I have played this game, so, so, many times over the years under its PAL title, Panzer Dragoon Saga. It’s great. I love it. Fab. If it was a dessert, it’d be something involving fudge, warm chocolate sauce, and a very large spoon. What could have easily been a dead-end RPG offshoot, kept apart for fear of alienating everyone who fell in love with the series for its arcade-like shooting action, is instead filled to overflowing with meaningful links to the previous games and even lays the groundwork for a huge emotional hit in the Xbox-exclusive sequel Panzer Dragoon Orta. This isn’t a game that’s had a few recognisable bosses or locations thrown in for the sake of some superficial authenticity or as a lazy attempt to woo existing fans over, Azel is absolutely a Panzer Dragoon RPG through and through: It was never meant to be anything else, and it never could be anything else either – the game oozes pride in its origins and feels equally confident in the quality of its new direction too.
This joy and attention to detail is shown not only in the big show-stopping moments that shed new light on key moments in Panzer Dragoon’s obtuse history or pit legendary dragons against each other in a lightning-pierced night sky, but in the small touches too: Different people are active in the camps and villages depending on the time of day when you visit, fish will leap out with a splash if you interact with them, enemy troops audibly radio in sightings of the dragon at the start of battle, and the ancient item containers scattered throughout the game all have unique visual markers on them so you can tell whether your dragon’s lasers are powerful enough to break them before you’ve waved your targeting cursor in their direction.
There’s a novel’s worth of flavour text in here, with the game boasting different descriptions of the same object depending on whether you’re up close or gazing at them from afar. You don’t need and can never touch the vast majority of these fascinating items and yet every last one of them has a clear purpose within the world the game’s protagonist, Edge, inhabits and in many cases even its own space within the setting’s fictional ecosystem too. Being able to reach out and touch things in Panzer Dragoon is a dream come true for fans of the original game and Zwei, and an equally rewarding experience for complete newcomers as well.
But for all the love I feel for it and all the praise heaped on the game over the past twenty-one years Azel does have two significant problems that I don’t think get highlighted as often as they should: Well, one is a genuine problem problem, and the other is really more of a mismatch between what Azel’s offering and what players have come to expect from the RPG genre.
We’ll get the bad news out of the way first: Azel is really easy. Really, really, easy. Playing Azel without dying isn’t a challenge run for dedicated fans, it’s just how the game works – for everyone. I’ve had a harder time opening jam jars than I’ve had defeating any boss in this game.
Now I know I’ve talked favourably about lower difficulty levels in games before and I still stand by what I said then – having easier (and plain old easy) difficulty levels and accessibility options is always a good thing! Easy gets people comfortable and confident, gives the time-poor the chance to play something they’d otherwise have to pass over, and it can turn genre novices into passionate fans. The thing is Azel is only easy – it hasn’t got any sort of difficulty setting in there at all, not even something as bare-bones as a hard mode where enemies deal double damage or everything’s health has been increased by 300% – and that means there’s no skill ceiling to reach for, no knowledge to refine over numerous runs through the game’s enjoyable story. Azel has a skill floor – and you begin the game standing on it. If you are capable of understanding that green is good, and red is bad, and the low-cost spell you learn early on that makes you completely invincible is something you should definitely use in boss fights then that’s it, you’ve broken the game’s systems in two and there are no special battle conditions that will ever take that feeling of certain victory away from you nor any optional superbosses lurking at the back of secret caves just itching to teach cocky players a lesson. The game starts off incredibly easy and every interaction you have with it from that point on only serves to make it easier still.
But why is this a problem? Who wants to start a plot-heavy JRPG and potentially struggle to see the story through to its exciting conclusion?
The problem is Azel isn’t just “Really very easy if you bother to make even a token amount of effort”, it’s so easy you can literally kill late game bosses on your very first FAQ-free encounter with them before they get a chance to attack.
Of course anything’s easy in an RPG if you comb the map very carefully and end up at level twenty in a level five area, or if you skew things in your favour with specialist equipment or use otherwise unusual tactics, and plenty of titles in the genre – good and bad – are considered “broken” when played with that sort of mindset. Unfortunately this sort of steamrolling happens in Azel not only if you play naturally – moving where the story takes you, opening any item containers you happen to come across, refreshing your equipment whenever the game takes you past an item shop – this still happens if you deliberately do the absolute bare minimum too (and I really can’t emphasise enough just how little extra work I’m prepared to do in RPGs), you demolish the game simply by choosing to engage with it on the even most perfunctory level.
