animefringe february 2003 / reviews

Panzer Dragoon Orta
Format: Xbox
Production: Sega / SmileBit
Comments: SmileBit is now officially my favorite developer of all time. Never before has a sequel so completely lived up to my expectations.
Animefringe Reviews:
Panzer Dragoon Orta

Back in the Genesis vs. SNES days, I was a diehard Nintendo fan. For a long time, you couldn't pay me to touch a Sega game, even though secretly I thought Sonic looked pretty cool and eventually I grew to love the fighting masterpiece, Eternal Champions. When my best friend picked up a Saturn on the day of its release, I thought he was silly to say the least. After all, I was still happy with my SNES, and if I was looking at anything in the future it was towards Nintendo's then-called Ultra 64 and the new Final Fantasy game destined for the 64-bit monster.

At the time, I had no idea which company was going to disappoint me and which was going to win my heart for the rest of my gaming life.

The only game my friend could afford (aside from the pack-in Virtua Fighter game) was the first installment of the Panzer Dragoon series, and ever since I heard the title's incredible opening theme, I've been hooked on the world created by Team Andromeda. Despite the grainy 32-bit 3D graphics in all their low-resolution, bitmapped, popup plagued glory, Sega's development crew had built a world that transcended visuals. A large part of the game's brilliance was its superlative musical score and the incredible conceptual artwork contributed by the famous artist, Moebius. Somehow, the end result was a game that was more than the sum of its parts, and the two sequels that followed are two of the most beloved games of all time. As far as I'm concerned, the Saturn was a completely worthy gaming system if only for the fact that it allowed me to experience the wonder that is Panzer Dragoon Saga, but that's another story. Right now, we're here to talk about the newest title in the Panzer Dragoon series, Orta.

For a number of reasons, this game should have been impossible to make. After all, Team Andromeda fell apart quite some time ago, with many of the original members going their separate ways. Also, as much as those of us who experienced the originals loved them, the Panzer Dragoon series were (for the most part) only available on an unpopular gaming system. Without the incredibly huge fan base of established classics such as the Sonic series, and with most of the series' developers missing in action, I had long given up on hoping for a new addition to the Panzer Dragoon world. Yet, when Sega announced that it was going third party a couple of years ago, that news was only as shocking as the announcement that a new Panzer Dragoon title was in the works for Microsoft's then-unreleased X-Box. Aside from the sequel to Jet Set Radio, the lure of a new Panzer Dragoon game was enough to convince me to buy an X-Box. I didn't get the black beast for Halo, nor for Dead or Alive 3, but for the mere promise of a new game in the series that won my heart back in my high school days.

I can truthfully claim that this game was completely worth the wait. It's not perfect, but it is one of the most entertaining games I've ever played. It could only have been better if it was a role-playing game. Yet, the incredible amount of content and unheard of replay value for a "mere" rail shooter makes this game one of the best ever made.

So, what makes this game so mind-bogglingly wonderful? Well, first of all, there's the graphics. This game features easily some of the most eye-catching visuals ever to grace a television screen. It truly displays the clearly superior computing power of the X-Box, since a game this pretty simply could not be done anywhere else. Every object in the game fits perfectly within the world presented, whether it is a biomechanical monster defending vacant ruins or a mutated plant snapping at you for a midday snack. It will be some time before another developer can create a title that is this beautiful to look at.

The gameplay is rather fun, as well. As I mentioned above, this is a rail shooter. That is, you must follow a pre-set path (with a few branches along the way for variety) destroying or dodging enemy fire that comes at you from every possible angle. You have the ability to turn around 360 degrees in order to shoot foes coming from behind or the sides, and your dragon can also speed up or slow down. During certain battles, you'll actually have the ability to move your dragon to a different side of an enemy in order to gain access to a weak point, and this later becomes a key factor in finishing the game.

To make things even more dynamic, you have a choice of morphing your dragon into one of three types in real time. One form is slower but more powerful than the others, another is swift but lacks the ability to lock onto enemies, and the final one is a well-rounded combination of both. Each dragon type has its own berserk attack that can only be performed after a berserk gauge is filled, and one of the types' attacks actually refills your health a little bit.

