Sega Ages 2500 Vol. 27: Panzer Dragoon
In the summer of 1995, Sega launched a surprise attack by delivering the Saturn several months ahead of its original release date, alienating vendors and third-party publishers alike, while leaving only a handful of games available at the system's launch. One of which was Sega's own Panzer Dragoon. The first time I touched the game was at a demo kiosk inside of a Toys R Us, but unlike Virtual On, I didn't buy this one. The game disoriented my preteen mind and had received mixed reviews. Eventually, I did spend some time with the game's demo (or was it Zwei?), but I was never really motivated to buy it. That is, until recently.
Panzer Dragoon is an on-rails shooter, a la Star fox or Space Harrier, in which players control the protagonist Keil and a flying dragon, blasting enemies out of the sky. The mission: destroy everything and survive to the next round. A twist on the old formula, Dragoon allows the player to rotate as they attack and defend from every side. Press the fire button once to shoot or hold it down to lock on to several enemies and release homing shots simultaneously.
For the most part, the game plays like a standard shooter. I'm going to put this into the same category as I do light-gun games: they're all pretty similar, so fans of the genre will enjoy it. If you like shooters, this game will deliver. While there's nothing frustrating about the way that the game controls, it doesn't seem to do spectacularly either.
What sets Panzer Dragoon apart from other shooters, though, is its setting and style. The game has a distinctive art direction that is part prehistoric and part mechanical. There are lots of flying creatures, all of which look vaguely dragon or dinosaur-like. Some of the bosses have mechanical and electronic parts to them, creating a pretty bizarre, though unique, style.
The music, though, is something else. At the beginning of the game, the music is really atmospheric and orchestral, almost reminiscent of Shenmue. Other times, it's a bit more arcadish, but not as disposable. Remember the music from Virtua Cop? Of course not. Combine elements of that - the beats, the accents - but add a longer, melancholy chord progression to the whole thing. It's kind of like an arcade game meets a movie, which seems to describe the state of gaming at the time - not yet a cinematic experience, but definitely not just an arcade imitator.
Flying through the world itself would probably be interesting enough, but the music puts it over the top, making it that much more surreal. In the second episode, as the gigantic worms are flying in and out of the desert sand, the music seems otherworldly. It all reminds me of MechWarrior 2, another game which had an outstanding soundtrack. The sound and music really do add much more to the experience and help create the game's atmosphere.
As another selection in the Sega Ages series, Panzer Dragoon finds itself on the PS2 with updated visuals and the addition of the "Pandora's Box" that would appear in its sequels. Available to play from the start is the improved "Arrange Mode" and the "Saturn Mode." Unless you feel really nostalgic seeing the grainy Saturn graphics, stick with the arrange mode. The visuals do look better, but most of the improvements stem from being at a higher resolution. The dragon and some enemies have been remodeled with more polygons, and while the graphics look better overall, the frame rate is identical to the Saturn. Apparently, changing this would've affected the speed of the game.
Inside Pandora's Box are several unlockables (available after finishing the game on normal or hard mode), including unlimited life, different weapons, level select, and both U.S. and Japanese difficulties. Most of the modes were available in the Saturn version via codes, so although it's nice to have easy access to these, they are by no means new. A couple of things have been added for this release, including viewable artwork, original game design documentation, a 100% play through movie, and director commentary. I'm sure the commentary would be interesting (there are comments in the manual as well), but I don't speak a lick of Japanese.
While the extras do add to the replayability of the game, overall, it's pretty short. Since PD flows along a predetermined path, once you've finished it, you'll have seen everything in the game. After playing through the levels, you'll be ranked based on how many enemies were destroyed, but oddly enough, there's no scoring system. Other than feeling the joy of getting 100% completion on all levels, there's not much more reason to keep playing.
All in all, the game is enjoyable, but it definitely wouldn't warrant a purchase if you've already got the Saturn version or Orta on the X-Box. The extra gameplay features are available on the Saturn, and unless you're a huge PD fan, the commentaries and images aren't really worth it. As a shooter, the game is good, but what really makes Panzer Dragoon special, is its ability to transport players to another world.