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Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox) artwork

Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox) review

"Panzer Dragoon Zwei didn’t waste any time. The opening scene violently hurled unsuspecting gamers into an enemy-infested outpost with the ability to destroy nearly any building for obscene amounts of bonus points. Branching paths were later introduced, culminating in the absurdly intricate Underground Canals. The sheer beauty of reflective turquoise waters enchanted players’ hearts, but the mis-shapen creature skulking beneath the surface chilled players’ spines. As Lundi and h..."

Panzer Dragoon Zwei didn’t waste any time. The opening scene violently hurled unsuspecting gamers into an enemy-infested outpost with the ability to destroy nearly any building for obscene amounts of bonus points. Branching paths were later introduced, culminating in the absurdly intricate Underground Canals. The sheer beauty of reflective turquoise waters enchanted players’ hearts, but the mis-shapen creature skulking beneath the surface chilled players’ spines. As Lundi and his dragon burned through squadrons of mechanical beasts, multiple branching paths littered throughout the stage made it easy to forget the game’s 3d “rails” shooter origins. Up one moment, left the next, this high-speed maze served as one of Zwei’s trademark sequences. By the time the amphibious lurking horror shattered the water's glassy surface, Panzer Dragoon Zwei had already made its mark as an unforgettable adventure.

Such are my memories.

In the sense of what has come before, Panzer Dragoon Orta scales back. Combustible scenery and alternate paths haven’t been entirely removed, but they’re used more sparingly and no longer serve as focal points of the game. Fiery proclamations of 10,000 bonus points no longer dot the screen. For what might possibly be the series’ final incarnation, Sega stripped away the distractions and turned an introspective eye to the action itself, adding and renovating combat-based mechanics, pushing Panzer Dragoon to a demanding new level.

It worked.

Keeping with the tradition of supercharged openings, Panzer Dragoon Orta explodes into action as the unquestionably evil Imperial Dragonmares shatter fragile Orta’s protective shell. Having long yearned to escape her prison as any young girl would, Orta’s first moment of freedom is one of bittersweet carnage. The despicable city that enslaved her, the beautiful world she hated but longed to know, lies in ruins. Flames burn down trees she’s never climbed, fires rage through streets she’s never walked. Peering down from above are not the gentle eyes of saviour angels but rather the sutured crevices of not one or two but five Giger-esque abominations. Peeling back furrowed orange skin to reveal rows of uneven teeth, spreading jagged wings to block their prey’s escape, the dragonmares oppressively encircle Orta. Just as her life begins, death is certain.

A defiant cry. Deep within the charcoal skies, something stirs.

A mysterious dragon crowned by a unicorn’s horn tears through the smoky chaos, scattering the startled dragonmares from their murderous perch. As quickly as it arrived, this beast departs with Orta upon its back, tying an inseverable cord between the two. The powerless girl has no choice but to place her life in the hands of this “Dragon of Destruction”, her infant freedom snared in its powerful but comforting grip. The dragon has no choice but to protect Orta should it ever hope to reach its final destination.

Only together can the pair reach their common goal, a goal which becomes clearer as the adventure races to its conclusion. While Orta relies on the dragon for survival, the dragon relies on Orta for guidance. The general path the two must take is predestined, but Orta smoothly and precisely controls the dragon’s specific movements, whether across a rainforest infested by enormous mutant worms or through the center of an Imperial armada. Missiles from a dozen warships pierce the desert sky as Orta and her nameless companion weave through rows of airborne frigates. The dragon decelerates abruptly to avoid kamikaze sled-riding soldiers and accelerates sharply to dart behind dragonproof satellites, delivering killing blows to their unarmoured rear. These minute choices all lie in the hands of Orta, tugging at the dragon’s neck in desperate urgency. When her resolve falters and the pair is struck by bullet, flame or foe, you’ll know; the dragon will cry, the controller will shake, the screen will bleed. Expect such distressing things to happen (repeatedly) when Orta finally faces the malicious Captain Evren and all five dragonmares.

Panzer Dragoon Orta is harrowing.

