Monday, November 26, 2007

Hidden Gems: The Return

I was checking out the list of Xbox games which are currently compatible with the Xbox 360 over the weekend, and I noticed that a number of excellent games can now be played. Seeing as most of these games can also be found at very low prices, I thought it was a great opportunity to highlight some of them and resurrect Hidden Gems at the same time. This time, it's the turn of Panzer Dragoon Orta.

Title: Panzer Dragoon Orta
Format: Xbox
Genre: On-rails Shoot 'em up
Expect to pay: £10 or less

The Panzer Dragoon series started life on the Sega Saturn and was highly regarded by fans but seldom heard of by people that didn't own the console. My first experience with the series was playing Panzer Dragoon Zwei on the Saturn that belonged to my flatmate at university, and I enjoyed it. If you have played on-rails shooters like Star Fox or Rez, you will have a rough idea of how the PD games play, but what sets them apart is the fantasy world that was created for the game. Acclaimed artist Moebius was brought in to create the art style that defines the entire series, and a whole language was created for the characters to speak. This is a level of detail that goes beyond what is expected for the average shooter and helps make the Panzer Dragoon series so special.

In the later days of the Saturns life, Sega released Panzer Dragoon Saga, an epic four disc RPG that is the holy grail for many game collectors to this day, and regularly fetches prices of well over £100. However, like the other games in the series, it didn't sell in vast quantities and chances of any further games in the series were pretty slim. Skip forward to 2003, and Sega decides to give the series one last try (to date anyway) with Panzer Dragoon Orta for the Xbox. The Xbox was a much more successful machine than the Saturn ever was which meant that there was a much bigger potential audience for it to begin with - however Sega didn't exactly sing its praises at every opportunity and it failed to make a big impact. Those that did notice its release and try it however were treated to one of the best shooters of the non first person variety for the machine.

The first thing that strikes you when you fire up the game are the sublime visuals. The FMV that sets up the story, with the young girl Orta imprisoned in a tower and about to be munched by nasty dragons, looks amazing. Needless to say, she doesn't actually get eaten, but instead is rescued by a mysterious and friendly dragon. She escapes on its back, and from that point on she is embroiled in the battle against the Empire and their genetically enhanced dragon army. She also has to piece together her past, and the player finds out why she was incarcerated in the first place over the course of the game.

Panzer Dragoon Orta still looks fantastic today.

The next thing that will probably grab you and get under your skin is the amazing musical score. I am especially fond of the boss tune, with it's memorable melody and deep bass line. The speech in the game is in a language that has been devised for the series as mentioned elsewhere, first by the original creators Team Andromeda, but continued here by the new developers Smilebit. It does a good job of sounding other worldly while still sounding like it could feasibly be a genuine language. You do of course get full subtitles so that you know what on earth everyone is blabbing on about.

As the game is an on-rails shooter you'd be forgiven for thinking that it doesn't have much depth, but in this cash you'd be wrong. There are multiple paths through the levels, and sub chapters and modes which open up as you progress through the game. The game itself can be quite tough at times but with some practice you should be able to get past the bosses, which include other dragons, and entire fleet of airships and a giant golem which hurls rocks at you. Your dragon has a standard attack, which can be locked on to multiple enemies, and a smart bomb move to kill everything on screen or give a boss a pummelling. The dragon also has three different forms - a standard form which is good for all around use, a speedy form which is handy for avoiding obstacles, and a defensive form which is very slow but can soak up much more damage.

Seeing as the game can now be picked up so cheaply, and the Xbox 360 is finally capable of running it, I recommend it to everyone. It looks better than many so called next generation titles, is full of imaginative worlds and characters, and has rock solid gameplay. Fans of the series may never get to play another game in the series, but at least it went out on a high. If this sounds like the sort of thing you'd enjoy, you really Orta get it! (groan)

Sometimes you have to have quick reactions in order to avoid all the enemy fire and the walls, which is where your speedy dragon form comes in handy.

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