It was 1998 and the Sega Saturn was quickly losing the race against industry icon and longtime rival, Nintendo, and upstart Sony. Both the Nintendo 64 and the Sony PlayStation were eating it alive on retail shelves. Despite using cartridges, Nintendo’s powerhouse pushed past the Saturn despite its early release thanks to a combination of factors that included smart licenses and strong first-party titles like Mario 64.
As for Sony, their PlayStation succeeded through a blitzkrieg of titles on CD-ROM courting the industry’s biggest names from Electronic Arts to the legendary Squaresoft whose Final Fantasy 7 would become the JRPG a generation of gamers would forever hold dear (and which Nintendo fans at the time would be shocked to see on a system other than Nintendo’s).
The Saturn, unfortunately, suffered from a combination of factors that worked against it ranging from a tepid library of glacial releases to the sense that it was steadily losing the war as more players chose to side with either Nintendo or Sony. Sony, in particular, successfully disrupted an industry that, despite the attempts by others from NEC to a resurgent Atari, was more or less locked down between the two titans that rebuilt it with their rivalry.
There was also talk of a new console from Sega, barely three years after the Saturn’s release, which added more salt to the wound dug into the wallets of fans still hoping that it would last.
Yet the final year of the Saturn was arguably its best, at least among RPG fans, because it was also the year that would see titles such as Shining Force III (the first of a three part series which, sadly, would be the only chapter of which to come out West) and Panzer Dragoon Saga arrive to give the system its proper sendoff.
Panzer Dragoon Saga was the biggest and most daring change to the series yet. Instead of being another rail-shooter like its predecessors, Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Zwei, this was a more open world left to the player to explore and choose where to go. It had also become an action RPG. The idea of developing your dragon based on how you performed in Zwei was taken to a whole other level with Saga’s system.
The road to Saga was a brutal test for Team Andromeda who lost a member to suicide during the course of development and another to an accident. They were also working with a system that was already on its way out, trying to break new ground with their series by incorporating ideas and concepts such as a larger, non-linear world when none had any experience in building a game remotely like it. Low production of copies for the finished game ensured that only a few thousand players would ever get to play it in the West. Yet, despite it all, it stands as one of the best games ever made for any system — a tour de force by Team Andromeda and an incredible experience.
I had no idea of any of this back in ’98. I liked the series and when I saw Panzer Dragoon Saga on the shelf boasting 4(!) CDs and being an RPG, I knew I had to play it. The store I went to only received three copies and that would be it. Back then, I had no idea why. I chalked it up to Saga being a very niche title, and the Saturn slowly being eased out of retail, but I didn’t know it would also be because of how relatively few would actually be physically made.
Getting it home and loading it up, it quickly hit me how different this would be from the other two Panzer titles as soon as the music whooshed through the speakers and a tapestry of images began filling the screen right after “Team Andromeda Presents”. This was going to be an adventure.
It was relatively standalone like the other two were in terms of story with the only unifying threads being the post-apocalyptic world the action takes place in and the dragon as the ever present trigger, though Saga would tie all of the pieces together in an ending that worked whether or not you were a series veteran.
This time, our tale centers around a mercenary named Edge although the game later prompts the player for their name, too, for a special surprise. Edge and his comrades are protecting a dig site as hired guns for the Empire. Thousands of years have passed since the “utopian” civilization fell bringing the world nearly to an end and leaving only the genetically engineered bio weapons of the Ancients. The survivors have managed to eke out lives amidst the ash and ruins and eventually, a new power arose using technology salvaged from the bones of the past — the Empire.
Things quickly go south at the dig. One of those ancient bio weapons had awakened, and in a desperate fight, Edge manages to defeat it. During the fight, he also discovers a mysterious girl embedded in a wall seemingly asleep.
But Edge and his friends just want to get out of there in one piece even with the monster gone only to run into Craymen and his soldiers. Unfortunately for Edge, Craymen is a renegade leader from the Empire concerned only in seeking an advantage with which to take control of it. One of his sadistic lieutenants shoots Edge’s friends and leaves Edge for dead, leaving with the Ancient girl. Meanwhile, the capital of the Empire is destroyed but the emperor escapes harm.
As for Edge, he somehow manages to survive a fall to the bottom of the ruins and is eventually rescued by a powerful dragon. Together, the two set out to fight an empire and, eventually, seek to save the world from the legacy of the Ancients.
Saga tossed out the rail-shooting and left control of flying down canyons and the skies to the player allowing them to explore what is out there. A simple cursor targeting system allows the player to “search” items by blasting them with the dragon. There’s also on-foot sections for simple exploration and loot finding.
Combat is now a lot more dynamic as it turns the action-heavy fighting of the previous two games into a real-time combat system based on maneuvering for position and knowing when to use certain combat skills and tactics. As Edge explores the world and fights alongside his dragon, experience is earned for leveling up and expanding the dragon’s repertoire of powers.
