Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke share powerful moments and themes hidden within the trappings of inked cells and painstaking direction, creating visually stunning and moving stories renowned by many fans and newcomers to the world of anime. Along with others, noted critic Roger Ebert has also remarked that he regards Mononoke as a film that he had long wanted to see and has also shared in the praise that surrounds it. Although it has been argued that games are not “art” by he and others through their own reasons, gamers would vehemently disagree with that assessment arguing that there are titles within our hobby that fit the bill. One example of this could be said to be found in Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Panzer Dragoon Saga was one of the titles that would not only make their mark on the console, but would eventually become regarded as a classic in every sense of the word. Today, gamers that want to experience what it had to offer could only do so through friends that may have the title or pay the brutal prices that would pry it free from those that would offer it on sites such as Ebay thanks to a limited run at the end of the Saturn’s life. I had gotten my copy came from when it was released in ’98, vaguely remembering that only three were available at the Babbages I frequented. With a new Saturn replacing the one that had decided to stop working, I wanted to see if the classic was still as fun as I had remembered it.
Panzer Dragoon Saga was flown again on a somewhat new Sega Saturn.
In a story that could have been inspired by Hayao Miyazaki himself, Saga‘s tale takes the player to another place and time, to a world that might be ours. Or might not.
Over ten thousand years before the start of the Panzer series, a people referred to only as the ‘Ancients’ had managed to create a highly advanced civilization that dominated the world, where miracles were commonplace and whose works had passed into legend since then as the works of the ‘gods’. But they eventually went to war amongst themselves, the reasons lost to history, and the world would nearly die when it was over. Humanity was reduced to only a handful of survivors that had banded together into tribes, villages, and wanderers who rose up from the choking dust of what was left. In the millenia that followed, the Ancients passed into legend, but the remnants of their works and wonders continued to jut up out from the shattered skin of the world like the bones of some terrible beast. Some would journey to these forgotten places and return with trinkets and relics, some of which would inspire others to re-invent that which was lost in their own crude way. Some would not return at all.
Aside from the ruins, the Ancients had also left behind a legacy of horrors that wandered the wastes…protecting these places and following orders from masters who were long dead.
Eventually, powerful factions soon rose up from the survivors thousands of years later. One of these was a faction simply called the ‘Empire’. Using technology that they had scavenged from the ruins and had developed themselves based on the same, they sought to expand their dominion of ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ to the surrounding lands. They also sought more of the Ancients’ technology and would stop at nothing to get it, destroying anything…or anyone…that would get in their way. The first two chapters of the Panzer saga would bring the dragon and its rider against the Empire, both times heralding its utter defeat and near destruction. But it would always rise again, although the dragon would soon become whispered in local lore as the harbinger of death to the Empire.
In Saga, the player takes the role of Edge, a mercenary hired by the Empire along with others, to protect one of their many excavation sites. The workers accidentally unleash one of the biological horrors from within the mineshaft and Edge runs inside to assist in stopping it. During the battle, he is thrown against a wall that collapses revealing a girl laying within the surface of a wall seemingly asleep. He manages to save his comrades, following them outside, only to find an Imperial fleet waiting for them with their leader, Craymen. But instead of salvation, Craymen’s men kill the survivors, stopping only when Craymen tells them to stop. Edge watches as an Imperial airship takes the girl that he had found just before another of his men decides to take a shot at him. He falls from the top of the platform into the deep gully below where he somehow survives.
That is where a dragon finds him…and where the two of them begin a quest for vengeance that will change the world.
Team Andromeda, the designers behind the Panzer Dragoon series, took a radically different approach with their swan song on the Sega Saturn. Breaking out from the rail shooter design that had become the hallmark for the first and second major chapters of the series and intending to make it the conclusion to the trilogy, they made it an action RPG and kept the parts that made the first two unique. Players would continue to take to the skies atop a dragon, but they would also find themselves on foot as they were wrapped into a sweeping story deeper than any that had come before in the franchise.
Controlling the dragon is fairly simple and all of the combat in the game is handled in the air. Although the game is 3D, it makes use of a 2D plane to simplify maneuvers and to keep it from becoming too unwieldy for players. It’s not freeform, where you can pitch, dive, and spin in the air as if you were in total control. Instead, it breaks the movement up into four major attack vectors where you can maneuver around to as you try and get a better advantage over your enemy.
When you fly into these random encounters, the dragon is positioned in one of these four areas…either to the enemy’s left or right, behind them, or right in front of them. Movement is handled by shifting left or right, changing your position as Edge and his dragon glide into a new angle, and a radar on the bottom of the screen allows you to get an idea of where the enemy’s strongest…and weakest…attacks may be coming from. The enemy can also turn to try and face the player as they position themselves to try and spot a weak spot that they can exploit, and some battles can become a ballet of moves and countermoves as both sides try to get an advantage. The chase camera gives a largely cinematic feel to each battle, never getting in the way as the interface brings you all of the information that you will really need while looking good.