There's far more strategy here than simply cruising around and blowing stuff up and you won't become bored too easily as the game progresses. There are three difficulty levels to choose from, and the game can be admittedly hard at times. One newer feature that I can't live without is the ability to redo a level starting with the boss if you died trying to defeat the beast. Starting over at a boss battle - even with the same meager amount of health you had - is far more enjoyable than having to replay each stage completely just to die swiftly at the end. Still, with mastery of the game mechanics and a good plan for fighting each foe, the game is far more beatable than SmileBit's earlier title, Gun Valkyrie. Thinking of the pain I went through finishing that game makes my hands hurt to this day.

The music is completely appropriate, though I'm still not sure anything can match the perfect score of the first game (which was recorded onto the CD as redbook audio, rather than real-time music). Everything is in Dolby Digital Surround Sound, so you'll be ducking and covering whenever an enemy swoops down behind you. The sound effects are top notch and the voice acting represents some of the most inventive ideas of all time. Rather than have the in-game dialogue recorded in Japanese or English, the creators of the first game decided to come up with a unique hybrid language that sounds familiar at times, but cannot be found anywhere on Earth. That language is still used in Orta, and it helps immerse gamers into the story more than any other aural factor provided.

Thus, we arrive at the single most compelling aspect of this series -- the story. Presented here is a lovingly crafted fantasy world that easily rivals anything I've ever seen or read. This is a possible future of our own world, a desolate place filled with the deadly remnants of an advanced society and small bands of human survivors. It reminds me quite a bit of Miyazaki's Nausicaa, and yet it remains completely unique. The world of Panzer Dragoon is at once alien and somehow familiar, and though it's set in a far-off time it still strikes me as believable. If this game were a book, I'd read it. If it were a film, I'd watch it. A breakfast cereal? I'd eat it. The challenging stages are easy to work through if you know you're going to earn another bit of the amazing story presented here.

Essentially, you are Orta, a young girl who has spent her entire life in chains. Feared as a harbinger of destruction, she has never been allowed out of her heavily guarded tower, and thus she's never known freedom. That is, until a group of genetically engineered creatures modeled closely after the dragons of legend are sent to assassinate her. Just as they smash their way into her cell, ready to incinerate her utterly, she is saved by a dragon. Since she sees no other possible hope for herself, she mounts the dragon and begins her flight into destiny. I don't want to ruin anything, so you'll just have to trust me when I say the story is top-notch.

Now, if that's all there was to this title, then it would still be a great game. What makes this release truly shine, however, is the incredible amount of additional information, gameplay, and other bonus features SmileBit has thrown into the package in a menu called Pandora's Box. Fans of the originals may recognize the title. There are pages and pages of text detailing the story of Orta along with how it connects to the other three games. There are tons of movies that become unlocked as certain points are passed in the game. Subquests featuring other characters also become available as you progress and some of them can take hours to complete.

Most impressive of all, however, is the fact that the entire first game (Panzer Dragoon) is included as an unlockable bonus feature. It's a port of the PC version of the game, and thus it isn't as smooth as the Saturn incarnation but runs at a much higher resolution. Just knowing SmileBit cared enough to include it makes me a happy gamer, for they could be completely justified in releasing it on its own as a separate remake title. So, even after you've completed the game and tested out each of the multiple paths you can take, there remains hours and hours of content in Pandora's Box for you to obsess over.

This is one of the most lovingly crafted and technically impressive games I've ever played. It blends incredible graphics, sounds, and controls with a story that would do well on its own in any other form. The replay value is abnormally high for a shooter, though in the end, it still leaves players wanting more. Yet, this is not due to a flaw in the game's design so much as the fact that there is no way anyone could ever provide enough gaming goodness of this caliber. In the end, I suppose Pandora's Box was an accurate name for the collection of extras included here. For, much like the myth, after you've gone through everything in Pandora's Box, the only thing left for you to hold on to is hope.

Hope that another sequel will be produced, and that once again you can take to the skies on the back of an armored blue dragon.