These flaws demand patience from the end user – something many are not prepared to give in the modern gaming age.
Smilebit display an obvious joie de vivre in their creations, with each title piled to the rafters with entrancements and ingenuity. Taking the reins of the Panzer Dragoon series from the legendary (but now, sadly, defunct) Team Andromeda, especially after the epochal Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG, was greeted with nervous discomfort by many. How could such a team follow Azel’s magnificence? Would it be another RPG or a shooter? Where next for the franchise? The first point to make is that Orta is a shooting game. The RPG focus of Azel has diminished (although trace elements remain) and the pure action of the first game and its sequel (Panzer Dragoon Zwei) is brought back to prominence.
Destruction of numerous enemies causes a bar to fill which, when full, allows the use of a special attack. The effect of this varies with each form, and correct selection of ‘berserk’ attack is vital, as different enemies are affected by your armament in different ways.
This is where the excellence of the ‘glide’ function really shows. Taken from Panzer Dragoon Saga, this ability allows you to either speed up of speed down your dragon mount. A yellow bar next to your health gauge fills ready for use, and must recharge over time once discharged. Use of the B button slows you down, whilst X gives you a burst of acceleration. This added mobility is used in three distinct ways: to evade enemy attacks, to manoeuvre around the larger creatures and (with the acceleration) destroy certain enemies.
The world we see in PDO is one of the most astonishing and fascinating yet seen in video games. Team Andromeda had, in Panzer Dragoon Saga, designed a whole new world ripe for exploration. Into it, they placed creatures and geographical features that were at once familiar yet transformed into something unique – only fitting for a game where the ability to morph into different shapes is integral to the experience. The aesthetics blend industrial-era war craft such as airships, and steam/propeller driven mechanical devices with architecture and creatures that look like sculpted bone. Many of the biomechanical designs are fabulously intricate, with subtle blends of the electrical and the organic, and the environments mirror the inhabitants’ appearances. Cavernous hollows, towering shafts built by the Ancients, glacial wastes - all are depicted with a skill rarely seen in any fantasy medium.
In terms of pure graphical accomplishment, there are precious few titles to touch PDO, if indeed any. The frame rate never drops below 60fps, and every graphical effect you could ever wish for is used with verve: particle affects create realistic smoke and explosions that feel almost real; light is an almost tangible thing, and reflects from objects in a completely natural way; water glistens and moves realistically; blurring, warping, bump-mapping: each effect and texture is a gift to the eye.
The audio is similarly stunning, with a massive array of sounds describing the action. Dragons screech and engines of destruction fall with sounds to match their visual magnificence, all pumped-out in Dolby Digital. The 5.1 surround is of exceptional quality, with the sound field replicating the on-screen action with aplomb. Such an innovation brings the environment even more alive, and is not simply a mere token inclusion: with the advent of such technology, positioning enemies is possible both audibly as well as visually.
Musically, PDO again excels. Following on from the previous entries in the series, arrangements with an arcane edge accompany your adventure. Reed pipes and tablas depict the civilisation perfectly, and more modern instruments and synthesised sounds describe the might of the Empire’s destructive arsenal. A pattern runs through the game’s design that has been strictly adhered to: both showing fealty to Team Andromeda’s vision and following reverently in their footsteps.
The game has a massive unlockable archive in the ‘Pandora’s Box’ option. This wonderful library contains detailed and compulsively readable accounts of the history of Orta’s universe, as well as a bestiary, and even sub-games that can be played, set in various parts of the game world. Fans of the series will be delighted to see information on previous characters such as Kyle and Edge, their stories given their proper place in the Panzer Dragoon canon. As an extra special treat, the full (PC) version of the original Panzer Dragoon can be unlocked, although it is sad to note that the frame rate isn’t as stable as the original Sega Saturn version.
Orta’s relationship with her dragon forms a large part of the tale that unfolds, and it is touchingly described. Dragon riders and their mounts lead a symbiotic existence, we are told, and the depiction of the bond they share adds greatly to the game-as-experience. Smilebit have once again paid tribute to Team Andromeda, by making their game as moving and as subtle as their predecessor’s stories.
PDO isn’t the largest game ever made, but it has been designed with replayability in mind. You are ranked on such things as enemies destroyed and hits taken, and different routes through the game world are accessed dependant on your skills. Three difficulty levels are available, and completion of all of them is necessary to unlock all the features in the Pandora’s Box section.
Although PDO is ‘only’ an on-rails shooting game, the love and devotion lavished on the title makes it a compelling experience, and one you will wish to re-visit again and again. There are few gamers who will fail to be seduced by its charms, and it is worth noting that fans of the seminal Rez will be over the moon at the chance to play a game that matches developer UGA’s masterpiece.
Seldom has a franchise been so wonderfully updated with such fidelity and attention to detail, and Panzer Dragoon Orta steps forward as a shining example of video games being valid artistic creations, whilst remaining playable and accessible. The Xbox has yet another title that demands to be played, and is another milestone in video game aesthetics. Although only a simple game at its core, Panzer Dragoon Orta is a significant benchmark in aesthetic and narrative, and deserves to reach the widest audience possible.
Text by Stuart Peake / Treble