Editor’s Note: We originally produced this review on March 29th. Thanks to significant updates to the game, we felt a new review was needed to reflect the game in its current state. You can find an archive of our original review here.
Panzer Dragoon on the Sega Saturn was one of the most memorable games on the system. It was a visually striking rail shooter that allowed 360 degree rotation during the action. Bogeys and bullets would come at you and your dragon on all sides.
Between your dragon’s lock-on lasers and your rapid-fire weapon; you’d up against an entire armada of airships, gigantic sand-worms, and all kinds of indescribable technology. It was not the most deep rail shooter, but it paved the way for much better sequels to come that would set the bar high for rail shooters overall.
25 years later, Panzer Dragoon: Remake is surprise-released on the Nintendo Switch. The last entry being Panzer Dragoon: Orta in 2003 on the original Xbox; the fourth game in the franchise that stands tall as one of the greatest and most polished rail-shooters ever made. Can this remake live up to its own legacy?
Panzer Dragoon: Remake
Developer: MegaPixel Studio
Publisher: Forever Entertainment S.A.
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: March 26th, 2020
While there are some changes that might go over the casual observer’s head, they will stick out to anyone who loved the original. One thing that won’t disappoint is the shot-for-shot remake of the introductory cutscene.
This sequence was epic, and gave a lot of information about the world this adventure is set in. The premise is simple; Kiel is a lowly hunter who gets his life saved by a blue dragon. In saving Kiel, the blue dragon’s rider is killed, and passes his mission to stop an empire from acquiring a new weaponized dragon.
From that moment on, Kiel becomes the blue dragon’s rider and the chase begins. It is a simple premise that draws you into such a strange and interesting world that only got more fascinating with its sequels.
The world of Panzer Dragoon is a weird and surreal science-fiction fantasy setting. The designers were inspired by the likes of the late French comic artist, Jean Jiraud Moebius. His finger prints can be seen in the almost alien-like landscapes, and technology that defies explanation.
The fauna is unlike anything seen before it. Most creatures exist somewhere between insect and reptilian, and every single one of them is brilliant with color. Stone-like armor plating, shockingly bright iridescence, and strange anatomy make the creatures in the game capture your imagination.
On Sega Saturn, many of these designs could only go so far with the limitations of the console’s architecture, but today’s game engines have almost no limit. Some levels that were almost flat have become incredibly dense, with forests and rocky pinnacles. Despite the change in landscape, the core game is the same as it ever was.
The pace of the game is almost exactly the same as it was back in 1995. The only changes are the lack of mid-level transitions. Panzer Dragoon: Remake is still basically the same rail shooter as it was 25 years ago, for better and for worse. The developer has since addressed many of the missing features and has vastly refined the gameplay since launch, via updates.
The rail-shooter genre has improved so much since 1995, and gamers expect a bit more now. This is a time when Panzer Dragoon: Orta pushes the boundary on rail-shooter design, includes the original version of Panzer Dragoon as a bonus unlockable feature, and is $9.99 on Xbox One’s digital store.
The remake is faithful to a fault, and as a result it fails to meet the standards set by its own successors. Panzer Dragoon did not have any power-ups to acquire, there were no various dragon transformations, and there were no alternate routes to take. Since the developers chose to follow the original game so closely, the remake inherits its utter lack of gameplay variety.
The targeting cursor used to be as twitchy as Tony Montana after snorting Columbia’s finest export. While it is not exactly the same as the original’s aiming, the updates have made targeting more responsive and fluid.
Hit boxes are much more sensible, and bosses now have an indicator of when they are about to do huge sweeping attacks. Even the balance has been re-worked, eliminating the outrageous difficulty spikes and dialed back the absurd health pools that made boss battles into a war of attrition.
Panzer Dragoon: Remake now has two types of aiming reticules; the one you want to use (classic 3D) and the one you don’t want to use (2D). The classic aiming made it felt like Kiel was targeting with a laser sighting, and made the action feel more visceral than just dragging a 2D cursor on screen. The newly added gyroscopic aiming works excellently with the classic aiming reticule.
The 45 degree angle quick-turns are much faster and responsive than at launch. It very closely feels accurate to the playability on Sega Saturn. Before the patch, it used to take almost an entire second to turn the POV.
Visually, Panzer Dragoon: Remake is a mixed bag of mostly good. The original had a very weathered and grungy look to the world and its inhabitants. The remake loses a lot of the ruggedness and desolate atmosphere, for something that looks like an Unreal 4 fan remake of Panzer Dragoon.
Everything is very bright and clean. The water and skies lack the signature Sega blue that was so specific to games on Sega Saturn. Reflections in the water were crisp, but now are murky and barely visible. Sadly, the developers missed an opportunity to use the advanced tech to render the dragon’s reflection in the water.
Then again, if you never played Panzer Dragoon, the remake’s visuals are impressive in their own right. Considering a small team managed to make this possible is humbling. Some later stages impress with their scope, and vast flora.
The Nintendo Switch, impressive it may be, does not allow Unreal 4 to show its full potential. Panzer Dragoon never had a high frame rate, and the remake on Switch now has two options: a 60 frames per second performance mode, or a 30 frames per second quality mode.
The option to play Panzer Dragoon: Remake with such high fluidity is the one feature that might make a case for it to replace the original. At launch Remake ran sub optimal, but it seems like the team went back and ironed out things to make the gameplay nice and responsive.
The overly flappy dragon animations have been re-worked to make dodging much easier. It is much clearer where the beast is on screen to avoid enemy projectiles now.
Beating Panzer Dragoon: Remake won’t take long. On normal, the game can be completed in about an hour and a half. It does not overstay its welcome, and makes for enjoyable replays.
Normal mode completion earns bonus cheat modes, and everything from the original is here and accounted for. The survival mode “Level 0”, where you assume the role of the unnamed original dragoon is back.
The most notable addition is the photo mode, which does allow players to capture some impressive shots. It could use a few extra features like depth of field control, aperture, and the option to manipulate some of the Unreal 4 effects.
Impressively, the soundtrack is exactly the same as the one used for the Sega Saturn original. Yoshitaka Azuma used a bit of orchestra and synth to create the ambiance of Panzer Dragoon‘s fantasy setting. Additionally, a remastered score has been added. It lacks the punch of the original, but is a welcomed bonus that adds value.
Just by the way the title screen’s regal horns rousingly announce the game, you know you’re in good hands. From the romantically sweeping and serene level 1, to the wrathful epic battle with the Proto Dragon, there is not a single bum track in the entire soundtrack.
The art direction is not likely to be adjusted, but that is the least of the issues with this remake. The absurdly long load times is the only substantial technical issue that remains. This can be a bit annoying when trying to replay levels on a harder mode, because reloading adds days to the timer.
The developers made the mistake releasing Panzer Dragoon: Remake in its initial state. It gave a bad impression of what made the original great. With so many adjustments, this remake is where it should have been and feels like a complete product now, making it absolutely worth a recommendation.
The only thing holding back Panzer Dragoon: Remake is that it is overly faithful to the 1995 original. There was room to improve upon a Sega Saturn launch title; an extra level or two, Panzer Dragoon Mini from Gamegear as a bonus unlockable, or even some game mechanics from the sequels. A little extra something would have been glistening and juicy cherry on top.
Panzer Dragoon: Remake was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a personal copy. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.