Retro Look: Panzer Dragoon Saga
The Sega Saturn was a powerhouse! That is to say it was designed to create the best 2D games ever; only thing is that 3D gaming had just reared its ugly polygon head. Ironically the boom in 3D gaming in the 90’s was thanks to Sega’s arcade game Virtua Fighter. The Point is that the Saturn was ill-equipped for rendering 3D, but Sega and consumers alike demanded 3D games; 2D games were now seen as outdated and it wasn’t until recently that attitudes changed. All this explains why Panzer Dragoon Saga has four disks.
Released in early 1998 Panzer Dragoon Saga was right at the end of the Saturn’s life. The Sega Dreamcast was set for release in 1999, and with the mismanagement of the Saturn everywhere other than Japan, this meant that there weren’t a lot of people playing the console in the first place. All this coupled together with the high production costs of game meant that Sega didn’t really bother with advertising the game, distributing it or hell even creating more than the bare minimum for regions outside of Japan. The gaming press loved the game at release and the few people who actually owned a Saturn really wanted to play the game, but in the whole of the USA only 30,000 copies where ever made. Hey could have been worse the original run was only 6,000 but demand was so high Sega had to do reprints. What’s worse is that there will never be a port of this game, the original code was lost, so don’t expect to see it as a digital download anytime soon. Enough of this history lesson let’s take a look at this bad-boy.
The setting is the standard; humans are barely surviving but eons ago Humans had an amazing civilisation. The ancient civilisation (just referred to as the ancients) created amazing technology based on biological machines but at the height of their power the biological machines (monsters) turned against their masters and this is the destroyed world we end up in. Now the Empire has begun rebuilding the ancient technology, digging it up from its resting places to wage a war on their enemies. We follow Edge, a young boy who is guarding a dig-site aiming to discover ancient technology. When a monster attacks the dig site part of a wall falls away revealing a girl frozen in time. A not moment after this Craymen appears with his rebellious Black Fleet in tow, they kill everybody at the dig site but Edge. Craymen then steals the frozen girl and runs off. Edge discovers a Dragon shortly after this and uses it to go on a quest for vengeance and to do the horizontal dirty with the frozen girl.
At the heart of the story it’s a classic boy meets girl love affair. Only girl has been is cryogenically frozen for 2000 years, has now woken up emotionally stoic, and is following orders from the man that killed your surrogate father and best friend. Oh and when you try to talk to said girl she tries to kill you. You know, that classic story. Really the plot at the start of the game isn’t that great but towards the middle things get a bit more interesting with new characters and factions turning up and taking sides in a rather epic battle for the fate of the world.
Let’s talk graphics because they haven’t aged well, or even gracefully. As mentioned the Saturn wasn’t really designed for 3D games so when somebody said “lets create a massive highly detailed fully explorable 3D world” they were aiming for something nearly impossible. What we’re left with is a game that is completely 3D but that will offend our modern eyes. Okay to be fair the levels themselves do look amazing for a Saturn game. Also the dragons and the monsters are brilliantly designed and they look good to boot. Subtitles are bold and clear, and frankly they’re better than some modern day subs as you can actually read them from a distance.
However the game is half flying around on your dragon and half walking around controlling Edge, talking to people. It’s in towns that the game’s graphics really take a nose dive because everything just looks blurry. Characters themselves don’t seem to have faces, just some indistinct squiggles on top blocks of colours that are meant to be clothes. You look at the artwork for the characters then you look at the actual characters as they appear in the game and there is almost no relation. A little quirk I noticed was as the camera goes past walls they seem to warp in relation to the camera, if I didn’t know any better I would say the game just gives the illusion of 3D with sprites…but I do know better. In short; anybody outside of the main characters don’t look like people, they look less realistic than the monsters you’re shooting at. These town areas can be visited during the day or at night, generally different characters appear at different times and you can only do certain actions at set points in the day; the pub is only open at night for example.
I should mention that the whole game is voiced. Something I didn’t think happened on consoles until Shenmue appeared in 1999. Sure everything is voiced in Japanese and at times it’s not particularly good, but for a game this old to have everything fully voiced, it’s rather amazing. Really it’s the voice acting that makes you interested in the people you’ll meet, the graphics may not be up to the challenge but thanks to actual dialogue you’ll see that mess of polygons as an actual person. Each character has more than one line and as you travel on your adventure they’ll have more things to say. They’ll even have their own plot-lines going on; sometimes asking you to fetch items for them or just allowing you to go along for the emotional journey if you care enough to check in on them all the time. So yeah major kudos to the guys that said; not only are we going to create a massive 3D RPG but also everything is going to be voiced too.