When I think about some of the best sleeper games I’ve played, key titles come to mind; Demon’s Crest for the SNES, Mr. Bones on the Sega Saturn, and the Colony Wars series on the PSX. While I don’t think Panzer Dragoon fits the mold of a hit sleeper game or a dark horse that takes home awards, it has quietly been one of the better Sega games since its inception on the short-lived Saturn.
I was not a fan of the original XBox. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t really confident that Microsoft was lacking a certain field of knowledge involved in gaming to hang with Nintendo and the experience gained by Sony with its surprisingly awesome Playstation (I was expecting that system to tank, honestly). With a few exceptions, its library mimicked the PS2 too closely for my tastes, it had this strange, muddy, visual texture style where in some games, especially the early ones, it looked like the colors had a hot iron pressed over the colors, or they were incredibly glossy. A handful of games helped ease my efforts in purchasing it, and one of those was indeed Panzer Dragoon Orta.
VISUALS & ANIMATION 9/10: Orta’s visuals are very impressive, invoking a neo-futuristic, fantasy setting, a bit like Nausicaa Of Valley of the Wind. While rail shooters leave very little in terms of exploring the world you are in, what you do see is stunning. Rocky bluffs and cliffs filled with lots of flora, most of which will try to kill you, in some stages to navigating and veering amongst a huge armada of flying boogies and gigantic warships in aerial levels, the scene is genuinely breath-taking. No two stages look similar, if you aren’t gliding through the open skies, then you are leading an assault through narrow passageways and careening amidst shifting walls inside a laboratory. The hues in Panzer Dragoon have always been kind of muted or sepia-toned to a degree, which adds to the aesthetic appeal and sets the mood for the atmosphere this series has always conveyed over the years, that of which represents a tale about a long, dark period of oppression from a corrupt empire seeking out those chosen by the Heavens to bring an end to the tyranny. While it’s commonplace for most fantasy games and RPGs today (Drakengaurd and the Dragon Age series), this was rare back in 1996 when most fantasy titles adopted a storybook/anime appeal like Chrono Trigger and Illusion of Gaia.
There is a lot happening on the screen and despite all the chaos, the frame rate is stellar. I don’t remember any slow down in even the most action-packed and cluttered moments. Enemies may be hard to spot at times, but a quick once-over with your cursor reveals their position. I guess one little nitpick I might have is the rapid zooming in and out and twisting that the camera will do, mainly in Episode 6 (left) where it’s just a onlsaught of whipping angles and perspectives. It screws with your timing and until I adjusted to it, I took massive damage. With its fantastic environment, a plethora of enemies, and mega gigantic bosses, Orta is pound for pound one of the best-looking games on the system!
SOUND 8/10: The music is composed by the team responsible for the previous Panzer Dragoon games and Skies Of Arcadia, one of my favorite RPGs of the modern era, and of all time. It’s beautifully orchestrated and at no point ever overbearing or takes over any events during the story or gameplay. In-game effects are crisp, very familiar if you have played these games before. At points the game dips into complete silence where it seems like a musical cue would be appropriate. That’s always felt weird, it’s not the only Sega game to do that. It happens in Alpha Protocol too.
GAMEPLAY 10/10: The longtime Panzer Dragoon formula has always been solid, and it only gets better. Locking on to enemies, even faster moving targets, is remarkably easy and the cursor speed is no slouch. The berserk mode, once again comes in great handy, and you will use it often. New to the series is the introduction of several offensive modes that can be leveled up, your standard, all-around fire with no weakness or strengths, a heavy defensive mode that delivers massive damage, but no boosting capabilities, and a rapid-fire glider that’s essential for shooting down oncoming projectiles. Using the trigger buttons to shift your POV at a 45 degree angle is very responsive, as well.
Also new to the series is the way some boss battles are structured. After sustaining a certain amount of damage, you’ll have to speed up or slow down by boosting or downshifting (I couldn’t think of a better term, so if you know what the colloquial term is to slow down a dragon, feel free to let me know.) to attack from a different angle or to evade a killer blow that will cripple your health bar.
These new abilities keep what’s already a very adaptable play style from feeling like a newer version of the same. You know, like Halo. At times it feels like you can vaguely guide the dragon and steer it to avoid obstacles and closing fixtures. If in the future another Dragoon game was made, I would like to see if they incorporate mechanics similar to Starfox 64 wherein you have the free range to battle in an isolated area. That’s future dreaming, however. Orta’s controls give you the feel that you are in complete control at all times.
DIFFICULTY 10/10: I talk repeatedly about very difficult games in my posts, and I try my best to talk about how a game is hard for all the fair and right reasons as opposed to bumping up the A.I. to ridiculous levels, ramping up the cheap kills, shoddy camera controls that stack the odds up against you. I’m still not sure where Orta fits, but this game gets merciless, and quick!
After Episode 3, the game just gets downright brutal without warning! Some enemies take massive amounts of firepower before they go down, while out of nowhere a swarm of lower level monsters will distract you while a giant cannon or some other huge mechanism will charge up a particle beam and destroy you. Your blind spot is your worst enemy in this game, as you try so hard to focus on what’s chipping away at your health in front of you, that foes can appear behind you and pick you apart! Thankfully, checkpoints are aplenty, but my thumb was completely worn out after long intervals. Even the much-abused Berserk Mode’s volley of missiles will only earn a brief respite amidst the chaos. I’m still playing it in hopes of achieving passing grades in all the levels, but holy crap, it’s tearing me apart!
IN CLOSING: Panzer Dragoon Orta is the strongest game in the series to date (I still have to get my hands on the elusive Saga RPG), with its great visuals, excellent control scheme, new and welcome additions to the gameplay, solid story, and some well deserved extras, it’s a strong effort and I hope to see more additions in what I feel is still an underappreciated series of games. The difficulty is insane and might turn away some, but it’s an adrenaline-pumping action game nonetheless.