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Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox) artwork

Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox) review

"Choosing the proper form for the task at hand becomes monumentally important. One part of a stage may seem near impossible with one skill set, but another will blaze through it in no time. Often, particularly in a boss battle, the best choice is not one form, but a combination of the two. For example, you might need to glide around to an enemy's rear side, then switch to the attack style with tougher firepower to bring down the foe's gauge quickly."

The Empire is spreading its evil over the world, struggling to reclaim what it believes belongs to it. Drones. Dragonmares. Battles by sky. This is the world of Panzer Dragoon Orta, and Orta is thrust into its center. Imprisoned in a solitary prison for what she remembers of her life, she knows little of the world around her until suddenly she finds herself at the center of a battle for world domination and her own identity. With a dragon and Mobo for friends, she will embark on a mission to save the world from evil.

The story is epic, but the game is a shooter. That doesn't make a lot of sense when you consider the genre into which Panzer Dragoon Orta falls, but then, a lot doesn't make sense if you expect it to adhere to those musty old guidelines. Even the fact that this is a rail shooter rather than a free roaming shooter in the nature of Star Wars: Rogue Squadron seems an asset rather than a limitation. Quite simply, Panzer Dragoon Orta is one of the best shooters on the market.

As stated earlier, this is a rail shooter. What that means is that each of ten main episodes is most likely going to consist of battling through a gorgeously-rendered landscape, swinging the camera about to make sure you take out all the opposition, then fighting a huge boss at the end. There is the occasional deviation from that standard, and the last few episodes are really just boss battles, but the general template remains.

Navigating the twisting corridors or in some cases, the open skies, has never been this simple. You seldom have to worry about actually piloting your dragon. It will flap about on a mostly pre-determined course, except for at points where the stage branches. Most levels have at least one fork where you can choose which way you want to go. And since you're only allowed one trip through a level any time you complete the game, you're going to have to play through several times just to experience every branching path. Aside from making a decision about the path Orta and her ride should take, though, the only other time you have to really worry about controlling the dragon is when you're fighting a boss or when you are navigating an especially narrow corridor where the landscape happens to be your present enemy.

Speaking of enemies, there are plenty of them. They tend to come in swarms, either from directly in front of you, behind you, or to the side. Since the dragon is mostly going to go where it sees fit and the rail system allows, this leaves you free to swing the camera around to get the best perspective on the action. Allowing enemies around you to stay alive for very long is a bad idea, as they'll pelt you with projectiles. Just hammering away at the larger enemies is equally foolish, as they will often fire other weapons that soar into the sky, then home in on you. At first, it can all be a bit overwhelming. Face a barrage of missiles and you'll be frantically weaving about, trying to take them all out before you collide. Eventually, it becomes a matter of artful preparation and memorization of patterns. If an enemy sets up a group of missiles, you learn to take them out, then resume your targeting.

The targeting in this game is cool. You can just mash the fire button, or you can hold it down to better effect. Your dragon can target several strike zones on any given enemy. Sometimes you'll face a whole field of them, where it is a matter of sliding along the line of opponents on the horizon, then releasing a barrage of shots to take them all out at once. If you're fighting a boss, it's a different story. Here you must aim for weaknesses, avoid the counter-attack, and circle about to find the best perspective from which to safely attack. Boss battles often mean increasing or slowing your speed at just the right time so you can get to the side where a weakness is visible, or so you can avoid a particularly nasty bunch of missiles. This skill is called gliding. Other than in boss encounters, it's not particularly useful. However, you'll want to know about it because you'll definitely miss it should you choose a dragon form without the ability.

That's right; you can morph. There are several forms you can take, and a simple press of the button will change which one you are using. Each has different attributes. The base one is an all-around good dragon. Then there's the heavier version, which moves slowly and can't glide, but packs a mighty punch (good for fighting bosses and mini-bosses). There's also an alternative with delightfully high mobility and decent firepower, but this tends to be the last choice. It's more the dragon you'll be using when facing special circumstances in some levels. Choosing the proper form for the task at hand becomes monumentally important. One part of a stage may seem near impossible with one skill set, but another will blaze through it in no time. Often, particularly in a boss battle, the best choice is not one form, but a combination of the two. For example, you might need to glide around to an enemy's rear side, then switch to the attack style with tougher firepower to bring down the foe's gauge quickly.

One way to devastate an opponent's lengthy life meter is to use a berserk attack. The gauge for your attack fills up as you play through a level. When it's full, you can unleash your dragon's attack, which of course your enemy doesn't like. This requires good timing so you don't waste it. Again, strategy is key. Once you've used the attack, the gauge will slowly refill. If you take a long time in battle, you may get to use that berserk attack several times before all is said and done.

Of course, taking forever in battle means you're probably not very good. That's okay, though. This game was made for players of all skill levels. For one thing, there's the difficulty level. It's adjustable. So you can choose from easy, normal, and hard. Even within that, though, there are ways the game presses you to excel. In each episode, you're rated in several categories, from the number of hits you take, to your shot percentage, to the time you took battling the boss, and so forth. Since the game keeps track of rankings on each level, there's a constant desire to improve.

So yes, this game has some serious replay value. One problem is that you can only have one quest going at a time. This is frustrating because some levels are really cool and you'd like to play them over again, but instead you have to go through the whole game and retry. In one sense this does encourage replay, which is good, but on the other, it sucks because you can't just bring a friend over and skip directly to your favorite level to show him how beautiful this game is.

You should make no mistake: this title is absolutely gorgeous. The first level doesn't impress all that much, but it is a good intro. The second level is simply amazing, with rippling water and lush vegetation. Most levels after that are somewhere in between. There are plenty of times when you play that you'll just stop and stare at the surroundings. There's never any slowdown, really, and there's usually some good action on-screen. While not every area in which you play is beautiful, there's not a single moment where you feel like the developers got lazy.

Sound is another department that's excellent. The flap of dragon wings, the whoosh of wind about you, and the sound of distant gunfire all sounds just perfect. The dragons have nice squawks, too. There's also voice acting, which is not in English. The developers chose to go with a fantasy language (think Klingon, but not quite), so you'll be forced to read English text as the story unfolds. At times this is distracting, but it's hard to fault voice acting you can't understand.

With so many things pieced together so well, it's hard to point to any real flaws other than that you can't simply select a stage to replay. If there's one other flaw, though, it would be that the side quests just aren't enjoyable. Props to Smilebit for including them, but these little extra stages are only slightly more thrilling than a trip to the dentist. They suffer from bad controls or a huge beast that blocks your view of the action...or whatever. They're not really a strike against the game, though, because most developers wouldn't have bothered to include them.

Another thing you might not expect is the inclusion of Panzer Dragoon, the original title in this series. It was originally released on the Saturn, and now you can play it in all its glory on the Xbox. This is just one more way Smilebit made Panzer Dragoon Orta a worthwhile package. In summary, Panzer Dragoon Orta is one of the best shooters ever crafted for the Xbox or any system, a graphical delight with enough depth that even after you've completed it once or even a few times, you'll be likely to come back for another play. It's addictive and impressive, exactly the kind of title that belongs in any gamer's library. If you're hesitant to purchase it, pour a cup of ice water over your head and wake up, then get down to the nearest retailer. You'll thank yourself later.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (January 18, 2003)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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