In sharp contrast to its seamless fusion of action and story, Panzer Dragoon has always treated rider and mount as two distinct entities. Although the combat is similar to Afterburner in that players can either fire bullets at the beetle-like Baturn or lock on to that same insectoid and release a volley of homing lasers, the disjunct between human and dragon makes Panzer Dragoon unique. Orta’s adventure does not mirror that of Fox McCloud or the nameless Space Harrier man. As the dragon flies forever forward, Orta can spin in any direction, gunning down battle-sleds approaching from behind or operating as a spotter, directing her powerful companion to incinerate encroaching Morli stingrays from any angle with up to eight beams of searing lock-on death.

Orta’s dragon sports two significant enhancements beyond the outdated Zwei model. The first is the aforementioned ability to speed up or slow down. These speed shifts let Orta’s dragon easily circle the skeletal dinosaur “Catharp” so as to send painful shots behind its ribs and into its throbbing green heart. The second addition is the ability to shapeshift among three separate forms, roughly described as “fast”, “powerful”, and “versatile”. All of these can be toggled on the fly without breaking the action or pausing the game. Knock out the skeletal Catharp’s weak bullets with the dragon’s gunner form. When you’re tired of staring at its skull, decelerate to fall behind the stampeding beast, then morph into Heavy Wing mode and wash its innards in purple waves of death! As the bony creature races into the distance, shapeshift into a quicker form, pull up alongside, and pelt it with bullets from the side.

Panzer Dragoon Orta is intricate.

Although demanding constant attention, the gameplay isn’t the entirety of the experience. During Orta’s struggle against the skeletal goliath, a tribal beat pulsates with alternating loud and soft strikes. Serene reeds fill the treble role with brass embellishment delivering staccato bursts to round out the melodic package. As the battle lengthens, the brass instruments escape from the background and overtake the foreground, culminating in a fiery blast of trumpets and French horns (long soulful undertones, surprisingly evocative of a dragon's howl) at the height of this gripping song.

The entire game, from music to architecture to style of dress, evokes vaguely Eastern Indian sentiments. This applies triple to the closing credits song, Anu Orta Veniya, an uplifting melody sung entirely in the same fictional language used for the game itself, a language built from Germanic words in Japanese sentence structure with Indian tonal emphasis. Quiet at one moment and startlingly vibrant at another, it’s an emotional and provocative song. Throughout the piece, Orta's voice resonates a tremendous amount of vocal strength.

Panzer Dragoon Orta is powerful.

As Orta’s voice soars in song, the degree of her personal transformation hits home. Barefoot and bare-shouldered, Orta projects a refreshing and feminine vulnerability in an era when gaming heroines are generally portrayed as Vin Diesel with breasts. The entire adventure is a re-telling of the story of life, from Orta’s spiritual birth to the acceptance of friends to the awakening of maternal instincts. It’s subtle, it’s stirring and it’s more meaningful than the manly escapades of an unchanging Lara Croft or Sonya Blade. Although I admire Orta’s fortitude, I also admire her humanity; when scolded by the nomadic village elder, Orta’s lips quiver as though she’s about to cry. She then explodes in a burst of adolescent anger, releasing as much pent-up hostility as her breath allows. And the elder simply laughs. Overcoming her petulance and becoming a woman is one of the driving themes behind the game. Another is the nature of friendship; people are not meant to live alone, a theme mirrored in the unlockable adventures of Iva Demilcol.

Iva is an Imperial soldier seeking personal vengeance against Orta and her “Dragon of Destruction” for the murder of his father. The sickly but determined Iva struggles through seven missions of his own, ranging from training exercises at the Imperial Academy to high-speed chases across the snowy tundra. He’ll even search some ancient golden ruins, reminiscent of the exotic architecture from Panzer Dragoon Saga. Iva’s missions are not the only unlockable feature; competent players (or anyone who plays for at least 20 hours) can also take the helm of an Imperial tank or enjoy the entire first installment of the Panzer Dragoon series. Art galleries and encyclopedias round out the experience but, in the end, I always come back to Orta's unforgettable adventure.

Escaping from a ravaged city, rescuing worm-riders from savage river beasts, demolishing Imperial destroyers piece by piece, dueling with black dragons in psychedelic skies . . . from its fiery start to its emotional finish, Panzer Dragoon Orta is a harrowing, intricate and powerful masterpiece.

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Featured community review by lilica (September 04, 2004)

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