Back in the days when the argument of whether games should be 2D or 3D was in full swing, I was staunchly in the 2D camp. I loved the anime-styled cut scenes in Phantasy Star IV and the Lunar series and I didn't want that to go away for a polygonal representation of a character. I also was of the opinion that games shouldn't be made 3D until they could get the 3D nailed down, because many of the first few 3D games looked horrendous. I was certain 3D would eventually look good, but the time wasn't ripe yet and until then I wanted my 2D.
Panzer Dragoon Saga was the game that convinced that CG could be done well and done beautifully. To this day, the Panzer Dragoon Saga opening movie can send chills down my spine. I first played this game back in 1998 and so into the game did I get that I often did not recognize that I had transitioned from a cut scene with in-game polygons to the full blown CG movie until the movie was well under way. That might seem ridiculous considering how much better the graphics got within the movie, but the story was so good that the graphics no longer mattered. When I went back to play this game again recently, almost six years later, I wasn't sure if I would be able to take the graphics. I went through the two tutorials to refresh my memory on how to play and found the in-game graphics to be horribly dated, worse than I remembered. But after I started playing the game and went through a my first few fights on dragonback all my worries evaporated. Once again, the world of Panzer Dragoon had nabbed me and it didn't matter what the graphics looked like because this is one damn good game.
Though to be fair, I should mention the graphics are no worse than anything else of the time period and the quality of the CG cut scenes easily beat the pants off Final Fantasy VII's, which had only come out the year before. Considering Team Andromeda was a small development group and probably had considerably less resources than Square, I think that was an amazing feat on their part. Team Andromeda was also smart on what they chose to animate. The Panzer world is uniquely suited for CG because it's largely wasteland and a healthy majority of the monsters are shelled creatures whose hides can more easily be rendered with a degree of realism than those with feathers or fur. Other than humans, mammals appear to be nonexistent in the Panzer world.
The quirky thing about having played so many 3D games by now is that I've started to notice things that I wouldn't have otherwise. For instance, quite a few 3D games will use more than one model of the same character depending on the needs of the situation. Final Fantasy X had no less than three. Panzer Dragoon Saga seems to have as many as four, possibly even five. The difference between PDS and something like FFX is that the pregenerated movies are the ones use more than one model instead of the real time scenes. That means there is a noticeable difference in the quality of the characters between different cut scenes. I'm not sure why or how this happened, because it would seem to me that once the models were made it shouldn't have mattered which scene they were placed in. The worst transgression in this matter is in one of the final scenes in the game where Edge and Azel part ways just before the final battle. It's a moving scene and Azel is completely animated. However Edge is slightly blockier and it becomes painfully obvious that there's just a regular texture skin on his character because though he moves and gestures, his mouth never moves. Oddly enough, he seems to be in his higher polygonal model earlier in this same cut scene, but it's only when he's fully on camera and an active participant that he looks really bad. Other than in this scene the quality change isn't as noticeable, but this case was a gross mistake that shouldn't have happened.
Panzer Dragoon Saga differs from most RPGs beyond just its setting in a post-apocolyptic world. It's utterly a work of science fiction for one. Some games make significant stabs at being science fiction, but combat still boils down to human characters casting spells (only by a different name) in order to produce the requisite fireworks for an exciting battle. Edge, the protagonist of this game, never does that. There's nothing supernatural or psychic about him. He's quite an ordinary human being, caught up in events he never imagined would come his way. The only thing remotely supernatural is perhaps the dragon he rides. Owing to the rail shooter heritage laid down by its predecessors in the series, there are two primary ways to attack in combat; with Edge's gun and with the dragon's breath weapon, which, unlike most dragons, is a barrage of homing lasers. The dragon does have what are called berzerk techniques which do a variety of effects which would be magic in any other game, however owing to the nature of how technology works in Panzer Dragoon I find this much more acceptable. The dragon is essentially a highly developed biological machine, so it if runs around doing apocolyptic bursts of fire it's more realistic than an ordinary human from some podunk village doing the same. Also, the dragon's berserk techniques rarely do anything completely out of the realm of realism. Fiery explosions may very well be the result of a biological weapon's special attack (especially one already known to shoot lasers from its mouth), but the dragon doesn't do random things like summon a snow storm in the middle of a desert.
Edge is perhaps unusual among RPG protagonists in that he doesn't actually fight on his own. He has no HP, only the dragon does. All player-controlled combat takes place on dragonback with any non-aerial conflicts between Edge and others taking place during cut scenes. I found that a little unsettling my first time through the game (there's one point where Edge is caught spying on Imperial operations and he has to flee for his life because he's doesn't have his dragon with him), but the second time I took it in stride. It's a bit unusual maneuvering as Edge on foot since the interface works much like control of the dragon. The same button that makes the dragon fly forward is the button that accelerates Edge from a walk to a run. Also, while in town Edge can "lock on" to objects near and far away to look at them. With people, locking on to them from far away can result in overhearing private conversations, whereas locking on to them while nearby will result in them talking directly to Edge. It's an odd twist to the usual walk up to an object an examine it. One thing I like about it though is that locking on to a door from far away spares me the trouble of having to walk all the way over there. I can just lock on, choose Enter, and I'm inside the building.
