Title :Panzer Dragoon Orta
Platforms :Microsoft Xbox
Publisher :Sega
ESRB Rating :Teen
Game Rating :9.0
Review by :Ken Gagne

Its name is legendary. Its wrath, terrifying. And its power… is yours to control in Panzer Dragoon Orta, a Microsoft Xbox game from Sega. 

This game will be many people's first experience in the universe of Panzer Dragoon, a highly acclaimed series which previously languished on the ill-fated Sega Saturn. Veterans will appreciate the many references this fourth title makes to its predecessors, but newcomers will also find Orta welcoming. 

Or at least as welcoming as a desolate world ravaged by war can be. Ten millennia after the fall of the Ancients' advanced civilization, the secrets of their biotechnological warfare continue to lay waste to the world, making it home to aeon-old monsters, machines, and other hostile fauna. The draconian Empire is about to seize a young girl, Orta, who possesses an untold power, when she is suddenly rescued by a mythological dragon. Players assume control of this rider-and-mount duo as they uncover the secrets of Orta's past and undermine the Empire's intentions. 

PDO occupies the genre of rail shooter, though that is a simplification. A rail shooter is a 3D flying/shooting game that progresses along a fixed path at a set pace. In PDO, though it's true that Orta and her dragon are consistently flying forward, players can interact with the world in 360 degrees, turning the camera to either side or behind the winged beast, and above and below to some extent, to address offenses from many directions. The dragon can also speed up or slow down, be it for ramming enemies, maneuvering to their sides, or to evade attack. Each level offers varying branches, though these variations occur so subtly that several replays are required to notice what variables determine the path taken. Sadly, I've found no way to revisit a past level, as the game saves one's position and restarts there each time. 

When flying, Orta can instantly morph her dragon into three forms, each with different offensive and defensive capabilities suitable for various scenarios. Her main weapon is the ability to "paint" enemies, which are then locked-on with homing lasers. The frenetic pace, swarms of foes, and huge bosses make this game difficult, but only nearly impossible – requiring several replays to clear a single level. 

The only indication players have of the dragon's current form is recognizing its shape. In the heat of battle a teeming with missiles and lasers and with various evolutionary stages of each dragon form, it can be difficult to discern which one is present, and how many times to press the morph button to achieve the desired state. The targeting cursor can also sometimes be lost amidst the flurry of volleys. 

Such a pace would be unimaginable without clarity of graphics to depict it all. Not only does the Xbox assault players with a variety of monstrous foes, but the hostility of the environment itself is transmitted in images of ancient and barren vistas over which Orta flies. 

The graphics are occasionally accompanied by spoken dialogue which favors neither English nor Japanese, but uses "Panzereese", a fantasy tongue that combines the elements of many real world languages. It's softer on the ears than Klingon, while being assuredly foreign to any gamer. 

Expanding this fantasy is a cornucopia of unlockable bonuses, including encyclopedia entries, films and art galleries, and the entire original Panzer Dragoon game. Events in each previous Panzer Dragoon has contributed to the world in which Orta now finds herself, so reading or playing these extras helps bring her dead world to life. These cerebral extras exist outside gameplay, providing antipodal moments to the numbing and furious action players encounter when astride the dragon. 

Panzer Dragoon Orta gives a fully fleshed-out experience to gamers looking for a challenging shooting game. While the storyline is intriguing, when the game switches back to action, it's best to turn the mind off and simply shoot at anything that moves. Here's hoping this game is the success it should be, and that Sega continues with this series. 

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This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 27-Jan-03