Edge escapes with the help of a mysterious flying dragon and swears revenge on the Black Fleet leader, Craymen.
Edge rescues Gash, one of a band of scavengers called the Seekers, from a monster. Gash directs him to a nearby nomadic caravan, where he learns the location of the Black Fleet. Edge and the dragon defeat the fleet, but learn that Craymen has already reached the Tower, an ancient structure of tremendous power. They fend off an attack by the girl from the excavation site, who has sworn allegiance to Craymen and rides an enormous dragon, Atolm.
In the town of Zoah, Edge meets an engineer, Paet, who will trade information about the Tower for ancient artefacts. Searching an ancient vessel for parts, Edge is captured by imperial soldiers but rescued by Gash. Paet reveals that the Tower can be reached via the ruins of Uru; there, Edge is attacked again by the girl and Atolm. After the battle, separated from their dragons, he and the girl fall into an ancient underground facility and form a truce to escape. The girl explains that she is an ancient bio-engineered being named Azel, created in the facility and designed to interface with ancient technology. After Edge's dragon rescues them, Azel warns Edge that she will kill him if he crosses Craymen's path again and leaves on Atolm.
Craymen surprises Edge in Zoah and requests his help fighting the Empire. Paet tells Edge he can find the Tower by deactivating an ancient machine, Mel-Kava, that obscures the Tower's location with fog. In exchange for destroying an imperial base, the village leader gives Edge access to an ancient artefact that grants him a vision of Mel-Kava's location. Edge and the dragon destroy Mel-Kava, clearing the fog, but are attacked again by Azel and Atolm. They shoot down Atolm and rescue Azel as she falls.
The Emperor's flagship, Grig Orig, destroys Zoah, but the Black Fleet intervenes before Edge and the dragon are killed. At the Tower, Craymen tells Edge that it is one of several that manufacture monsters to combat humanity's destructive forces. He needs Azel to activate the Tower and destroy the Empire before they can use it for themselves. Imperials arrive and capture Edge and Craymen. After the Emperor forces Azel to activate the Tower, monsters emerge and kill Craymen, the Emperor, and their men. Edge and Azel escape on Edge's dragon. At the Seeker stronghold, Gash explains that the Tower will destroy humanity if it is not deactivated. He believes Edge's dragon is the prophesied Divine Visitor who will be humanity's salvation. Edge and the dragon battle rampaging monsters and destroy the infested Grig Orig.
Edge rescues Azel from monsters in the Uru facility, where she has returned to contemplate her purpose. They infiltrate the Tower and Azel prepares to transfer Edge and the dragon into Sestren, the AI network that controls the towers. She confesses her love for Edge and he promises to return. Inside Sestren, Edge and the dragon defeat the network's "anti-dragon" programs. Through visions, Edge learns his dragon originated as the Heresy Program, a rogue AI purged from Sestren. The Heresy Program explains that the Divine Visitor is actually "the one from the outside world" who has guided Edge, and who must now destroy Sestren with Edge inside.
Gash awaits Edge in the desert, to no avail. Travelling alone, Azel asks directions across treacherous land.
Panzer Dragoon Saga was developed by Sega's Team Andromeda studio for the Saturn over approximately two years. Development began around the same time as development of the game's predecessor, Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (1996), with a team of about 40, twice as many as the Zwei team. Director Yukio Futatsugi stated that Saga was the most difficult Panzer Dragoon game to develop, as the team had to implement fully 3D environments and full voice acting, unusual for RPGs at the time.
It took about a year to rework the previous games' shooting gameplay into an RPG. Once the team had settled on the core action of "locking on" to targets, such as enemies, NPCs, or other elements, the rest of the design followed. Futatsugi originally conceived a battle system in which the player would fight enemies for space, which became the game's positioning system. The dragon's morphing ability was added to compensate for the lack of a party of characters with different skills common in other RPGs. The team wanted to show the dragon morphing between forms, but dismissed the idea as too difficult to implement; one day, a programmer surprised them with a working prototype, and the idea became a feature. After the battle system was finalized, development proceeded quickly and some members were moved to help complete Zwei.
Rather than create a "save-the-world" story with a large cast, Futatsugi wanted to concentrate on a small number of characters "who you are really close to", which he felt would make the story more meaningful. An early version had Edge as an imperial soldier who defects; Craymen also had an extensive backstory, explaining his motivations for betraying the Empire. Both stories were cut for time. Although Edge is not a silent protagonist, Futatsugi minimized his dialogue outside cutscenes to focus on Azel's story, who he felt was the most important character. Sega estimated that the game's dialogue amounted to "over 1,500 pages of Japanese text." The other Panzer Dragoon games feature a fictional language, "Panzerese", which combines elements of Ancient Greek, Latin and Russian. Saga only features Panzerese in the introduction sequence; the rest of the dialogue is in Japanese, subtitled in English for the western release.
