As I pointed out in my retrospective for Legacy of Kain: Defiance, 2003 was an odd year. At this point I was firmly entrenched in the Xbox camp, as I awaited the releases that Sega had originally previewed for their Dreamcast. Exclusives like Jet Set Radio Future and Gunvalkyrie had already found a home on Microsoft’s powerhouse, but in 2003, Sega’s Panzer Dragoon series would finally make its big return to EU markets. Whilst it’s a little sad that the Dreamcast couldn’t survive long enough to receive Panzer Dragoon Orta, there is a feeling that its supreme quality could only have been properly realised on Xbox.
It’s no secret by now that Panzer Dragoon Orta is one of my favourite games ever. This is a very special experience that combines the brutal playability of old school shooters with presentation so pristine, it almost feels an entire generation ahead of its time. But before I get equally far ahead of myself, here’s the plot:
As a belligerent Empire armed with ancient technology seeks to expand its rule, a young girl named Orta is rescued from certain death by an armoured dragon. Bonding quickly with her new mount, Orta rides into battle against an army of warships and draconic clones, just as a mysterious life form emerges with sinister motives of its own.
The story here is admittedly hard to get into at first. The tale is told in-game and through the occasional cutscene, but the text-based narration comes across as very dry. Orta’s battle against the evil Empire follows a fairly stock pattern, though the story beats are integrated well. It also helps that the art style and world-building continues to be so classy. It may be a universe that draws inspiration from some rather obvious sources, but it doesn’t stop the world of Panzer Dragoon from feeling unique.
Simplicity is another thing that this game gets from its predecessors. Unlike Panzer Dragoon Saga that had successfully pivoted into the role-playing genre before this, Panzer Dragoon Orta returns to its rail shooter roots. Orta and her mount glide through each scene automatically, leaving the player to lock on to enemies and shoot them down with the dragon’s targeted laser breath. Most of the action is handled with one button and a targeting crosshair, with additional commands for the dragon’s “berserk” attack and switching Orta’s facing.
Whilst this minimal design makes Panzer Dragoon Orta a very easy game to learn, Smilebit expands on the formula in elegant ways. Players can now perform aerial manoeuvres that increase or decrease the dragon’s speed; perfect for circumnavigating a large boss or getting the drop on enemy pursuers. This mechanic ties in beautifully with the new dragon forms; from the Heavy Wing that sacrifices agility for attack strength; the defensive Swift Wing that zooms through the air shooting down missiles; or the versatile Basic Wing that can clear screens of enemies with its abundance of lock-on lasers.
Beginners are likely to struggle with the transformations at first. Quick switching between forms is encouraged and this requires a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. You won’t be able to dodge incoming projectiles in the Heavy Wing for example, but equally; don’t expect to tear down a boss’s health bar under par time without it! Adding colour to this mix is a simple upgrade system that sees players collecting Gene Bases to ascend the forms to a more powerful state. Again, it’s a simple concept to grasp, but optimally collecting Gene Bases is a fiddly process that makes you wish the dragon forms were easier to access in the heat of battle.
I think these elements contribute to a sense that Panzer Dragoon Orta is a very hard game, but I’ve always disagreed with that notion. There are three well-balanced levels of difficulty to choose from; a save system; extra checkpoints before bosses; and the Swift Wing’s healing attack that can assist players dramatically if it’s deployed at the right moments. All except the last few bosses are easy to beat outside of Hard mode, and the dragon can sustain many hits before falling.
With an extensive scoring system in place, Smilebit might have been tempted to lock the game’s bonus content behind evil “S” ranks. Fortunately there is an alternate unlock method that simply checks your overall play time. If you’re playing the game and enjoying yourself — no matter the difficulty setting — then you’re contributing towards your next unlock in the special menu called Pandora’s Box. Quite why it deserved such an ominous name is beyond me though because this area is full of delightful extras, whether it’s concept art or videos, or an entire series of side missions involving a new character. You can even play a faithful recreation of the original Panzer Dragoon in there too, assuming you can stomach the painfully aged 3D visuals and horrendous difficulty!
Also of note here is the superb Box Game. It takes a bit longer to fully unlock this one, but the mode allows players to customise their own playthrough by changing various parameters like the berserk meter, enemy patterns, and even the dragon itself. There is tremendous value buried in these offerings; a clear indication that Sega was finally learning the lesson that arcade action alone is rarely enough to create a lasting home gaming package.
And what a beautiful package it is! Marvellous graphics, wonderful music, and a smooth frame rate compliment the frantic aerial shooting; moments where the Star Wars inspiration is perhaps most recognisable; with enemy carriers and reptilian horrors flying everywhere, as the screen dissolves amidst a frightening barrage of berserk screams, broken wings and laser-fuelled murder.
Those with an Xbox One can appreciate the spectacle to its fullest because Panzer Dragoon Orta is one of the few original Xbox titles that’s forwards compatible. Playing Panzer Dragoon Orta on Xbox One is an absolute joy because of how beautifully high res the upscaled production looks. This is the real deal — no dodgy emulation here — and it’s certainly the ideal way to enjoy the game this many years later.
Perhaps the only disappointing thing is that the story was left open for a sequel that never came. To this day though, Panzer Dragoon Orta remains one of the Xbox’s strongest and most beloved exclusives, and it was firm proof back then that Sega’s assorted IP had found the perfect new home.