Stripping the action from the Panzer Dragoon series and replacing it with RPG battles might seem like a step backwards, but the combat in Panzer Dragoon Saga is as exciting as any shoot ‘em up and involving as any RPG. The most amazing part, though, is the dragon-morphing system, which lets you alter its form to favour Attack, Defence, Speed or Spirit. Seeing the dragon cycle between colours and different forms is absolutely stunning even today, and favouring one form makes mastering that attribute’s magic quicker. Being able to change your form mid-battle to pulverise weakspots or fire up a magic shield is a crucial skill and feels fantastically satisfying.
I wanted to start by mentioning the gameplay – so much has been written about its graphics that I thought it was important to focus on the game itself. That’s not to say it doesn’t deserve its praise: the character designs, lighting, architecture and atmosphere are all unmatched in the Saturn’s catalogue, and there are more breathtaking moments in its four discs than many RPGs I’ve played since. The many hours of FMV cutscenes are stunning in their detail, but many of the cutscenes are rendered with the in-game engine, which is years ahead of its time for a game released in 1997.
Panzer Dragoon Saga’s rarity is bordering on legendary among PAL Saturn owners – I paid £80 for mine nearly four years ago, and since then its value has actually increased. I seem to remember reading there’s the equivalent of 20,000 A4 pages of dialogue spread across its four discs, which is one hell of a translation job, and the localisation staff deserve huge praise for making such a daunting prospect so rich and coherent. Aside from the dialogue in-game and over cutscenes, there’s also completely optional elements such as books detailing mining, the evolution of dragons, the history of villages and much more. The Panzer world is one of the most detailed and well-crafted in any media, and to see it spread out in front of you both geographically and historically is a real accomplishment by Team Andromeda and the translators.
The downside, unfortunately, is that it’s actually a very short game – I completed it in around ten hours, which is quite expensive if you calculate value by the hour! As an experience, however, it’s a tremendously rich and coherent world where music, art and gameplay combine to create a true masterpiece that, although over quickly, captures the imagination so completely that you want to explore every inch and savour every moment.