Panzer Dragoon Saga is a legendary game for a lot of reasons. It's a "holy grail" tier game for collectors - as of this posting, a complete copy in good condition can sell for more than $600 - as well as an extremely rare game even at launch with only around 50,000 produced for the North American continent. Couple that with being exclusive to a commercially disastrous console and a lost source code ensuring it would never be ported or re-released, and you've got a perfect recipe for a game that's as much myth as anything else.
Panzer Dragoon Saga is the third of the three Panzer Dragoon games on Sega's Saturn console, and it's a departure from the rest of the series in that it's the only game that isn't a rail shooter. Panzer Dragoon Saga - known as Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG in Japan - is, as the Japanese title suggests, a role playing game. You play as Edge, a young mercenary in the employ of the Empire to help guard an Ancient Age excavation site from monster attacks. At this dig site, a most unusual discovery is made - a woman, seemingly in a state of suspended animation of some sort, embedded in the rock wall. When the site is attacked by the Black Fleet, a formerly-Imperial fleet under the command of the traitor Craymen, the mysterious woman is stolen and Edge's friends and comrades massacred. Edge manages to escape with the help of a mysterious dragon and sets off on a quest to hunt down Craymen and avenge his friends' murders. Little does he know that he's been thrust into a struggle in which the fate of the entire human race is at stake.
Panzer Dragoon Saga is one of those once-in-a-generation games that breaks down the barriers of what a genre or game should be and stands as a true masterpiece of the craft of game design. While it was not the first game to do so, the way that Panzer Dragoon Saga blends traditional RPG turn based combat with real time combat is unique and utterly addicting. Team Andromeda did an exemplary job of retaining the series' shooter mechanics while making it fit perfectly with an RPG. In general, the combat is real time, but your character has three action gauges that fill over time depending on your agility stat (you can redistribute your dragon's 400 stat points between Attack, Agility, Defense, and Spirit at will to a max of 200 per stat). When a gauge is full, you can press A to have Edge attack with his gun, stopping time to allow you to pick a target; press B to have your dragon lock on to the nearest targets and unleash a volley of lasers; or press C to open up the menu from which you can choose Edge's gun, the dragon's lasers, an item (restorative, for example), or the list of the dragon's "Berzerk" attacks which use multiple gauges but deal devastating damage. You also have to know your enemies; some enemies are resistant to gun attacks while others are resistant to laser attacks. Some enemies also have weak spots where an attack will deal catastrophic damage. This isn't happening on a stagnant field, however; you must be mindful of your position in relation to the enemy, either in front of, behind, or to either side. You have an indicator that shows you your position in relation to the enemy as well as the danger of your position by a color code; a green area means that the enemy cannot hit you there, a clear area means that you are in range of the enemy's normal attack, and a red area means that you are in range of a powerful enemy attack. Your action gauges do not charge while you are repositioning, and sometimes the only way to exploit an enemy's weak spot is to move into a red zone. Careful timing and strategy are at the heart of Panzer Dragoon Saga's combat, and it's what makes the combat so brilliant and addicting.
It's no secret to those familiar with fifth generation consoles that the Saturn was not a 3D powerhouse, but Team Andromeda pulled off some visuals that I didn't know the Saturn was capable of. While the draw distance leaves a lot to be desired, and there's some slowdown in certain areas, the visuals are fantastic for the era, and easily on par with PlayStation RPGs. This game feels every bit as epic as the legend that's come to surround it with a game world entirely in 3D including the combat, fantastic voice acting (the American release has Japanese voice acting with English subtitles), and some truly great albeit heavily compressed FMV cut scenes. While the series never did match the stellar soundtrack of the original Panzer Dragoon game, Saga does feature some fantastic music that really set the tone for the game and keep the adrenaline high in battle. The game is also replete with secrets including secret dragon evolution types that would be extraordinarily difficult to stumble on accidentally. Unfortunately the game is not compatible with the Saturn cartridges, making this one of the few Saturn games that aren't particularly import friendly even for those who can read Japanese. That's a shame, as well, considering that a Japanese copy of the game is only around 5% the price of an American copy - roughly $30 as opposed to roughly $600.
Panzer Dragoon Saga truly is a special game. A lot of praise gets heaped on Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, and while I've not played the latter, I truly think that Panzer Dragoon Saga takes the title not only of "Greatest Sega Saturn Game" but also "Greatest RPG of the Fifth Console Generation." I firmly stand by that. The characters themselves may not be quite as memorable as those of other RPGs of the era, but the story has a grandiose feeling that makes you feel like you're playing a legend, and that's not even talking about the mythical status of the game itself in terms of value and rarity. Normally, I disparage emulation when used in lieu of legitimate game ownership, but this is one situation where I'm 100% okay with it. Panzer Dragoon Saga is a RIDICULOUSLY rare and expensive game, and while it's definitely the prize jewel of my collection, I'm not going to recommend anyone plop down a month's rent on one 20 year old game. By all means, emulate this - modern Saturn emulators are fairly stable and accurate, at least where this game is concerned - but this is a definite must-play for any 90s RPG enthusiasts. Its greatness really cannot be overstated, and even with the praise with which I'm lavishing it, I'm not even doing it justice. This game is a true masterpiece.
My Rating - 5 Neps
I'm Mr. Deck
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach history at a high school in central North Carolina; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.