You can find Panzer Dragoon Orta haunting the used bargain bins at various Gamestops, EBs, and online. However, this is by no means an indicator of the quality of the gameplay that is behind it. It might not be as well known as other Sega franchise titles such as Phantasy Star or Sonic, but it deserves every accolade given to it by fans and in reviews by others. It’s not for everyone, but for those that choose to take the plunge, it’s a passport into one of the more unique worlds from Sega amd Smilebit that can be found on any platform.
Panzer Dragoon Orta was flown on the Xbox.
On Death’s Wings
Unlike many action shooters, the Panzer Dragoon series has a pretty detailed background to it developed over its installments and pushed to the breaking point in Panzer Dragoon Saga, although none of the previous titles have to be played in order to enjoy Orta. The world of Panzer Dragoon brings the player into a post apocalyptic world still recovering from an ancient cataclysm that had left only broken survivors and a legacy of bio engineered creatures and lost science. As a side note, manga and anime fans may find some interesting parallels in Panzer Dragoon with Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, although you don’t have to have read the pulp or have seen the film to appreciate the game.
Orta is also the first Panzer Dragoon title to not have been developed by Sega’s famous “Team Andromeda”, although many members of the former team that had worked on Panzer Dragoon were a part of Smilebit when Orta was made. Orta takes place sometime after Panzer Dragoon Saga, but players should not feel left out of the series because they skipped it or any of the other titles. As with its predecessors, it stands well enough alone to be considered on its own merits.
As far as its story is concerned, it is ten thousand years after the end of what has been called the “Ancient Age”, when the technological and bio engineered genius of a now-dead civilization had ruled over the world. Even today, there are only scattered survivors attempting to eke out a life from the scarred earth among the buried ruins and the legacy of creatures left in the wake of the cataclysm. Smaller empires have come and gone, each attempting to use the lost technology of the Ancient Age to wage war and force what is left of the world under their flag. But every time such attempts were made, a dragon had appeared along with a mysterious rider to put an end to their ambition…a herald of doom.
In Orta, a young girl of the same name is rescued by a mysterious dragon that suddenly appears before she is seized by a new empire. But why do they want the girl? Who is Orta and what is the role of the mysterious Drone, Abadd? Those questions and more will be answered in the title as Orta and the dragon fights for their lives against the Empire and the bio engineered horrors of the past. Friends in unlikely places will help her, and twists to the story will decide the fate of the world.
At the Reigns
The controls for Orta are pretty straightforward and the title offers a set of tutorials to get you up to speed. While it’s primarily a rail shooter, you have some freedom in where you can go with branching paths along the way and obstacles that you have to try and avoid. The game is viewed from a third person perspective like the others and is a rail shooter with a heavy emphasis on ‘shooter’. Fortunately, you’ve got a life bar to keep you in the fight as long as you can protect it.
Combat is handled with Orta taking aim with her pistol and guiding the aim of the dragon with a reticle that floats on the screen. With it, she can ‘lock’ onto targets allowing the dragon to blast targets with multiple shots from its breath weapon. The shoulder buttons control the camera’s rotation in ninety degree increments, allowing Orta to aim forward, to the left and right, and behind her. This can also allow her to target some incoming projectiles like missiles and destroy them.
In a nod to Saga, you can also use a ‘glide’ move that propels the dragon forward in a burst of speed. You can also slow down to let faster moving foes speed past you, but gliding will be used quite a bit to stay ahead of foes, dodge projectiles, and even get into a better position when facing one of the many boss creatures that will confront you. It can even be used as a kind of ‘rush’ attack that can easily blow through smaller foes that are in front of you. A meter keeps track of how much ‘glide’ power you have and it slowly replenishes itself over time.
In addition to its breath weapon and in a nod to Zwei, it also has the ability to unleash a “Berserk” attack that fills the sky with breath lasers destroying lesser foes in you way or putting the hurt on a boss. Berserk is replenished over time, but not so quickly as to be abused. It’s an ace in your corner that you can call on when the going gets tough…which is often.
