Panzer Dragoon Remake ★★ | Review
Back in the halcyon days of the Saturn, Sega attempted to bridge the demands of their console with the design principles of their flagship arcade titles. One of the results of this experimentation was Panzer Dragoon, a shooter set in a fantasy world in which we ride on the back of a powerful dragon. Now remade, it’s as fun as it must have been back in 1995, but also as lacking in substance.
Panzer Dragoon was a rail shooter. While we had enough control over our dragon to aim and dodge, we did not control its path. Rather, like light-gun games or Afterburner, enemies crossed our way in a predefined manner and we would shoot them down, either with our gun or the dragon’s powerful laser. Scene by scene, bit by bit, Panzer Dragoon Remake remains identical to the original, except in the more technologically advanced visuals.
To aim down enemies we target them with a cursor. In the console versions this is done with either the buttons or the analog stick, though the PC version allows for mouse control. Most importantly, this also causes our dragon to follow it slightly, allowing us to either dodge or shoot down enemy projectiles. This is a valuable skill that becomes more and more valuable as time goes on.
However, enemies don’t just attack from the front. They also can come from either side, or behind. With the press of a button, we turn around 90 degrees to face them. However, this also leaves us vulnerable to attacks from the other side. Facing the right enemy at all times is a huge part of the game, particularly as they like to hide in the corners of our vision, where they are harder to hit.
Lastly, we can lock-in targets by pressing the secondary shoot button. This causes our dragon to shoot from his maw, dealing large amounts of damage. However, having to lock targets first takes longer to use than the rider’s pistol. Moreover, they can’t shoot down incoming projectiles. Effectively using the two is a large part of the Panzer Dragoon. It gives it a more varied pace, and more play opportunities that straight shooting would.
These are simple, but elegant mechanics. Despite how awkward turning around may seem, it works well and there seems to be a clear purpose to it. A radar on the top right of the screen provides us fair warning of where enemies lie. While the action may get frantic later in the game, the controls never become a barrier, but flow to allow us full access to the shooting experience.
Panzer Dragoon Remake starts out weak. In the beginning, enemies aren’t overly abundant and their attacks lack the intensity of other rail shooters. Our actions don’t become decisive until the fourth stage. Here’s where the difficulty starts to ramp up and where prioritizing targets becomes paramount. Yet, this is the halfway point of the game, leaving about 30 minutes of precious gameplay out of the whole package.
Even then, patterns remain simple. Enemies are not as plentiful as in other Sega titles and the intensity has been dialed down compared to Space Harrier and the aforementioned Afterburner. Later games by the same developer, like The House of the Dead will see tougher, more varied bosses that demand more precise aiming and strategies. In comparison, Panzer Dragoon comes across as lacking.
This is not to say it’s boring. Rushing through a burning city while enemies swarm from several directions remains a rousing experience. Levels, while occasionally plain, always keep a flair for the cinematic. Our dragon turns against cliffs at the very last moment and skyships crash down to the ground after taking lethal damage.
But great controls and some beautiful moments still don’t add to much. Panzer Dragon can be cleared in less than two hours, and perhaps even on your first try. This is not one of those arcade games that take from 20 to 30 hours of practice to beat. It’s a one-shot experience, even in hard mode, and there’s little reason to go back to it once you’ve played it through once and a half times.
The remake truly missed an opportunity to add a more nuance. Replaying the first two levels adds little, yet it’s to be expected at least once. A scoring system or more thoroughly developed difficulty levels could have pushed Panzer Dragoon over the edge. All the groundwork is present for it. But, as it stands, it’s over too swiftly to leave a lasting impression on us.
What is most fondly remembered of Panzer Dragoon, though, is the art direction. Heavily inspired by Nausicaä from the Valley of the Wind and the works of French author Moebius, it presented a colorful fantasy world with floating stones, sunken ruins and bioengineered dragons. Characters spoke in a tongue invented exclusively for the game and our flying companion took us from the sea to lush valleys and deserts.
The improved graphics of the remake do help. While the original Panzer Dragoon may have looked decent back in 1995, time hasn’t been kind to it. The low draw distance, muddy textures and struggling frame rate had placed it beyond what most players would consider tolerable. The original style gave itself well to the necessities of an interactive medium and the improved technology, while hardly groundbreaking, brings its details in force.
What has aged beautifully is the music. At every stage, I was taken back by the quality of the soundtrack. Composed by Yoshitaka Azuma, its beautiful use of flutes and violins combine with electronic sounds and techno-inspired beats in the later stages. The remake also lets us choose between her original work and a different, but not too bad arrangement by Saori Kobayashi, the composer of Panzer Dragoon Saga. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the sound effects. They are all watered down and don’t match the quality of the Saturn originals.
Is Panzer Dragoon Remake worth playing? I certainly enjoyed my time with it. And yet, it’s so unsubstantial that it may not be worth the effort to chase it down. With so many great games to try and explore, it may not.
My suggestion is as follows. If it caught your eye, if you are looking for something different or to complete a game without too large of an investment, then you won’t go wrong with Panzer Dragoon Remake. But if you are looking for the next hidden gem or the masterpieces of the Sega Saturn library, this isn’t it. Either way, wait until it’s for sale. I bought my copy for a little below two euros and it felt just about right. Don’t pay thirty euros, you might regret it.
|PANZER DRAGOON REMAKE (2020)
|ORIGINAL 1995 DESIGN
|ORIGINAL 1995 DEVELOPMENT
|SOUND & MUSIC