Sunday 29 March 2020

The Panzer Dragoon Remake: Flying Blind Through Familiar Skies

I’ve always been sympathetic to, and even charmed by Sega’s mid-‘90s transitional struggles. For a time, the company was caught perpetually off guard as the industry conventions it had relied on (and indeed, helped define) crumbled amidst a swift generational shift. Sega adapted, more or less. It eventually forged its own creative renaissance that continues to endear the company to many of us today, even if it was ultimately a victim of that sea change.

In my mind, no game exemplified that precarious phase more than the original Panzer Dragoon. As something of a killer app in the Sega Saturn’s early days, the original title stands as a cult classic, particularly by association with its offspring. Fans maintain an enduring fondness for the original Panzer Dragoon, of course, but it remains even better known for kicking off a remarkable and criminally underappreciated gaming franchise.

For its part, the original Panzer Dragoon was a timid first step in a bold new direction. It navigated a generational chasm between a familiar arcade-action framework and the unbound possibilities of 3D gaming. Between them, Panzer Dragoon took a contorted middle path. It utilized the third dimension to great artistic and mechanical effect, hoisting players atop a majestic dragon and immersing them in a 360˚ perspective as they locked lasers with fantastical beasts in a mysterious, post-apocalyptic setting. Those concepts contributed to a distinct vision and tone that felt entirely new. However, several of the game's structural aspects – like its rigidly linear pathways, finite life/continue counts, and lack of upgrades or progression systems – did not.

The game is about dragons, after all, so in those terms the original Panzer Dragoon was like a young fledgling: confined to well-trodden ground despite its loftier ambitions for flight. With later installments, the series would grow its wings, evolve with more modern conventions, and soar with a swagger to match its ambition.

But now, 25 years later, developer MegaPixel Studio and publisher Forever Entertainment return us to that young fledgling via the Nintendo Switch (for now, with PC and other platforms eventually).

At face value, the Panzer Dragoon remake basically does what it promises. It lets me hop back into the dragon’s saddle and guides me through the linear pathways and familiar locales from the original game. Homing lasers in tow, I again blast the waves of monsters surrounding me. The remake largely succeeds in replicating the basic structure of Panzer Dragoon, no doubt, but it overlooks many of the things which defined its novel vision in the first place. At no point does the Panzer Dragoon remake ever make a compelling case for why it really needed to exist.