Attacking is handled through the use of an active “gauge” system, similar to other active-time systems such as the limit breaks found in Final Fantasy or the attack gauge system in Grandia. The player has three action “gauges” that slowly fill up when not maneuvering for position. Certain actions, such as unleashing the dragon’s multi-laser attack or firing Edge’s gun, take one gauge. Using special, spell-like attacks called “Berserks” can take up anywhere from one to all three of your gauges.
All of this is used to set the player up to unleash death on the many foes that they will encounter in the game. The dragon is capable of using its traditional laser breath attack, sending homing beams of light to blast apart what they hit. Edge also has an ancient gun that he can use for pinpoint attacks on weak points or simply to deliver a devastating barrage against whatever he lines up with his sights. While Edge can find and purchase different attachments to give his gun a particularly powerful boost, the dragon levels with the experience gained in battle.
Depending on how well the player fights, a rank is given to tell them how well (or how badly) they did in any particular fight. Better ranks in battle, such as “Excellent”, will give a bonus boost to the experience earned as well as a chance to land something that can be sold or used. The dragon’s attack power and health points will also go up along with Edge’s gun strength when a level is gained. At certain points in the story, the dragon will “morph” into a new form, gaining an extra laser shot for their breath weapon. The dragon will also learn Berserks.
Berserks are Saga‘s spells, devastating abilities that consume not only gauges but “Berserk Points”. They’re earned every few levels by the dragon with others that are only found by searching ruins or exploring the world. They range in ability, from healing to unleashing a terrific amount of damage against whatever is in your way. Each of them are broken up into several categories, four of which fall under dragon ‘types’ with the other two dependent on special conditions.
Changing the Rules
The dragon’s abilities are divided into four major areas: Attack, Defense, Spiritual, and Agility. At one point, the player will be able to tilt the dragon’s attributes to what they think they will need most of in battle or at their camp before taking off into the next part of the quest, resulting in a nearly limitless combination of different shapes that the dragon’s form will reflect when they do. Tilting the dragon to become a more Spiritual Type will enable it to consume less Berserk Points as well as regenerate some of it in return, for example. Making your dragon more agile will allow you to sweep around and position yourself faster than the enemy can react, getting in those attacks against its weak side for a quick victory. These choices also have their downsides, as a dragon that is extremely agile will also have a low defense, and one with a high defense will be less agile as a result. This forces the player to think carefully on how best to use what form for what kind of battle they might be facing. And because of the real time nature of the combat, it is possible to beat the enemy to their next attack by initiating your own before they are able to do anything else.
All of this together creates an extremely satisfying and action filled combat system, something that continues to feel just as fresh today as it was years ago when I first played it. From the cinematic camera angles and the options that the player has in attacking their foes, Saga‘s combat system is something that hits upon everything that was good about the Panzer series while giving the player more. It is also filled with boss encounters that can sometimes fill the screen, the cinematic touches making each moment seem like an epic slice of action.
On foot, Edge will camp out and save his progress, pay his Dragon some needed attention, or visit various locations where scavengers sell their wares and people try to live their lives away from the Empire and the terrors that lurk just beyond the next sand dune. The game is pretty open ended, allowing the player to explore many of the places where they had been before and visit the settlements that they come across during the story using a handy world map. Although some combat locations such as those where Edge is expected to go next will disappear from the world map when he’s done with what he needs to do there, most of the time he can leave if things get a little too hot and come back once he’s bought a few more healing items to try again.
Edge is able to call up a targeting reticule while on foot in third person mode, targeting items that might be of interest as you pan around the area to see if there’s something that you should pay some attention to. As much as I tried to like it, this was probably one of the weaker points of the game as panning Edge’s “aim” to bring up any interesting hotspots felt more than a little awkward. Still, it was a minor gripe given this side trip to the ground where you could also find more than a few interesting people that you can help and perhaps earn a few extra trinkets from by paying close attention to possible side quests that you might want to try.
Although the previous chapters of the Panzer series had only touched upon the cloudy backdrop of history that the bleak and hopeless world that they take place in can remember, Saga brings a large amount of lore into the gameplay as Edge experiences the story in the air and on the ground. For RPGers that love a strong, tightly knit story to go along with their action and adventure, Saga won’t disappoint.
