Panzer Dragoon Saga, known in Japan as Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG, is a 1998 role-playing video game developed by Team Andromeda and published by Sega for the Sega Saturn. It departs from the linear rail shooter gameplay of the Panzer Dragoon series, introducing traditional RPG elements such as random encounters, semi-turn-based battles, and free-roaming exploration. The player controls Edge, a young mercenary who rides a dragon and encounters a mysterious girl from a vanished civilization.
Sega felt an RPG was critical to compete against the PlayStation and Final Fantasy. Development began in early 1995 alongside Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (1996). The project was arduous and repeatedly delayed; incorporating the series’ shooting elements with full 3D computer graphics and voice acting, both unusual features in RPGs at the time, pushed the Saturn to its technical limits and strained team relations. Two staff members died during development, which director Yukio Futatsugi attributed to the stressful working conditions of the video game industry.
Panzer Dragoon Saga is the most acclaimed Saturn game and is often listed as one of the greatest games of all time, earning praise for its story, graphics and combat. It suffered from a limited release in the west as Sega had shifted focus to its Dreamcast console, and worldwide sales were poor. It has not been rereleased and English copies sell for hundreds of US dollars. After its release, Sega disbanded Team Andromeda; several staff members joined Sega’s Smilebit studio and developed the final Panzer Dragoon game, Panzer Dragoon Orta (2002), for Xbox.
Unlike the other Panzer Dragoon games, which are rail shooters, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a role-playing video game (RPG). The player controls Edge, a young mercenary who rides a flying dragon. Gameplay is divided into three modes: traversing large areas on the dragon, battling enemies, and exploring on foot. On foot, Edge can talk to non-player characters (NPCs), upgrade his weapons, buy items such as potions, and use a targeting reticle to interact with locks, doors, and other elements; on the dragon, this reticle is used to fire lasers to activate triggers or break objects. In one sequence, Edge rides a hoverbike instead of the dragon. The player travels through environments including canyons, deserts, forests, and subterranean ruins; these are accessed from the map screen, and new areas are added as the game progresses. Campsites serve as rest areas and save points. The game features full voice acting and numerous FMV cutscenes.
Saga simplifies many RPG conventions. For example, it has few travel sequences and side quests, requires little “maintenance work” such as managing inventories or skill trees, and features only Edge and his dragon rather than a party of playable characters. It can also be completed in less than 20 hours, making it much shorter than most RPGs at the time.
According to the review aggregator GameRankings, Panzer Dragoon Saga is the most acclaimed Saturn game, with an aggregate score of 92%. In 2007, Game Informer wrote that “critically, the game was a smash hit, lauded as one of the year’s best, and generally considered the Saturn’s finest title”.
The battle system received particular praise. Electronic Gaming Monthly wrote that whereas other RPGs had players selecting menu options, Saga‘s positioning system forced them to strategize, producing “much more exciting” battles. GameSpot’s James Mielke described the system as a “revelation” with more strategy and challenge than traditional turn-based systems, and menus that “become more and more intuitive with every counter”. Edge praised the range and design of enemies as “consistently superb”, and Sega Saturn Magazine praised the depth and quantity of boss encounters.
The graphics were also acclaimed. Though Mielke noted occasional slowdown and “rough” textures, he felt the use of techniques such as gouraud shading, transparency and light sourcing created a “graphic level of excellence on a par with anything available on a home console”. He also praised the “fluid easy grace” of the art direction, and the environment design, whose “every exotic location retains a place in your memory”. Computer and Video Games and Sega Saturn Magazine wrote that Team Andromeda had created visual effects that matched other home consoles. Next Generation described “some of the most beautiful locations ever seen in an RPG … it’s almost unbelievable that they could come from Saturn.” Edge praised the extensive FMV cutscenes, whose “cinematic quality … shames the work of almost every other developer” and creates an “RPG of true creative integrity”.
Mielke likened the sound and music to the quality of Hollywood productions. Though it identified the subtitles as a cost-saving measure, Edge felt it was “infinitely preferable to the alternative of B-list actors reciting words they have little feeling for … this dual-language approach keeps Panzer Dragoon Saga‘s strong story lucid and, with only a few exceptions, articulate.”
Several critics considered Saga a worthy rival to Final Fantasy VII and lamented that it would reach a smaller audience. Computer and Video Games wrote that if the game were released on PlayStation it would “fly off the shelves”. Edge wrote: “It’s a tragedy that the Saturn’s standing will ensure Team Andromeda’s adventure, with a radically different approach to FFVII, will enjoy a fraction of its rival’s success.” Mielke concluded: “Saga, in its own way, is so much more than Square’s ultimate RPG. It is a worthy successor to a series that with each installment has grown in stature and scope. It is flawlessly executed, limited only by the hardware (and barely that at all) and medium.”
Criticism focused on the short length. Sega Saturn Magazine felt it was too easy, especially the puzzles, but that achieving “Excellent” ranks in combat was the “real test”. Computer and Video Games noted that like the other Panzer Dragoon games Saga rewarded players for full completion, with “astounding” bonuses.
Many publications praised Panzer Dragoon Saga as one of the best RPGs of the year and one of the best on Saturn. Mielke concluded that the game was “possibly the finest RPG of 1998”, and Game Informer called it “easily” the best Saturn RPG. Electronic Gaming Monthly reviewers unanimously commended it as one of the best RPGs of all time and awarded it the “Editor’s Choice Gold Award”. Sega Saturn Magazine described it as “a monumental effort, a work of art, and quite clearly a labour of love”, and the best Saturn adventure.
GameRankings 92% (7 reviews)
CVG 5/5 stars
EGM 9.5, 9.5, 9.5, 10/10
Game Informer 9/10
Next Generation 4/5 stars
Sega Saturn Magazine 96%