When defining the term “Japanese Role Playing Game” or JRPG for short, a number of different conventions are usually associated with this. There’s the “Classic JRPG” sub-genre, referring to games in the SNES/NES era such as Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest I-VI/ Final Fantasy I-VI, the original Phantasy Star games etc. that were known for their unique turn based battle systems, simple stories told in a complex way and a sense of charm and character that many people have expressed as being lost in modern JRPGs (it’s this reason why the Ys series is such a cult hit in this day and age). About a decade later came the sixth generation of gaming where the PS2/GameCube/Dreamcast were able to take designers ambitions and translate them into some truly fantastic JRPG’s such as Persona 3/4, Skies of Arcadia, Shadow Hearts, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (stay tuned…) and so on. While people may decry the direction that most Japanese games are going in (Including Xenoblade Chronicles: A game so notoriously bad it was never released in America!), the era most fondly remembered by many people was the transition to the PS1 era.
While the N64 had little to no RPGs at all (unless you were an avid fan of Quest 64), the PS1 was the console of choice for RPG fans as gamers had their choice from such classics as Valkyrie Profile, Vagrant Story and Suikoden 2. Also, while some of the games weren’t exactly great (Beyond the Beyond anyone?) The sheer quantity made it eclipse its competitors… Including the Sega Saturn. SEGA were desperate to find a game that could flagship the Saturn the same way Final Fantasy 7 did for the Playstation. It was originally intended to be Grandia but Game Arts ported the game to the PS1 a couple of years later (doesn’t help that the Saturn version never got released in English) and while the Saturn was (and still is) the no 1 console for tactical RPGs (Emphasised by the trifecta of Sakura Wars, Shining Force 3 and Dragon Force) they either weren’t released in English, only partially released in English or were released with so little fanfare that even today very few people have heard of them.
It’s a shame really that as the Saturn was on its deathbed, Team Andromeda released Panzer Dragoon Saga. Not just the best RPG on the system but quite possibly one of the best RPGs of all time.
Team Andromeda already had a good reputation as the company behind the original Panzer Dragoon and it’s sequel Panzer Dragoon Zwei. Both games were rail shooters that had a more cinematic approach to their predecessors such as Space Harrier that emphasized the combination of environments and sound to differentiate it from similar shooters. This same logic was applied to Panzer Dragoon Saga. Ever since their inception and especially in recent times, Squaresoft have been trying to give their games a cinematic feel that make the games more like an interactive experience than an actual video game. Panzer Dragoon Saga did this well and improved on it tremendously.
One way this is highlighted is in the humongous sense of scope the game has. You are constantly placed in large, open areas with nothing but you (and maybe your dragon) populating the otherwise empty space. This was a drastic change to the approach other RPG’s were taking at the time such as the abundance of NPCs and the ability to whisk the player over to fantastical new locations to show the player what the company could do with the system. The same truth could be applied to Saga, however while the game didn’t need an amazing plot (although it did have one if you cared), you could just be content flying around on your dragon exploring all the locales the game had to offer.
This cinematic approach is also represented in the battle system which to this day, remains my favourite RPG battle system in a video game ever. The game takes the same Active Time Battle roots that made Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV so popular and expands it so that you have three action bars instead of one and this gives a plethora of options during battle. While almost every RPGs gives you only one form of attack only known as “Attack” or maybe some magic spells if the game was particularly ground breaking, Saga gave you the option of attacking with your dragon’s laser which can target various points on the enemy and your gun where you can hit the weak point of the enemy for massive damage. (there are even spells called Berserk attacks because this RPG was particularly ground breaking). Saga is also one of the few RPGs to make the position of your characters an important element in battle (the only experience I can think of similar to this are the ship battles in Skies of Arcadia). You have four different positions you can move to in battle through gliding and breaking (each consuming one action bar), each position reveals different points on the enemy, some points may be immune to your attacks, other may be a weakness. This means that even grinding in this game (which is never necessary) gives a sense of strategy that makes every battle in the game feel fresh and never stagnate. This level of creative freedom increases even further when your dragon gains axioms where you can control the attack, defence, mobility and magic of the dragon causing the game to be played in many different ways.
The game’s plot starts with a young soldier called Edge, whose current mission involves protecting an excavation of a mysterious fossil. The cave comes under attack from a rebel faction of mutinous imperial troops who steal the fossil (who is revealed to be a mysterious woman named Azel). After the event, you fall deep into the cave where you across the titular dragon for which most of the game’s exploits are based on. As you progress through the game, you and your dragon evolve, Edge mentally through the context of the story and the dragon physically through leveling up and natural growth of the character. This dichotomy causes a bond to be formed to the characters, where one’s existence is complemented by the other shown in both the story and in the gameplay (all of this goes hand in hand with Saori Kobayashi’s phenomenal OST which was later mirrored in Panzer Dragoon Orta).
The other remarkable attribute about Saga is how well the game has aged. This applies to all of the Saturn’s Panzer Dragoon games but Saga moreso than the rest, grainy unskippable FMV sequences aside. The grainy textures provides a thematic richness that helps to highlight all of the interesting and otherworldly landscapes the game provides. This game is my argument for who visual aesthetics are much more important than sheer graphical power. The Panzer Dragoon games were partly inspired by the french comic artist Moebuis (who even helped with the creation of the first game), whose lush landscapes are mirrored in the video games perfectly and are still unlike anything in video games even today, despite being released over a decade ago!
The other major factor to this games legacy, other than its quality, is its price. While the Japanese version of the game is relatively inexpensive, only 24,000 copies of the US/PAL versions were made, and the sheer quality of the game that was spread through word of mouth after the game was released caused the game’s price in the used market to shoot up considerably. Unfortunately a port of the game is not likely as the game’s director Yukio Futatsugi said that the original source code for Saga was lost (there’s a great interview with him on 1UP) . This is a shame as this is a game which deserves again to be discovered my modern audiences. However Saga was not the last outing in the Panzer Dragoon series. The creator of the Saga‘s excellent battle system would later move to Smilebit after Team Andromeda’s disbandment to create Panzer Dragoon Orta, a return to the original two games roots as a rail shooter and one of the best games available on the original Xbox. Futatsugi would move to Microsoft where he’d work on another game for the original Xbox called Phantom Dust and he is now working on a spiritual successor to Panzer Dragoon entitled Project Draco for Kinect. Project Draco will be available on XBLA early next year for anyone interested in the series and Orta is backward compatible for the Xbox 360 and unlike its predecessor, is actually quite cheap.