1998 was a truly epic year for RPGs. Final Fantasy VII, Tactics Ogre, Parasite Eve and Xenogears redefined our traditional notions of videogame storytelling and characterization on the original Playstation… but for a few faithful Saturn owners, the penultimate year of the millennium was all about something much more special. Released in an extremely limited run on a dying console, Panzer Dragoon Saga let us explore the beautiful and deadly Panzer Dragoon universe and remains one of the finest cult classic RPGs of all time.
And one of the rarest too. Only a few thousand copies ever made their way to Europe, meaning that Panzer Dragoon Saga is now a valuable collector’s item that frequently attracts three-digit prices when sold at auction. Considering that there’s almost no hope of a next-gen remake or downloadable release (since SEGA managed to lose the source code), it’s likely to be expensive and extremely difficult to lay hands on. The diehard, the rich and the lucky, however, will find a hidden gem that fully justifies its near-mystical status… and revere the last remaining physical copies as things of breathtaking beauty.
Put me in the lucky category. Please indulge what is likely to be a gushing and intimate tribute of a forgotten classic.
The Panzer Dragoon universe is a uniquely rich setting in which to hold a videogame: a shattered yet hauntingly beautiful wasteland plagued with biomechanical and genetically-engineered war machines that colonised the world long after their creators perished. The last humans cling to survival in any way they can... but continue to fight over the remants of the ancient technology that once brought the world to its knees. After being betrayed by one such faction and left for dead in an ancient mechanical tomb, the conscienscious mercenary Edge discovered one of the legendary dragons - which was a powerful WMD that required a human pilot to complete its single-minded mission. Unlike its predecessors, which were rail shooters, Panzer Dragoon Saga delivered a complex and lengthy RPG that blended traditional third person adventuring with plenty of in-flight sections.
Throughout the four packed discs, Edge’s journey of discovery, love and vengeance is a truly thought-provoking and impressive tale... but Panzer Dragoon Saga set itself apart from its peers crowd by debuting a unique battle system. Essentially it was a radical mashup of Final Fantasy's ‘active time battle’ mechanic with traditional rail shooting , meaning that you’ll engage airborne opponents with a range of direct attacks, spells and buffs. Since battles take place in free flight, players were also able to choose between charging up attacks and circling around the enemy to target specific weak points. Identifying, maneuvering into range and pouring the hurt onto your foe’s Achilles heel was as important as dodging their counter attack. The enormous flying leviathans and dynamic camerawork evoked the series' cinematic prowess, in fact, it was the best of both worlds.
Most roleplaying games grant players control over a party of unique individuals with complimentary skills that can deal with any given situation. However, Panzer Dragoon Saga had to cope with just one character. To compensate, the dragon can be dynamically 'morphed' into any combination of power, defense, speed or combat magic in real time... and as the dragon’s statistics changed, its body visually altered to reflect your choices. It grew extra bulk and defensive plates when you needed them, or shed them in favour of streamlined, glowing apocalyptic magic. This system provided a deep range of combat tactics that could defeat even the most monstrous beasts and battleships of the wasteland.
Panzer Dragoon Saga also probably features the most heartbreakingly beautiful orchestral soundtrack of any videogame, ever. I actually nearly cried the first time I heard Sona Mi Areru Ec Sancitu... and I defy even the most cynical and jaded of you to not feel uplifted and enriched just by listening to it. The lyrics are derived from a completely fictional language, but I swear it speaks to you. Pretentious, fair cop, but absolutely true nonetheless.
Finally, Saga's art design was absolutely exceptional. Legendary french comic book artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud tacitly provided the inspiration behind the desolate yet sumptuous vistas, creating a world that players wanted - nay, needed - to explore. Despite the Saturn's graphical limitations, it was a true joy to behold... and reminds us once again that imaginative artists make games look better than any advanced engine, shaders or hardware ever can.
My copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga rarely sees the light of day, tucked away in a padded and sealed box for when it's needed. Much like the Dragon itself: a slumbering titan that will eventually rise to dominance and crush all those who stands in its way. If you can beg, steal or borrow it - and find a Saturn to play it on - you'll be in for one of the true forgotten masterpieces of our medium. Here's hoping that Project Draco can recapture some of its majesty.