The team did not want the android Azel to be a typical energetic anime-style heroine, and instead tried to make her simultaneously appealing and frightening. Her character underwent the most revisions, emphasizing her human and non-human aspects, and one early design had a hole in her torso. Art director Manabu Kusunoki picked Katsumi Yokota to design the characters; according to Futatsugi, Yokota is "a very, very good artist. The fragility of the character Azel exists because of Yokota-san."
The game uses the Zwei engine. As the dragon's movement is not "on rails", unlike other Panzer Dragoon games, the engine had to support free exploration along with battle sequences and real-time morphing and shading; according to GameSpot, this pushed the Saturn's hardware further than any game. Futatsugi felt it would not have been possible on PlayStation, as the Saturn's "cloudier" palette gives the Panzer Dragoon series its atmosphere. Rather than using pre-recorded music, the game's soundtrack is mostly generated via pulse-code modulation by the Saturn’s sound hardware, as with Zwei.
Two staff died during development: one in a motorcycle accident and the other from suicide. Futatsugi attributed the deaths to the stressful working conditions of the video game industry. In 2013, he said: "All we could do was carry on and finish the game - it was out of my hands. Part of me did want to stop though. That was definitely the toughest project I've ever worked on. Personal relationships became strained. The stress was overwhelming." Despite the difficulty of the project, he felt it had benefited from having "someone who plays the bad guy role, someone who acts a little selfish, acts a little forceful to the team to achieve specific goals ... Having team members that will support that kind of bad cop is necessary, and if they don't exist then you can't get those kind of results."
Panzer Dragoon Saga was released in North America in April 1998 on four CDs, one of the last Saturn games released outside Japan. As Sega had moved its focus to its next console, the Dreamcast, fewer than 20,000 copies were released in the west and the game's Japanese voice acting was subtitled rather than rerecorded in English. IGN's Levi Buchanan characterized the release as an example of the Saturn's "ignominious send-off", writing that "sunset Saturn games like Panzer Dragoon Saga and Burning Rangers demanded far better launches. The way these games were slipped into retail with zero fanfare and low circulation was insulting to both hard-working developers and Sega fans."
Because of its limited release, English-language copies of Panzer Dragoon Saga are rare and sell for high prices. It has not been re-released. In 2009, game-downloading service GameTap’s general manager Sene Sorrow stated that GameTap had the rights to distribute the game, but as Saturn emulation is difficult, he did not believe there was enough demand to make it a priority. In the same year, Futatsugi stated that Sega had lost the game's source code, which would make porting the game difficult.
Reception and legacy
According to the review aggregator GameRankings, Panzer Dragoon Saga is the most critically acclaimed Saturn game, with an aggregate score of 92%. It received praise for its graphics, gameplay, story and music, and many critics felt it was one of the best RPGs of all time. In 2007, Game Informer wrote that "critically, the game was a smash hit, lauded as one of the year's best, and generally considered the Saturn's finest title."
Edge praised the game's range of enemies, tactical gameplay, and especially its extensive FMV cutscenes, which have "a cinematic quality that shames the work of almost every other developer". It concluded that the game had "true creative integrity" and lamented that the Saturn's failure meant it would not find a wider audience. Game Informer called it "easily" the best Saturn RPG, praising its graphics, story, sound, and originality, and felt it was rivaled only by Final Fantasy VII, released the previous year. Sega Saturn Magazine described the game as "a monumental effort, a work of art, and quite clearly a labour of love", concluding that it was the best adventure on the Saturn. GameSpot praised its graphics, music, battle system, and story, concluding that it was "flawlessly executed" and "possibly the finest RPG of 1998". Electronic Gaming Monthly reviewers unanimously commended the game as one of the best RPGs of all time. Next Generation praised the battle system as a "tantalizing glimpse into the future of pseudo-realtime combat," but felt the game, which can be finished in less than 30 hours, was too short.
In 2007, 1UP described Panzer Dragoon Saga as "the greatest RPG you've never played" and one of the "most unique" RPGs of all time. In 2005, Electronic Gaming Monthly placed Panzer Dragoon Saga #1 in its list of cult classic games. Game Informer ranked it #1 in its 2006 list of the "top 10 rare RPGs you need". It was named one of best games of all time by Computer and Video Games in 2000, Electronic Gaming Monthly in 2001 and 2006, IGN readers in 2005, IGN in 2007 and G4 in 2012. In 2010, NowGamer named it the 30th greatest retro game and called it "one of Sega’s greatest non-hedgehog moments". Writing in 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die (2013), Jason Brookes emphasized how well the game had aged: "Compared to the cliche-ridden excesses of many RPGs, Panzer Dragoon Saga's unfolding narrative is unusually restrained and surreally evocative ... Many aspects ... impress above and beyond even the best RPGs produced nowadays ... Inevitably, only the prerendered FMV now seems crude by comparison."
After the game's completion, Sega disbanded Team Andromeda. Futatsugi left Sega and joined Konami, while other staff moved to Sega teams including Smilebit, which went on to develop the final Panzer Dragoon game, Panzer Dragoon Orta (2002), for Xbox.
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