Some things in life are so good, so beautiful, you wonder how they could possibly exist. 1996's Panzer Dragoon Zwei is one of those things. With it, Team Andromeda grabbed Sega Saturn by the scruff of the neck and forced it to work miracles. And while it's sad to see its graphical kick diminished by modernity, its spectacle and drama is timeless. Like the light of the mutant Khourieat at the heart of its story, its brilliance still shines in the darkness. It is an ominous light, someone once said…
The story revolves around a boy, Lundi, and his pet – a cute little dolphin-like creature that lives on land. Khourieats are harmless enough, but sometimes mutant offspring are born, with a light in their necks. It's the code of the villagers to destroy such mutants as soon as they are discovered, as we see in the heart-wrenching intro (which I'll spare you from - it'll scar you for life otherwise). But Lundi breaks his village's rule and hides his infant Khourieat away. Why?
Above: Surely you mean you couldn't kill him because he's just too damn cute, right?
But while you're set up at the start to believe that it's the villagers who are evil, that soon changes. On the day our hero Lundi is determined to make the now-adolescent Lagi fly, his village is destroyed by evil Sestren. We know he's evil because he sits in a floaty throne and destroys villages. So Lundi and Lagi's partnership gets a baptism of fire and they take off after Sestren and his ship – and that's where you get control.
The game plays like Rez, with a certain number of lock-ons allowed, before you let go to fire your homing laser at them. This homing laser is the 'ominous light' within the Khourieats' throats, and damn, does it ever look cool. Shazam! Huge arcs of rainbow light burst from your dragon. Shazam! A wave of dead enemies fall from the sky. Shazam! Streaks of awesome all over the screen. It's a tour de force for the console's supposedly low-powered circuitry.
Above: Lock-on attacks look beautiful and, once the target's set, can be fired from any direction - like this
Wait, haven't I played this before?
Taking the game in context of its 1996 debut, it's actually the logical successor to After Burner II, which employs similar mechanics of basic gunfire with lock-on targeting for missiles. Likewise, while the game is a lot like Rez as I mentioned, it's arguably more like Child of Eden, which again features this lock on/tracer dual-weapon system. But what both those classics lack is laser-breathing dragons - and that's where Panzer Zwei wins out.
Above: From 1987, through 1996 all the way to 2011, these three classics all have the same lock-on/tracer fire
It's strange - logic suggests dragon games should be nothing less than amazing, yet there are very few that are anything above 'awful'. Perhaps it's that Panzer Dragoon Zwei never lets you know too much about your steed. Lagi is mystical, elegant... dignified. You'd never catch Lagi being controlled with Sixaxis.
Above: Panzer Dragoon Zwei is better than Lair, in art style, gameplay and feel of mysticism. Fact
Panzer Dragoon Zwei may be on rails, but you do get to choose alternative routes by holding a direction at a fork in the road, leading you to new areas and even new enemies. You can also look all around you in 360 degrees, which is essential. Enemies come at you from all angles and keeping an eye on your radar is of vital importance.
Oh, but these enemies. They're not your run-of-the-mill fantasy fodder. These are monsters and relics from a forgotten age of wondrous technology. Team Andromeda managed to create a full, vibrant game world, rich from a back-story that literally spans millennia. The basic premise in Panzer Dragoon is that ancient people held in their possession great technological power. But war destroyed them, leaving only their relics for the people of the new world to uncover.
The result is some of the most inventive and scary bosses in gaming's rich history. Seeing the fish boss appear beneath the waves with a gorgeous transparency effect that Saturn literally shouldn't be able to pull off is just phenomenal. Then there's the massive monster who chases you through the forest. They have an aggro system too – hold back on your attacks and they'll be more docile. Give 'em hell and they'll start smashing up the very floor you're standing on. If ever a game made you fear for your life, it's Panzer Zwei.
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