Retro-ish Review: Panzer Dragoon Orta

Sorry this one is a little late. Blame David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. What’s to be thanked for this one being here at all, is Sega’s properties when they made their way to Microsoft’s original Xbox. One of my all time favourite games on the system was Sega’s own Panzer Dragoon Orta, a sequel to the Saturn/PC exclusive series, besides yet another Sega Ages release on the PS2. Despite this, I don’t really like it much;

The Panzer Dragoon games are a series of on-rails shooters, where you have a reasonable amount of control to move your dragon across the screen in order to dodge bullets. The trademarks of the series have always been the immensely satisfying homing lasers, where you track your reticule across enemy ships and then unleash a barrage of simultaneous attacks that destroys whatever your maximum lock-on target was at the time. You’re also able to aim in 360 degrees around your dragon, so rather than pulling a Star Fox and braking to let the enemies behind you fly in-front, you can simply turn around and shoot them in the face. A simple pleasure.

In Orta, you get everything that made the game great originally knocked up to a new ridiculous standard. Throughout the series you’ve only ever had a single dragon, a standard bullet attack and the lock-on lasers, with the addition of a berserk attack you’ve charged up through fighting as the BOMB of Panzer Dragoon coming in Zwei. Other than that, the game remained largely the same. Orta straight away fixes the most obvious faults with the older games, kicking the frame-rate up to a blisteringly fast 60fps, and offering up visuals far and above anything seen in an on-rails shooter to this point.

It also decided that only having a singe style of weapon was rubbish, so they allowed you to transform at will between three forms. The first is a kind of base form, sharing similarities with the older Panzer Dragoon games. You have a decent homing laser and a standard shot. You then have the glide form, which is a lot faster and can use its bomb attack to heal itself, but can’t fire any homing lasers. The final one is a power form, which is a lot slower and bulkier than the other forms, but makes up for it with an intense bomb attack and incredibly powerful homing lasers, which only locks onto fewer enemies.

Power form also lacks the ability to change speed, which is another new addition to the game. Base and glide forms are able to speed up and slow down in order to avoid environmental obstacles or to change their positioning while fighting any of the massive bosses this game throws at you. These are again a huge improvement on earlier games, with the first stage boss alone being a massive gunship with an enormous number of different components to destroy before crushing the behemoth entirely.

This is also unfortunately where me and Orta are at odds, because not only are the bosses much larger, they also take what seems like an eternity to destroy. The above video shows a single encounter lasting a full two-minutes, which in shooter terms is a really long time to be fighting a single form of a boss, especially if it’s not really one of the more exciting encounters like the rival dragon fight from later on. The music serves its purpose, but it’s largely forgettable, which is a shame given the incredible soundtrack in Jet Set Radio Future, but the voice work provided in the diegetic Panzer language is appreciated, adding more character and life to the world of Orta without completely knocking you out of the action.

I still don’t really like the entire game though, and for reasons that are incredibly difficult to justify. For one, it’s a tough bloody game to get your head around. You have power ups to level up your dragon forms, and you can either level them up individually or spread it out evenly across them, but even if you just level up the power form you actually miss out on a lot of life bar increases since those happen when you level up any form. The bosses take a long time to kill, but really they also suffer the same problem of any enemy in the game that doesn’t go down in a single attack, which is that there just isn’t much of a reaction to let you know they’re getting hit or hurt.

In Star Fox 64, enemies and bosses very obviously get knocked around by your laser blasts as your working them down, but here until they’ve finally been destroyed they don’t seem to give a rat’s ass. Worse, they don’t react any differently from being hit from either a standard shot or the power form’s homing laser. If they are -that- different in terms of power, a visual repercussion of that would be nice to see. It also seems to be much more complicated than it actually needs to be. It could’ve been a more tightly packed, re-playable experience, with the multiple forms offering different ways to play through the entire game. Instead I think there was a real danger of alienation through abundance, with a lot of players feeling overwhelmed and then getting destroyed before they were able to get a real handle on things.

The worst thing about it, is that I know it’s great. The game is pretty long for a shooter, running in at about two-hours without worrying about restarting stages or getting stuck, spread across ten large levels. There’s also a rather involving scoring mechanic, with ranks given out for high scores rewarding clever application of lock-on attacks for multipliers. You also get access to the Pandora Box on completion, which not only contains the entire original Panzer Dragoon to play through, but also a vast amount of bonus missions and sub-stories told from the perspective of side-characters in the game. There’s an insane amount of content here for you to tuck into.

I just wish I liked it a little more. Every part of me identifies this as the best game in the series, and in fact one of the few essential games not only to own for an Xbox, but to play even if you’ve never owned one in your life. It’s just a number of what I -think- are flaws that stop me from playing it over and over again the way I do a number of other quite obviously worse shooters. It’s a cult classic in any regard, and I’d love to hear what everyone’s thoughts are on it in the comments, as this is one of the games I’ve been conflicted on enjoying or not for six or seven years now.

This Panzer Dragoon is the best on-dragon-on-rails shooter that I don’t like as much as I Orta. B+