Also unusual about Panzer Dragoon is that the game is very economical about the way it presents itself. Though it spans a then unprecedented four CDs, the game itself is about twenty hours long, less if you know what you're doing. Most of that CD space can be attributed to the numerous cut scenes and spoken dialogue. All dialogue is spoken, even the townspeople, which was extremely unusual considering the Saturn is the same generation machine as the Playstation. Panzer Dragoon Saga felt incredibly balanced. The cut scenes were never so long and tedious as to overwhelm the player, yet they were often enough to move the story along. And the game itself, while short, is not short because of lack of a story. Rather, it is short because it does not waste time on non-essential game time.
In most RPGs, a good deal of time is wasted simply walking from one town to the next, walking from one town to a dungeon, or the dreaded "fetch" quest where a player must make a special side trip to in order to move forward in the game. Gobs more can be sucked away on side quests for extra items, special weapons, racing chocobos, etc, all of which generally force the player to stop playing the main storyline in order to accomplish something. The few side quests available to Edge tend to be minor in nature and because there is no save-the-world-or-it'll-implode deadline he has to adhere to, it's not entirely out of the question for him to want to discover all twelve D-Units before heading for Sestren. Most players will probably find most of the D-Units anyway before reaching the end of the game. I found eleven of them my first time through without making any special effort. The D-Unit and the Dragon Crest side quests are really the only quests that give an undeniably good reward since they upgrade Edge's dragon. The other side quests are very minor and actually close off well before the final battle so the player can't get distracted by them. The result is a very streamlined RPG with a small, well developed cast (so small that all but two or three townspeople have names) and none of the fat that slows the game down. There are only three "towns" in Panzer Dragoon Saga that you visit with no more than two accessible at any one time, but that's really all you need. And because you're constantly coming back to them, the characters change, moving around depending on the time of day and where you are in the story. Each citizen is an individual person, rather a generic NPC sprite that is duplicated in triplicate everywhere you go.
Listening to the dialogue again in this game was more enlightening than the first time around. For one thing, I actually can understand some Japanese this time. Panzer Dragoon Saga makes use of two languages, the made up one for the Panzer world, and Japanese. The game starts out in Panzerese (for lack of a better name for it), but after an early plot event it switches to Japanese. After another plot event at the end of the game it switches back to Panzerese. No doubt part of the reason for that was due to the fact it would be difficult to get a set of actors to convincing express their sentiments in a made up language. While that was fine for the previous Panzer games as well as the followup Panzer Dragoon Orta, being rail shooters they did not need gobs of dialogue, Saga needed something less unwieldy. In turn, no doubt because of cost concerns, the US subsidiary of Sega decided not to dub Saga. Voice acting in RPGs previously released in the US were limited to cut scenes, and with every single townsperson having a speaking part, dubbing Panzer Dragoon Saga would've been a nightmare. Not to mention that the US actors would also need coaching in Panzerese in order to play their same characters in the beginning and endings scenes. The result was probably the first subtitled RPG in the US. You hardly can get more purist than that.
Except that the US script editor didn't know Japanese and made a few edits. Some of it was relatively minor. At the end of the game, Azel says to herself "Honestly, I don't want to be alone anymore. I love you." as Edge leaves for the final battle. She doesn't actually say "I love you" in the Japanese, she says "Only I..." and doesn't finish the sentence, but it's a minor point (though I know some people might feel otherwise) because it's very rare that Japanese-speaking characters will outright say "I love you" at all. Alex became a Dragonmaster, defeated Ghaleon, and saved Luna in Lunar: The Silver Star and he never said he loved her either, but the fact he did was obvious. So, that was a moot point to me.
While I can't understand everything the Japanese is saying, sometimes I can catch enough to know that the translation is wrong. When Craymen says "Step on to the light" to Edge I know he's really saying "This way" and I can live with that because it doesn't change the plot much. But I was a bit saddened that when Edge asks Azel "What will happen to you?" she replies in the English version "I am... the only one... that can destroy the Tower," essentially evading his question. In the Japanese she's more honest, saying "I don't know, but I'll be fine." It's still a decent translation in that the English flows well with no glaring grammatical or spelling errors, but I have to wonder about the translation for the parts I can't understand. It's not something I'd even worry about in most RPGs where checking the Japanese means buying the import, but since the Japanese is readily available in this game it opens itself to greater scrutiny.
