When Nintendo revealed during its 2019 E3 presentation that a remake of Panzer Dragoon was coming to the Switch, we were pleasantly surprised. When this week’s Nintendo Direct Mini then confirmed that it was available to buy, we were once again delighted by the unexpected news. Now we’ve played it we’re slightly less overjoyed – but still grateful it exists.
For those unfamiliar with the Sega Saturn original, Panzer Dragoon casts you as Keil, a hunter who finds himself caught up in an adventure when he witnesses two dragon-riding warriors fighting each other. When one is fatally wounded, he asks Keil to take his dragon and stop the other one from reaching the ominous black tower.
Cue six stages of on-rails shooting action atop your new dragon pal, on an adventure that takes roughly an hour to beat (not taking deaths and continues into account). This may seem a little on the short side, but... okay, it is.
The main gimmick in Panzer Dragoon that separates it from other on-rails flight combat games like Star Fox is the ability to press the shoulder buttons to rotate the camera 90 degrees. Enemies can approach you from the sides and the rear so you need to keep an eye on your radar and adjust your view accordingly.
Combat consists of two types of shot: a standard blast by tapping the shot button and a far more effective homing shot that lets you lock onto multiple targets by holding the button down before unleashing blue ribbons of hell onto them by letting it go. While most enemies are more effectively defeated by the homing shot, others (and most types of missile) can only be taken out with the standard gun, so learning which weapon to use is the key.
This Switch remake has two control systems to choose from: a ‘Classic’ configuration that matches the original’s relatively closely, and a new ‘Modern’ option. Classic will be the set-up most familiar to fans of the original, with players able to use either the left stick or the D-Pad to both move and aim at the same time (inverted aiming is off by default but you can turn it on).
Modern, meanwhile, adds a twin-stick system that lets you move with the left stick and aim your crosshair with the right one. This allows you to stay in one place while aiming – something not possible in the original version – which is useful because it makes it less likely that you’ll fly directly into enemy fire while trying to line up a shot.
Having both options is welcome, but each has their own issues. As already explained, the Classic controls make it impossible to move and aim in separate directions, whereas the Modern version assigns shots to the ZL and ZR buttons: no big deal when using a Pro Controller but extremely uncomfortable when playing in handheld mode because of the claw shapes you have to make with your hands to reach both sticks and a trigger at the same time.
Whichever you choose, aiming will require an adjustment period. As in the original, your aiming reticule consists of a line of boxes that goes into the distance; this is designed to make it easier to aim in three dimensions, but it’s a bit hit-and-miss in practice and the analogue controls are quite stiff, despite the option to adjust sensitivity. A patch is coming that will apparently add gyro controls – we’re up for that in theory, but need to wait and see how it plays out in practice.
It’s also significantly slower to rotate the camera here than it was in the original. In the past you could zip from the front view to the side views and the rear view in fairly zippy fashion, but this time it does take a bit longer. In moments where you’re taking on shots and enemies from all angles it can sometimes feel like it’s struggling to keep up with the pace.
On top of this, there’s an odd visual quirk in which your aiming reticule actually appears on top of your character. It’s a little hard to explain in words, but on the Saturn the reticule was always in front of the character, which made sense: you’re playing as them, and you’re controlling their aim. By placing the cursor on top of the character it can instead feel like you’re controlling someone else who’s sat behind them. It isn’t a massive deal in the grand scheme of things, but it does affect the immersion a little for those used to the original’s aiming system.
The visuals are something of a mixed bag, too. There’s no denying that the game is a significant improvement over the original; you only need to put the two side-by-side and you’ll see a night and day difference. That said, we aren’t exactly talking Link’s Awakening here; taken on its own merits, it’s still a fairly basic-looking game with low-poly models, an underwhelming frame rate and some rough scenery – especially in handheld mode.
One area that can’t be questioned, however, is the music. The Saturn version’s incredible orchestral soundtrack is here in all its glory and it still sounds as phenomenal as it did 25 years ago. There’s an optional remixed soundtrack coming in another patch for anyone who’s looking for something new to go with the update graphics. It wasn’t quite ready in time for us to check it out for the review, however, so the jury’s out on how it sounds.
Panzer Dragoon: Remake is an interesting take on a classic that may ultimately only appeal to some fans. It’s far too short for the price, meaning anyone who doesn’t have any interest in its legacy may not be able to see past the fact that they’re paying about $25 for a game that’s over in an hour or two.
It’s very much aimed at those with a love for the original game, then, or at least a curious interest as to why it’s considered such a classic. The various control and design updates are likely to divide the die-hards, but it’s still Panzer Dragoon at its core and with the same studio planning to also remake the vastly superior Panzer Dragoon II Zwei, consider us cautiously optimistic for that one.
Panzer Dragoon: Remake is a decent take on an all-time classic that goes some way to modernising it, but doesn't quite nail the landing. Awkward controls and a visual style that's a clear improvement but could still look much better result in a game that’s mainly for fans of the original who are curious to see how it would look with a new lick of paint.