The gauge system is what drives the combat. Three gauges are on the HUD and determine what the player can do in a fight. They start filling automatically, beginning with the first gauge, and with one gauge full, the player can do things like fire off a simple homing laser attack. At two gauges, the dragon can use a Berserk ability as long as it also has Berserk points to spend (kind of like spells and spell points in any other RPG) although some particularly powerful ones will also demand three full gauges. Of course, the player can opt to use one gauge at a time (such as for using Edge’s gun and then hitting back with homing lasers) especially if they’re maneuvering around a monster to hide in a safe spot or find a weak point, adding a layer of tactics. Enemies also have powerful attacks that they can use, but you don’t get to see what their gauge looks like.
Maneuvering is also key. Unlike the first two games where you changed viewpoints, now you change position in relation to the enemy. The picture below shows a circular radar with the enemy at the center. Red means a zone where they can smash your dragon with a powerful attack. Green areas are safe. There are also areas with no color and in those zones, you’ll just get hit with regular damage. Some enemies only have weak points that you can only see by moving around — and the enemy will also be trying to do the same thing.
Edge can also buy and sell items at a village in the game once he gets far enough, or camp out and develop his relationship with the dragon by trying to assess its mood or what it’s feeling. Through it all, his quest for Craymen is only the beginning and once the girl, Azel, enters the picture, an attempted coup quickly becomes the least of Edge’s concern especially when a new dragon appears that isn’t so friendly.
Saga’s world is filled with a lot of mystery and as it reaches its climax towards the end, pulls the curtain back on a greater conflict that has been waged ever since the Ancients’ civilization destroyed itself thousands of years earlier. Edge and his dragon ally discover the truth at the end in an epic fight that mixes both interludes of storytelling flashbacks and tough decision making against a deceptively simple boss fight. Even after the game is done, you might still be wondering about the finer details. A lot of fans did, too, putting together whatever scraps they can find to help explain things at sites like The Will of the Ancients going so far as to include translated works from Japan along with extensive write ups on the games.
It’s also where the fourth wall is ultimately broken using the name the player entered shortly after the start of the game as it is up to the “Diving Visitor” to end the legacy of the Ancients themselves, pulling the player right into the game, a concept that another iconic title, Metal Gear Solid, would do later in the same year when players had to swap PlayStation controllers to fool one of the bosses. Years later, Panzer Dragoon godfather and Team Andromeda lead, Yukio Futatsugi, has said in an interview with 1UP mentioning that he’s always sought to make the player the observer in watching a character’s story unfold. They’re ARE Edge, the Divine Visitor inside of him, all in one following Azel and the legacy she is shackled with.
By the time the credits roll, most of the questions have been answered but not all of them…Saga’s world still has a lot of secrets buried beneath its shifting face especially with how the ending would leave things. As a final mystery, the mysterious Azel, who survives, will take up her own quest to find where Edge had gone after his final battle within the heart of the living system that had been built by the Ancients.
Saga was a huge triumph in many ways as it pushed the Saturn’s hardware to its limits with enhanced graphics, deep storytelling, a fun combat system, and an incredible soundtrack. Unfortunately, its Amiibo-like rarity, partly thanks to the low production numbers for the game, also means that it didn’t find a much wider audience even during the Saturn’s last year.
The Western version is particularly rare often commanding a few hundred USD on auction sites like Ebay, though the Japanese version isn’t quite so hard to find. It was also never ported to anything else although there have been rumblings over the years such as with GameTap in saying it might happen only to end up as just more wishful thinking. Yukio Futatsugi had even come out to say that it’s virtually impossible because the source code was “lost” as well as relate the story of how difficult creating a PC version of the first game, Panzer Dragoon, was. The Saturn could apparently be as unforgiving going in the other direction, something that has dogged fans attempting software emulation of the hardware.
Even though the pixels are a little rough around the edges and the video hasn’t aged well, the story and the game play hold up well alongside its immortal soundtrack. I still fire it up from time to time just to dive back into Team Andromeda’s world. It’s hard not to — it really is an amazing piece of work.
Team Andromeda is no more, though many of them had moved on to other places like Sega’s internal studio, Smilebit, which created Panzer Dragoon Orta for Microsoft’s Xbox in 2002. As for Yukio Futatsugi, he went on to work with Microsoft eventually creating Phantom Dust for the Xbox in 2004 for the Japanese market (the game would later come West in 2005) and overseeing the development of other titles such as Blue Dragon.
Eventually, he left to form Grounding Inc. in 2007 after feeling the development itch once again releasing several games including a “spiritual successor” to Panzer Dragoon called Crimson Dragon which didn’t fare as well among critics. Today, he’s still working on the next idea. If Crimson Dragon had done well, he had also hoped to bring out a Crimson Dragon RPG — Panzer Dragoon Saga’s own spiritual successor. The bad news? That doesn’t seem likely to happen, at least in the near future, but one never knows. Azel didn’t lose hope at the end of Saga in her quest for Edge. Saga’s fans aren’t likely to lose hope, either.