Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.
The recent release of Rez Infinite rekindled my love for rail shooters. Traditionally, they’ve been some of the hardest games for me to enjoy because of their frantic nature, but when done right, they’re fantastic. Space Harrier is an all-time favorite just for its soundtrack and fast action, even if I’m not going to be winning any world records playing it. The original Panzer Dragoon was a darling of mine during the Saturn’s launch — and yes, I was one of the 20 people in the United States that had one then. I was an only child and loved Sega – -so getting a home console with Virtua Fighter packed in was a savings just because I didn’t have to buy quarters, while Daytona was a solid conversion and scratched my itch for that particular game. Panzer Dragoon was something entirely different, though.
Rail shooters weren’t in vogue and there really hadn’t been any like it at that point. From a pure behind the back perspective, you had games like Space Harrier – but Panzer Dragoon did far more than that. It allowed you to move the camera to either side or behind in order to attack enemies. It looked incredible for its time, made perfect use of the shoulder buttons, and showed how existing genres could benefit from the extra horsepower and 3D nature of having a moveable camera in the game. Its sequel was more of the same, before things shifted to Panzer Dragoon Saga.
The series went on a long sabbatical after that point and wouldn’t see a new game until 2003’s Panzer Dragoon Orta. Skipping the Dreamcast entirely, Sega’s next entry in the series was on the Xbox – a console they offered so many exclusives to that it practically felt like a follow-up to the Dreamcast. Jet Set Radio Future, Sega GT, Shenmue II, Crazy Taxi III, and Panza Dragoon Orta all delivered high quality gaming experiences that you couldn’t get on any other console. In the case of Orta, it gave players a rare treat – a rain shooter and one with stunning graphics. It also used the Xbox controller perfectly and felt like a natural fit for the previously six face button-only series.
The core game was very similar to prior entries, but with a greater emphasis on story. It wasn’t the most compelling story on Earth, but the core idea of You vs. Giant Evil Group came across and the game’s widescreen presentation at times led to it feeling far more cinematic than most games in a 4:3 era. During significant events in the narrative and the game itself, everything shifted to a letterboxed 16:9 view – giving you a different look at the world as the camera shifts around to show you things you can’t normally see even with the 90 degree camera shifts. Marking enemies allows you to take them down with ease, while just outright shooting projectiles remains the best way to survive a tough fight.
Orta’s formula is a bit more boss and mid-boss heavy than the prior entries. Generally speaking, you start a stage off with some context provided by a cinematic. Impressively, these are all in-engine and really show off how impressive the graphics are even today. Things transitions from there into core combat, where you’ll have to look ahead, to each side and then behind you to make sure that you’re killing everyone. If you don’t, you wind up taking far more damage and will lose quite a few lives. Fortunately, Orta’s checkpoint system is fairly kind and won’t set you too far back if you die. It’s a very forgiving game as a whole and includes an easy mode to get newcomers or those who just aren’t good at shooters, into the adventure. You’ll definitely pick up some tricks quickly and series vets will be right at home instantly.
Your reward for completing the game isn’t just the satisfaction of a job well done. You’ll get that and feel like you’ve accomplished something – but you’ll also open up pandora’s box. This mystical item contains the Windows PC port of the original Panzer Dragoon game – giving players two games for the price of one and giving them half of the series in one package. It’s a shame the other games weren’t included too, but that would have required a Saturn emulator to be built and that’s not even perfectly done now let alone over a decade ago. Had they also come to Windows PCs, maybe this would have been a makeshift Panzer Dragoon compilation.
Time has been kind to Orta as while it doesn’t look brand new, it doesn’t look bad either. In terms of textures, the environments are quite detailed better than some of the stuff we were getting later in the life of the Xbox 360 when it came to shooting games with half-assed work. You can tell what everything should be and as you can see above, there are some gorgeous water effects to look at amid the sharp lighting effects for your transformed purple blast shots. Animations for your dragon’s wing flaps are smooth and look realistic while the ever-present action never slows down or skips a beat. Camera transitions from angle to angle could be smoother though, as the existing method is true to the series – but still a bit clunky.
Musically, the rock-heavy soundtrack works in every way it should. Your blood gets pumping thanks to the fast pace, while the depth within the music keeps you coming back to it after the fact. Somber moments use instrumental music that calms you down and lets you soak in the beauty of the world. The Japanese voice acting is fairly good, with large subtitles that make the plot easy to read on either a CRT or HDTV. Blasting enemies feels rewarding with a solid oomph for every kill and the overall sound design is outstanding.
Panzer Dragoon Orta was something of a sleeper hit in its time that deserves more love. It doesn’t go for a ton right now and can be had for about $25 complete on eBay. Since you’re getting two games with it along with a super-thick DVD case and a robust manual, that’s not a shabby deal at all. Plus, it works perfectly on an Xbox 360 with a hard drive inside and looks gorgeous when viewed through HDMI. It’s an outstanding rail shooter and a far better offering than Crimson Dragon — an Xbox One launch title that aimed to fill the void left by Panzer Dragoon’s absence, but something that fell short due to a lack of overall quality. Panzer Dragoon Orta is the final entry in the series so far and a great way for it to go out if we never get another release.