Azel: Panzer Dragoon Saga
Roleplaying Game, Sega Saturn. US/Japan. Accept no substitutes, this is the RPG title for the Sega Saturn. It's like a Squaresoft title without transparency, which makes sense since the Saturn doesn't have transparency in the video hardware. The motion is good, the FMV is decent (As good as cinepak gets, anyway) and the music is great. The story is engrossing, detailed, and in Japanese (almost) with english subtitles. How much better could it get?

This is also probably the most unique RPG I've ever played. Combat is realtime, and extremely well done. My resolve to locate and play the Panzer Dragoon shooter titles was enforced by this title. Incidentally, they're quite good as well.

For those who are not antiquated video game fanatics, there are three Panzer Dragoon titles for the Sega Saturn: Panzer Dragoon, Panzer Dragoon Zwei (or "Two"), and of course, Panzer Dragoon Saga. Saga is a realtime polygonal RPG with nicely rendered (though the motion sucks) cinematic cutscenes, which are then compressed with cinepak in order to make them look like crap, at least that's my estimation. They still look pretty good, but the artifacting is somewhat nasty. The game can be played with digital or analog controller, and makes use of nearly all the buttons in one way or another.

The game starts with you blowing up a big nasty thing with a very odd-looking gun, being betrayed, and befriending a dragon. From there, you go on a number of quests (amazingly enough) and your dragon goes up levels. You collect cash and items, buy stuff, and so on. This is where the similarity between this game and most other RPGs ends. First of all, nearly everything takes place on a vehicle of some sort, either on a dragon, or on at least one other spiffy vehicle that moves basically like a dragon, except along the ground. The dragon can do barrel rolls, and both the dragon and the vehicle can do an about-face. This game can be played entirely without the manual, due to the thoughtfully prepared menu screens, and the simple controls. The menu screens are logical, icon-based affairs, and have a bar at the bottom that tells you the purpose of whatever you currently have selected, and should be very easy to read on just about any display.

You also spend some time on foot. When you do so, you move around basically like you would in FFVII or most other polygonal isometric-view RPGs. However, both on dragonback and on foot you have a unique system for interacting with objects that I wish were in every RPG of this style. Basically, you have a pointer (which is a circle) which changes either to yellow if you're close enough to manipulate something (when on dragonback, if you're close enough to select, you're close enough to manipulate) and blue if you're not. When you then press the appropriate button (A or C, they do the same thing) you end up either doing something with the object if it's yellow, or looking at it if it's blue. Not all objects can be affected, and some just display a different message when you examine them when the circle is yellow.

Enough about the excellent play control, what about the graphics? This game, like nearly every other, suffers from the same thing nearly all saturn games have in common; Screen door "transparency" and "shadows". There's also quite a bit of pop-in in the wide open spaces you fly around, but it's no worse than Mechwarrior 2:Mercenaries is on the PC. Chunks of cliff walls pop in a bit at a time, scenery objects pop in pretty brutally, and it does make it hard to locate things on occasion. The game automaps for you, though, so it's not as bad as it at first sounds. You will especially be awed by the water ripple effects above you in a certain part of Disc 2.

I can't talk much about the plot without basically ruining the game for you. It's not very long; I've been playing about eleven hours and I'm already on disc three. Most reviews indicate an approximate twenty-hour completion time. All four discs are jam packed with information. This is a huge title. However, I will mention that at a certain point, your dragon will undergo a change (This happens throughout the game.) You can tweak your dragon's abilities by popping into the customization screen. You balance your dragon's abilities between four qualities, which are Attack, Defend, Agility, and Spirit. Attack and Defend are obvious; Agility makes your time bars (there are three) charge quicker, and spirit makes it cheaper to toss off "berserk" attacks. You have a certain number of BP (Berserk Points). It's worth noting that if your dragon is balanced, when all three time gauges are full you'll regenerate hit points; If your dragon is primarily spiritual you'll regenerate BP, and so on.

In combat, you can move to one of the four quadrants. Generally speaking, they are in front of, behind, and to the left or right of your enemy or enemies, but some enemies will rotate themselves or part of themselves around. In addition, when there are multiple enemies, in some cases they will face in different directions. This is highly significant because where you are in relation to your enemies has a huge effect on how much damage they can deal out to you, and how much you can deal out to them. Successful combat depends on your motion as well as choosing your attacks carefully.

Your character (Edge) carries a gun you pick up as a plot point early on in the game. This gun can be upgraded in various ways in order to increase the damage you do overall, to attack multiple enemies at once, or to do more damage to weak points. The dragon has a laser attack which always attacks multiple enemies, like it or not. Some enemies are impervious to one attack or another, some take more damage from one attack or another, and some will do damage to you when you attack them with the laser.

Succeeding at combat in this game is largely a matter of learning what to shoot and what not to shoot, quickly. There's also a good amount of common sense involved. For example, you can target the missiles on a missile cruiser. While it's not necessary, it's certainly a decent way to make sure it's not going to be shooting you. Luckily, you don't always have to figure this stuff out, and on occasion you will be told what to do in no uncertain terms.

My only complaint about this game is that you can't leave your Game Shark plugged in when you start it. I'm sure there's a game shark master code that will let you leave it connected, but it's kind of a drag because since I don't have a ram cart for direct saves (just the backup memory in the Game Shark) the way I handle the small size of the internal memory normally is that I leave the game shark in all the time, fire up the saturn with the game in it, and run the memory manager. I bobble memory, then start the game, usually without any "enhancements".

However, if you begin PD Saga with the Game Shark in the system, it complains and asks you to take it out. That really is just a minor annoyance, however, which in no way mitigates the coolness of this title. If you have a Saturn, and you like RPGs, this is definitely a title you need to be picking up. It's a lot like a square RPG with prettier menus and a more interesting combat system.

Incidentally, not like anyone cares, but this title uses "Cybersound" enhancement, which is a lot like Qsound, and works on the same principles. The reason I mention it is that if you have a stereo that has an option for games (As in, to set the audio type to turn off all processing) you want to use it with this title. I have a Sony Receiver with Dolby Digital and Pro-Logic and whatnot, and if I leave it in "Normal Surround" mode (IE, Dolby Pro-Logic) then since there's no pro-logic signal, the audio gets flattened out considerably.

In 1998, as a grand finale, Sega released four titles for its doomed system, the Sega Saturn, in a very limited (5,000 copies of each) run. Due to the fact that there were more than enough devoted Sega Saturn fans to buy up all the copies at the time of release this game is EXTREMELY rare and very difficult to locate. currently has it listed at 200 to 400 dollars US. The other three titles released in this dying breath were Burning Rangers, House of the Dead, and Shining Force III (although it should be noted that 2 other Shining Force games followed that title's Japanese release for those seeking imports). Due to the large cult following of the Panzer Dragoon series, and probably also due to the continued release of titles in the series for the XBox (Panzer Dragoon Orta), Panzer Dragoon Saga is still the most valuable out of the final four releases for this dead system.

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