That lack of challenge – of personal danger – in conflict is a big issue in an RPG that has as many battles as Azel does. All of Edge’s problems are solved with combat. Every significant event in the game is a battle, the result of a battle, or leads up to a battle. All the of player’s most direct input and influence happens during fights. Not only is the game fond of multi-enemy mini sequences where you fight several small troops one immediately after the other but it also has a thing for multi-phase boss fights too. Yet these segments, for all their wonderful music and imaginative designs, fail to generate any real excitement or tension because you know before they’ve even started that coming out victorious is simply a matter of time and a few button presses, same as the last one. These should be drawn-out battles for survival where you’re forced to make do with the remaining dregs of your inventory or try out a daring, desperate, all-or-nothing attack, but far too many enemies don’t even get a chance to land a hit unless you deliberately hold back or choose to put yourself in harm’s way. And your foes really can do some amazing things if you do sit back and let them get on with it – the monsters have all sorts of fascinating positional/group behaviour with alpha/beta hierarchies, young bursting forth from their parents, defensive shields the spring to life if you approach them from the wrong angle and plenty more. The Imperial troops you battle have multiple voice samples as they bark out orders to charge cannons or encourage their underlings to fight and if they’re not dead in one hit from your dragon’s lasers they generally behave as you’d expect from a highly-trained and well-equipped military force. These patterns add real texture not only to individual skirmishes but to Azel’s world at large too… but you’ll never see most of it because you can defeat every standard enemy in the game in a few turns with no preparation and absolutely minimal effort on your part – and if that’s too much work a single special attack from your dragon will wipe out just about everything you ever face the instant it touches them. It’s hard to empathise with the raw fear and awe the characters you meet along the way have for these ancient bioweapons and Imperial forces when Edge can take out everything in his path, right up to tyrannical warships and resurrected horrors from ages long passed, with a thoughtless sort of B-button-mashing ease.
The other snag I mentioned earlier isn’t actually an issue at all but more a case of traditional genre expectations butting up against Azel’s insistence on doing it’s own thing: There’s no way around it – this is a very short game. I’ve got action games that take longer to clear than this does: you can comfortably clear all of Azel, from opening FMV to the final summary screen, in around ten hours without rushing anything. My own final clear time was about ten hours and twenty minutes, and that’s including screenshot time and an unnecessary sidequest I always do for the fun of it (getting the dragon pup from Shelcoof). You’d imagine a last-hurrah Saturn title that averages out at under three hours per disc would be that way due to external (and internal) pressures to get something – anything – out there before the console faded away forever but that’s not the case at all, and completing Azel feels like the conclusion to a satisfying adventure rather than a hastily nailed together rush job. Everything you see on Edge’s journey is important, and everything that happens is directly relevant to the story the game wants to tell. There’s not a single second of padding here, not one scene or conversation the game could have done without. It’s a refreshing experience and a brave decision that other (if not, if I’m being honest, most) RPGs would be much better off for emulating. Yes, Azel’s the sort of game you can easily clear in a weekend – can we please have more games with a story to tell that struggle to hit the ten hour mark?
The best bits in Azel – the world building, the music, the story, the visual designs – all come together to form an utterly mesmerising experience, something truly unique that deserves to be investigated by any and every person who has the chance to play the game. But the title’s rarity, current sky-high resale value, and the collector’s prestige that comes from owning the English-language versions of the game insulates its to a large degree from otherwise legitimate criticism. Azel is wonderful but also severely flawed in the place where the player has the most direct control and spends most of their time, and it’s dishonest to pretend that a lesser, or even just a more readily available, RPG with similar issues would escape a reviewer’s glare unscathed.
Having said that you can’t not love Azel: It’s ambitious, memorable, and one of the most beautiful games of its era. But the positional battle system found here is better executed in every other game in the series, and Orta’s melding of Panzer Dragoon’s trademark 360-view shooting with Azel’s drago(o)n change mechanic is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the series gameplay. The good bits in Azel are very very good and you should want to see them for yourself, but it’s worth remember there are four Panzer Dragoon games out there, and the three you can buy and play in every region for very small amounts of money are all excellent titles in their own right that don’t deserve to be overshadowed by the one game you can’t.