As if that wasn’t enough, you also have the ability to morph the dragon into two other forms. Learning how to use each one and juggle between them will become just as valuable as having a quick trigger finger. The form you start out with is called the basic form, which has the highest lock-on rate for its breath weapon. It can also use glide to slip around bosses or escape tight situations. It’s the most balanced of the three forms.
The second form is the “Heavy” form which emphasizes firepower over finesse. It has the strongest attacks, but it can’t glide putting it at risk during certain boss fights where maneuverability is a plus or in combat with enemies coming at you from all sides when rushing past them could give you an edge. Few things can really stand against it, though, and its heavy firepower is a valuable equalizer when you can unleash it against the bosses. Its Berserk attack can also be aimed at foes.
The third and final form is the “Glide” form which has the largest target reticle of all the forms. With it acting as a kind of shield, all you really have to do is hold down the fire button and any missile, rock, flying amoeba, or anything else that is shot at you that falls within it is taken out thanks to auto targeting. You have a much larger glide meter and its berserk mode allows it to absorb life from enemies. However, it’s shots are the weakest among the three, nor can it lock onto targets.
As you fight through Orta, items called “Gene bases” will appear for you to collect…if you can find them by destroying certain foes or objects that you encounter. Each growth level for each dragon form requires a certain number of these bases to evolve making finding these an extremely important part of the game. The forms of your dragon can go as far as a third stage, allowing for much improved abilities to help you survive the chaos ahead.
Sound and Lightning
The world of Orta still sports some of the best graphics available on the Xbox today, rivaling that of several newer titles that have been released since it first came on the shelves. Deep grottoes are filled with ancient machinery and colossal wonders to the skies above filled with enemy warships, to bleak wintry landscapes and ancient tunnels beneath a city gone mad, there’s a lot to distract the player as they fight to survive the hordes ahead of them. The strange, techno organic style of the of the ruins from the Ancient Age and the mighty creatures and bosses that fill them all bear the hallmarks of the world forged in the previous installments. The battle effects, especially that of Orta’s dragon and the bosses ahead, punctuate their brutal power with dramatic displays of light and color. It can be easy to get lost in the action.
The sound design is just as well done, with every explosive burst and screaming attack heard over your speakers. As for the music, it continues to follow the epic and unique sounds and mixes that are a trademark of the series. Panzer Dragoon Saga alum Saori Kobayashi returns as the composer for Orta’s soundtrack, combining primitive rhythms and fast, quick pieces that add to the adrenaline of the action onscreen. The music does an excellent job in matching the personality of the chapters that they are heard in as she continues to envision the kind of unique music and sound that might be heard in a world such as Orta’s. There are also contributions from Sky of Arcadia’s Yutaka Minobe added to the mix, showcasing his talents in several tracks.
The music on the whole was pretty good, especially the ending song, “Anu Orta Veniya”, whose folksong inspired aspects are amplified with the force of an orchestra topping the dramatic narrative of the game off like a sigh of relief that your fingers will appreciate. The “Panzer language” that is a hallmark of the series also makes a comeback with spoken interludes in between the game chapters and in its cinematics with the ending track sung entirely with it.
War in the Skies
The gameplay of Orta is an action filled ride through ten chapters. Your progress can be saved in between chapters and the story is told in between each one with cinematics or in the interludes noted above. Much of the gameplay’s action will surround the player, coming from behind, the sides, above and below.
The game isn’t impossibly difficult especially considering that it doesn’t randomize any of the encounters that happen along the way, much of it is based on the kind of patterned encounter sequence found in old school shooters. The real difficulty will be in keeping up with the rush of foes and defeating the often difficult boss encounters. Repeating several chapters either to find a gene base that you may have missed or to better handle a situation that may have taken more than a comfortable chunk out from your life in your first go through isn’t unusual. You’ll find yourself learning how to switch back and forth between your different forms on the fly, tapping the Y button in an almost rhythmic mantra as you deal with the increasingly brutal scenarios that face you. The entire gameplay is set around all of the controls working in tandem together, working the system as part of a fluid concert of action which may feel overwhelming at times as players try to keep up with all of the targets onscreen.
