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 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 traditional 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, some areas are explored with Edge 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 began around the same time as the game's predecessor, Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (1996). According to director Yukio Futatsugi, the need to combine the series' shooting elements into an RPG with full 3D and voice acting - 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, 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.
Whereas the other Panzer Dragoon games are rail shooters, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a role-playing video game (RPG). Gameplay is divided into three modes: exploring on foot as the young mercenary Edge, travelling longer distances on Edge's dragon, and battling enemies.
Unlike previous Panzer Dragoon games, movement is not "on rails", and the player can explore the 3D environments in all directions. On foot, Edge can talk to non-player characters and buy items including health potions and weapon upgrades. 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. Different zones are accessed via a map screen, which changes as the game progresses. Campsites serve as rest areas and save points.
The game uses a random encounter system, whereby battles are triggered randomly as the player explores on the dragon. The battles mix real-time and turn-based elements, with three gauges that charge in real time. When a gauge fills, the player can make a move; waiting for multiple gauges to charge facilitates more options, such as making multiple moves in quick succession, but this gives the enemy more chance 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" upgrade, which deals additional damage to weak points. The player can also use items such as shields and poison cures. The dragon has special moves called "berserks", the equivalent of magic spells in other RPGs, which require berserk points (BP) and sometimes multiple action gauges; berserks have various effects including powerful attacks, healing, and boosting the dragon's defense or agility.
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 the body of 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 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 mentions that he is seeking the "Divine Visitor" and directs Edge 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 is loyal 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, the pair 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 asks for 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. 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 as their own weapon. Imperials arrive and capture Edge and Craymen. After the Emperor forces Azel to activate the Tower, monsters emerge and kill everyone but Edge and Azel, who 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 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 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 hardest Panzer Dragoon 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; Futatsugi originally conceived a battle system in which the player would fight enemies for space. The dragon's morphing ability was added to compensate for the lack of a party of characters with different skills common in other RPGs. Once the team had settled on the core action of "locking on" to targets, be they enemies or NPCs, the rest of the design followed. After the battle system was finalized, development proceeded quickly, and some members were moved to help complete Zwei.
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" color 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.
Manabu Kusunoki, art director for the previous Panzer Dragoon games, picked Katsumi Yokota to design the Panzer Dragoon Saga characters. According to Futatsugi, Yokoto is "a very, very good artist. The fragility of the character Azel exists because of Yokota-san." 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. Although Edge is not a silent protagonist, Futatsugi minimized his dialogue outside cutscenes to focus on Azel's story instead, whom he felt was the most important character, changing from enemy to ally.
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 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 described it as "easily" the best Saturn RPG, praising its graphics, story, sound, and originality, and felt it was rivalled on other consoles only by Final Fantasy VII. 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 praised the game as one of the best RPGs of all time.
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".
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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