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Panzer Dragoon: Remake review - flawed revisit to an off-kilter masterpiece

Andromeda strain.

A cult classic gets a fittingly strange remake whose patchiness can't obscure the original's brilliance.

Panzer Dragoon is a strange game. Otherworldly would probably be a more elaborate way of putting it: Sega's 1995 original overcame the more limited technology of the Saturn to transport players to a faraway fantasy touched by Frank Herbert's Dune and Hayao Mayazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It's a wonderfully alien place, where oversized insects scuttle under monumental pastel skies.

No wonder it lodged itself in players' imaginations, gaining a cult status that only seems to have grown in all the years since. There have been follow-ups and spin-offs - the RPG Panzer Dragoon Saga remains an all-time great, while Panzer Dragoon Orta, part of the fantastic wave of Sega games made for Microsoft's first Xbox, provided a muscular modern update and Xbox One launch title Crimson Dragon was a wonky but entertaining spiritual successor from series creator Yukio Futatsugi. This, though, goes back to the source for what is, for better and worse, a faithful retread of the original.

It's a slightly odd proposition, with Sega and the original development team seemingly uninvolved. Instead this is the work of Polish publisher Forever Entertainment and developer MegaPixel Studio, both relative unknowns - which might be why this feels, more often than not, like a fanmade project, with cut corners and slim production values. But it's important to emphasize the fan part of that equation, because this clearly comes from a place of passion, with the source material being treated with utmost respect.

One of the few concessions to modernity is a photo mode, though it just goes to highlight that this remake isn't much of a looker.

So, fundamentally, this is the same game. It's an on-rails shooter, though such a throwaway description doesn't do justice to the lineage of on-rails shooter to which this belongs: this is a continuation of the form Sega made its own with the likes of Space Harrier and Afterburner, and would later reinvent in scintillating style with Rez. Panzer Dragoon's lock-on system is similar to its successor Rez, utilising a satisfying scan and spray approach that has your reticule painting groups of enemies before they're disposed of in one brilliant barrage.

It felt fantastic back then and it feels fantastic now, and the remake presents two different approaches to the action. There's a modern control scheme that divides control between both sticks, with one moving the dragon you ride on and the other your aiming reticule, but while you're afforded a bit more direct control Panzer Dragoon simply isn't tuned for it - it's plain clumsy. The traditional control scheme, which uses the one stick, is the better option - it's how Panzer Dragoon was intended to be played, and it's where some of the idiosyncrasies come into focus. I've always loved how as a passenger you don't quite have direct control of the dragon you ride on, merely suggesting it move this way and that and making it feel much more alive as a result.

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With enemy placement and pacing identical to the original, what you're ultimately left looking at with this remake is the visual upgrade, which is perhaps the least convincing part of the package. That early 3D era polygon sparseness was part of Panzer Dragoon's ethereal appeal, and seeing the blank expanses filled in, you can't help but feel something's been lost. Something's been gained, too, for sure - the remake is faithful to the Moebius-esque artwork, and at times seeing that fleshed out is heart-stirring - but it's just as often muddy as it is marvelous, and any original claims of this running at 60fps are well wide of the mark, on the Switch at least.

Beyond all that, to call this package slim would be a polite overstatement. Instead, it's a confused mess - once locked into a playthrough you can't adjust simple settings such as the control method without exiting out to the main menu, there's nothing by way of extras and the remixed soundtrack from Panzer Dragoon Orta composter Saori Kobayashi is entirely absent at launch, to be patched in at a later date along with gyro controls. It's an odd state of affairs.

Still, Yoshitaka Azuma's original soundtrack is as majestic as ever, as is so much in what's always been a strange game. Perhaps it's only fitting that it would get a strange remake, from fans who seem several steps removed from the original. Their work is spotty, with a few too many oversights and blunders than would be ideal, but the spirit of 1995's Panzer Dragoon emerges intact. This isn't the perfectly pitched remake you might have hoped for, but it's still capable of soaring to some considerable heights.