The chapters themselves introduce many different parts of the world to the player. Many are filled with their own challenges from river filled valleys with low lying rocky bridges to avoid as you soar through the area and a Rez inspired virtual landscape within a titanic living computer replete with strange constructs that want to destroy you.
The gene bases will be some of the important pieces to surviving the later encounters, however, as improved dragon forms can be the difference between life and death. However, here is where some of the luster of the gameplay can also be distracting. With all of the action onscreen, it can become easy to lose sight of a gene base as it floats towards you and before you can switch to a form that you want to add it to, you hit it. Once a gene base is added to a form, you can’t remove it so keeping on your toes with what is being seen onscreen and what form you are in becomes another thing to worry about.
As if that wasn’t enough to challenge rail-shooter fans, several of the chapters offer alternate paths that you can follow with their own encounters. Some might be easier trips through the wasteland, others more difficult. And if that wasn’t enough, you can always raise the difficulty to Hard which some may want to do given how long the title is. Even on Normal, determined players may find themselves playing through the entire campaign in less than a day which is probably its biggest downside. Fortunately, the unlockables can help make up for it.
Even though its a rail shooter, Smilebit did a pretty good job in interleaving a strong story in between the action bits. The cinematics and interludes in between chapters attempt to explain what is going on and there are also times when other characters in the game will talk to you as you blast your way through hordes of foes. For the most part, the narrative presentation was pretty solid although some of the characters talking while you’re fighting could get confusing if you felt you missed something interesting that they were saying. But don’t expect to come away with all the answers. Fans that have kept up with the series may feel a lot less confused on what is going on than someone who hasn’t, but even then not everything is explained just as it was in the previous titles. Even the ending is somewhat mysterious, leaving it open for a possible sequel that fans are still hoping will be made.
Orta is also packed with a ton of extras for fans of the Panzer Dragoon series within a feature called ‘Pandora’s Box’. Art sketches, encyclopedia entries on the world of Panzer Dragoon describing its mysterious history along with the monsters that you encounter in Orta, and even cinematics from the previous titles (including Panzer Dragoon Saga) are found among other unlockables on the disc. You can also unlock special characters to replace Orta on the back of the dragon, such as Azel from Saga.
In addition to these extras, there are also a handful of bonus missions that put you in the uncertain shoes of a boy named Iva who has just joined the Empire’s military allowing you to follow an alternate story from his point of view. The missions run as a set of minigames in which he is challenged to prove himself to the Empire or as a sideline participant crossing paths with Orta and the dragon. Additional challenges outside of this are also unlocked to test your skills in other minigames. As you advance or finish the game, you can even experience the chapters that you’ve played through with an upgraded dragon or with other special options to help improve your score or just to play around.
The title also keeps track of your playing statistics as you proceed from stage to stage, displaying total play time and a percentage of how many extras you have managed to unlock. Many of these extras can be unlocked by finishing the game, challenging it at more difficult levels, or simply by improving your successes in many of the stages to raise your rating. Even after finishing the game again on Hard, I found that I hadn’t even unlocked everything yet.
As a huge bonus, the game also includes the original Panzer Dragoon for you to play through, unlocked when you finish the game for the first time. It’s the PC version and it runs reasonably well on the Xbox, although it does feel slow and choppy at certain points. Still, as the full game, it’s a benchmark that more titles should try and emulate. Pound for pound, Orta has more fan service extras in it than many titles today serve up.
The Legend is Still Here
Fans of the Panzer Dragoon series should be able to find a lot to like in Smilebit’s Orta and action regulars may find it to be a diamond in the rough when they go bargain bin hunting if they don’t mind rail shooters. Although the fast paced and action packed fly-by-rails gameplay can feel like a short adrenaline charged experience, the immense amount of unlockable extras provide a huge feast of material celebrating a fantastic series. Don’t let the odd cover art and low price dissuade you from experiencing Smilebit’s chapter in the Panzer Dragoon series…a well deserving heir to its legacy of action and adventure.
– World 1-1