The point where the game transitions from Panzerese to Japanese occurs shortly after Edge takes a shot to the chest and falls down an unspeakably deep cavern; a fall he should not survive. At this point the player goes to a screen, is addressed as the one who controls Edge, and is prompted to enter a name. Amusingly enough, the game asks if this is the player's real name and if answered in the negative, gives you the opportunity to go back and fix it. The interesting thing is that it asks for the player's name, not Edge's. Edge is still Edge throughout the game, he can't be renamed, and this small detail is easily forgotten while the game goes on its story about how the dragon must destroy the Towers and that the Seekers believe that the dragon is the Divine Visitor of lore. Certainly many people think of the Ancients as gods and dragons as messengers of the Gods, so this assumption is not unreasonable. However, after destroying Sestren, the dragon speaks for the first time and reveals that he is not the Divine Visitor. It's not Edge either. It's the one from outside their world who has been guiding Edge. In short, it's the player. The dragon addresses the player using that name given at the beginning of the game (in the spoken dialogue he addresses the player as "you" instead of actually saying the name that will appear in the subtitles) and asks the player to press the button to shut down the system. Then the screen goes black and the game sits and waits until the player actually does press a button on the controller.
After this point and the dragon and Edge depart, and the rest of the ending cut scenes revert back to Panzerese. Basically, the language changes when the player merges with Edge, presumably because now that the player is in the world he/she can now understand what everyone is saying without translation. Similarly, once the Divine Visitor has parted from Edge at the end of the game, the language changes back. Some of this is lost on players unfamiliar with Japanese (I know one person who didn't even realize a language switch had occurred the first time he played), but that must have been the original intent of the Japanese release.
As for the player turning out to be the Divine Vistor itself, I have mixed feelings about that. It sounds very silly to me to be asked to press a button to shut down the dragon because it acknowledges that not only is the Divine Visitor the player from outside the Panzer, but it means literally the player sitting on the other side of the TV screen with a controller in hand, not a supernatural entity that is representative of the player. After the dragon says goodbye the screen even blips off like someone had turned off a TV. Games have made joking references to being just a game in the past, but this is usually done in town with some smartmouth townsperson commenting on their existence being nothing but pixels of light (or some such), but Saga takes this very seriously. The dragon's sole purpose was to lead the Divine Visitor here to take down Sestran. Arguably that's true. The game only exists so the player will play it. It serves no other function. But still... rather than being drawn further into the Panzer Dragoon world, it had the reverse effect of shoving me out of it because it reminded me that this is just a game and I'm the player. Pressing the button is no divine ability. The Divine Visitor could be and will be any person who ever plays this game.
Aside from being able to fly dragonback in this game (a definite highlight for me and what keyed me into the Panzer Dragoon series in the first place), the characters of Edge and Azel are two of my all time favorites. Though Edge is only a teenager (I think his age is given as fifteen somewhere) he's far from a happy-go-lucky kid off on an adventure. On the other hand, he's not an angst-ridden jerk either. He's simply a kid who has had to grow up into adulthood faster than we would in our world because his world is a much harsher place and that's the way it is. At times the player is reminded of that in dialogue from townspeople. It's implied that Edge is at the age where he should start considering marriage, so while he may still be a boy in the eyes of some, he is most respects a full-fledged adult. Even by the standards of most RPG teen heroes, the topic of finding a wife rarely comes up. Girlfriend, yes. Wife, no. And settling down with a family? Forget it.
It's because of Edge's combination of naivete from his age and maturity from his experiences, that I can believe this teenager is capable of staring death in the face and coming out ahead. There is so much he doesn't know, but he can handle himself and adapt to the situation because he has to. I also like him because while it's obvious he cares for Azel, he's doesn't have an overwhelming case of puppy-love and he doesn't beat himself up over it.
Azel unfortunately has the risk of being compared to just about any artificial heroine ever created in that she is a drone from the Ancient Age, only recently awakened in the present time. As such, she supposedly has no emotions, but discovers them over the course of the game. For me, this sounded particularly close to Lucia of Lunar: Eternal Blue. It bothered me, but in the end I like Azel a lot better, because unlike Lucia, Azel accepts her feelings. Lucia runs off to the Blue Star to seal herself up in at the end of the game. Hiro has to come and get her. In Panzer Dragoon Saga, Edge leaves to fight in the final battle and Azel stays behind to close the gate so Sestren cannot escape. Staying behind means blowing up the Tower while she's in it, which would probably kill Azel. Edge tells her to please wait for him, he promises he'll come back so please wait for him. In the end, we see Azel survives. Personally I believe she lived because of Edge. She had lost everything she cared about except for him, so he was her only reason to continue. Unfortunately, Edge never returns from Sestren. He had two appointments to keep, one with Azel, and one with the Seeker named Gash, and he met neither. Among the Seekers there is no excuse for being late. If a person is not on time, they are presumed dead. Gash waits long past the meeting time, perhaps a show of how much he had been hoping for Edge, but Edge never arrives. And so we must presume that he dies or otherwise is unable to return from Sestren.
The ending sequence of Azel setting off in search of Edge is perhaps one of the most tragic scenes at the end of a game I've seen. When I first saw it I was like "Dammit, Edge! You were supposed to come back for her!" He promised he would come back, but he didn't. And it's really not his fault, but still... watching Azel head out into the desert alone, knowing that she'll search and never find him is saddening. Azel learns to become human, but without Edge, could she really find a place for herself?