Much of the twisting story centers around Edge’s thirst for vengeance, but soon be becomes caught between the Empire, Craymen and his private war, and what the Ancients have left behind them. And all of it revolves around the mysterious girl that he had accidentally stumbled across at the dig site where his friends had died, a girl who has now awakened from her strange sleep and now rides a dragon of her own…and seeks to destroy anyone that comes between her and the destiny of those who had awakened her.
Against that backdrop, players will witness a story of hubris, fate, destiny, and the struggle against the shadow of the past and a hope for the future as it is simply that of Edge and the Dragon that chose him. The ecological devastation of the world and the price paid for the knowledge that had created it are themes that continue to carry through everything within the events of the title. But perhaps the greatest story among these themes is that of Azel, of a girl that awakens to a world that is not her own and yet is inexplicably tied to it, the changes that she experiences through others, and what she becomes at the end…as Miyazaki’s Nausicaa would be remembered for in the film adaptation.
The game itself isn’t very long as experienced gamers can easily finish it in less than fifteen or twenty hours depending on what they do, the story itself never feels rushed or hurried at any point and finishes on a high note with a surprising ending.
Saga isn’t perfect. As mentioned before, its a short, if not tightly narrated, experience, but it also has a few flaws that may blindside and frustrate players.
In another attempt to add more variety to the action, the player will get to fly an Ancient flying sled as they explore one of the ruins at one point. Unfortunately, it is also the most boring part of the game. After flying on a dragon, you’re basically forced to use this and fly around while trying to discover a way out. It’s not a terrible experience, but it can feel like an unnecessary side trip. I didn’t like it too much the first time around and going through it again didn’t change my feelings about it by much.
Players that like to simply plunge into the action will also discover that if they clear an area by destroying the boss there, it really clears an area. That is, no more random encounters to help build up their experience levels if they return, unless they’ve left before encountering the boss. For players that choose to plow through the action of the game and pay little attention to how their dragon gains in experience, that can make several encounters later in the quest nearly fatal as the enemies begin to dole out massive amounts of damage. Fortunately, there are plenty of battles to go through and more than enough opportunities to make up for any lost progress that could have been made earlier.
It’s Not Pretty, But It’s Still Fun
The only other thing that hasn’t aged well are the graphics, especially on the ground. It won’t win second looks today’s world, but what is there helps to show off what the Saturn was capable of doing at the end of its lifespan. The best graphics are seen during when both Edge and the Dragon take center stage in the air, with fanciful creatures and vast landscapes of barren waste and impossible architecture. The world of Saga feels as alien and as mysterious as the strange creatures that inhabit it, creating a sort of brutal dichotomy between the forgotten glories of the past and the bleak desolation of the present as humanity attempts to survive in what the Ancients have wrought.
The voice acting switches between Japanese and “Panzarese”, the strange language of the Panzer world. While Panzarese is spoken in the beginning, most of the dialog that follows through the rest of the game is in Japanese with localization limited to subtitles which some players will probably hate. The voice acting is pretty good, though, and many of the characters are brought to exotic life by it both onscreen during the game and within the cinematic cuts that help tell the story. The sounds effects also help bring even more of the strange world of Saga to life from the Dragon’s ominous screeching to the ambient sounds of the Forbidden Zone’s leaderless machinery.
But the soundtrack by Saori Kobayashi and Mariko Nanba stands as one of the most unique collection of sounds to grace a game. It’s a combination of primal beats and strange, soaring, vocal notes that vividly color the fast paced action and the far away feel of Saga‘s world. From the nearly operatic opening to what is sung during the ending credits, the music is as inspired as the world that it follows with its notes.
Not the End of the Journey
Film critic Roger Ebert had once said of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke that it was one of the most wondrous films that he had ever hoped to see, noting its unique world, fantastic creatures, and the telling conflicts between humanity and nature. Saga shares many of these things within its player driven experience, sharing with gamers what the movie going public has also enjoyed. It is one title that I can point to and consider an artful masterpiece in every sense of the word as it strikes a strong balance between all of its parts. It’s not perfect in the sense that nothing else will ever come to top it, but it is a standout title in as much as Planescape: Torment stands out for its story, or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis stands out for one of the best portrayals of the iconic “Man with the Hat”. It’s one of the best examples of what a game can present. I would love to see this as a re-release in some form, as an updated version or as part of a “Panzer” collection, if only to get it into the hands of more gamers.
Those who love a good story will be entertained, those looking for the kind of action that the Panzer series is known for will find it here, and those who simply want to experience a solid action adventure title with RPG elements to it won’t be disappointed. After so many years, some would think that the game would feel old and backwards by comparison to many of the top titles that have been released since then. Quite the opposite as Saga continued to be as fun for me as it was when I had first sat down with wonder filled eyes in front of the screen nearly a decade before to play it.