Genre: Action Shooter
Format reviewed: Xbox
Even now, we’re still amazed that Panzer Dragoon Orta, Sega’s fourth (console) game in the series, and so far, the final entry, actually got a release date, let alone released. It’s easy to forget that when Panzer Dragoon Orta was first announced at the Tokyo Games Show in 2001, Sega and the franchise itself were seen as mere shadows of their former selves.
After dropping out of the console war due to the disappointing sales of its Dreamcast, Sega appeared to be backing the wrong console when it revealed that Panzer Dragoon Orta would be an exclusive release for Microsoft’s incoming (and then completely unproven) Xbox, and that it wouldn’t be making an appearance on either Sony’s PlayStation 2 or Nintendo’s GameCube. And let’s not forget that Team Andromeda, the development studio at Sega that had steered the revered franchise through three fantastic Saturn games, had disbanded three years previously.
It appeared that Panzer Dragoon Orta would be dead in the water before work had even begun on it. Fast forward to 2003 (it hit Japan in December 2002) and Sega’s new game was garnering extremely positive reviews, with numerous magazines and websites lavishing heaps of praise on the on-rails shooter. Sega’s famed franchise was back with a bang and those new to the series were beginning to understand why it was held in such high regard. What a pity then that critical acclaim doesn’t always lead to commercial success…
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Panzer Dragoon Orta was that Smilebit decided to not continue the RPG theme that had worked so well for Team Andromeda in the excellent and final Saturn release, Panzer Dragoon Saga. It instead decided to go back to the winning formulae that had worked so well for the first two games in the popular series. Gameplay-wise, Orta was extremely similar to the original Panzer Dragoons, with only a few additional, yet significant touches here and there. The action remained on-rails, you could still rotate around your dragon with a simple click of a button, and the berserk attack and branching routes that had worked so well in Panzer Dragoon II Zwei also returned.
Smilebit introduced a number of interesting elements to the standard gameplay mechanics that not only improved on the core formulae, but also added a surprising amount of strategy – particularly in boss battles – to what is an admittedly fairly basic game. The most interesting was that you could now alter the speed of your dragon – a similar, less tactile system was used in Saga – allowing you to dodge incoming attacks, manoeuvre your way around bosses in order to hit their weak spots or even speed up and ram enemies for damage. It was a great mechanic that added immeasurably to Orta’s gameplay, and let you feel more in control of the in-game proceedings.
Smilebit’s other stroke of genius was to let you change into one of three distinct dragons whenever you wished. While morphing dragons was nothing new to the series, Orta let you switch between three distinct dragon forms on the fly, further adding to the options that were available to you when fighting. Base Wing was your general all-purpose dragon with decent manoeuvrability and firepower; Heavy Wing was a behemoth that was low on manoeuvrability, but packed a mighty punch due to its powerful lasers; while the Glide Wing was incredibly fast and nimble, but lacked the traditional lock-on lasers that the other dragons possessed – it did possess an excellent rapid-fire gun, though.
Dragons could still be levelled-up to stronger forms by collecting ‘Gene Bases’ that enemies would occasionally drop, but the ability to constantly change forms allowed you to deal with pretty much any situation or enemy that Orta threw at you. And Orta was insanely tough – too tough for many – delivering an intense challenge, even on its normal difficulty mode, that put many newcomers off. This challenge was further exacerbated by some rather questionable checkpoints that would often throw you right back to the start of a level.
And yet even Orta’s high difficulty couldn’t hide the fact that it was a wonderful game, offering stunning visuals – which still look impressive today – magnificent design and a stunning soundtrack that continually took the breath away. Add in some interesting bonuses, including the PC version of the original Panzer Dragoon included on disc, and Sega’s faith in Smilebit and, indeed, Microsoft’s Xbox, proved well placed indeed.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Nine years after its original Japanese Xbox release and Panzer Dragoon Orta still feels like a truly special videogame; a game that really deserves all the lavish praise that was heaped upon it. Brilliantly designed and with some truly stunning set-pieces and visuals – witness the amazing fleet you attack on the fourth episode, or the stark beauty of the Eternal Glacies as you race through them – it still has the power to amaze. Yes, it’s a simple game, and yes, it does little to improve on what came before it, but it does it all so well. It’s also arguably one of the best examples of the Sega of old (who simply made games it wanted, regardless of the potential risks involved) and proves that it is possible to subtly improve an existing winning formulae and turn it into something better.