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Looking back, Panzer Dragoon was one of the integral series that solidified my identity as a “hardcore” gamer. Unlike many fans of Panzer Dragoon, I caught the bug at the end of its life span. Unfortunately, I never owned a Saturn back when it was current, so my early (and brief) memories of the series were from playing it at a friend’s house. Several years later, I got an Xbox, and a subscription to the Official Xbox Magazine. In one particular issue, there was a game that blew the writers away; that game was Panzer Dragoon Orta. The screens in the magazine looked incredible, and being in the midst of an obsession with all-things Japanese (which didn’t go away for a very long time), I knew the game was a must-have. Suffice to say, it was a religious experience. Although it was a mere on-rails shooter, I was in awe of the rich science fantasy universe. I say that Panzer Dragoon solidified my hardcore gamer status (I hate that term), because it was one of the first games I can remember where I actively sought out as much concept art as possible. Included as a bonus feature in Orta was the entire original Panzer Dragoon (albeit the PC version). Although the regression from Orta’s beautiful graphics to the original game was fairly jarring, the gameplay was similar, and as the years have passed, I’ve really come to really enjoy it in its own right.

panzer dragoon

If you have a choice, I recommend picking up the Japanese version of the game. It features artwork by the legendary Jean “Moebius” Giraud.

Panzer Dragoon
Developer: Team Andromeda
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: Saturn (Japanese version featured), PC, Xbox (unlockable in Panzer Dragoon Orta), PS2 (Sega Ages enhanced port)
Release Date: 1995

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 6

This might look a lazy summer day, but in fact this is the most difficult stage in the game.

I have a real fondness for sci-fi that sets in the incredibly distant future. The reason for this is because it gives the creators carte blanche to throw any present-day taboos and moral norms out the window. Furthermore, creators are free to eschew modern design sensibilities; as far as the visuals are concerned, the sky’s the limit. Panzer Dragoon takes place thousands of years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic landscape that has been devastated by human-made bioweapons. Post-apocalyptic settings are fairly common in Japanese entertainment, and thankfully, they are rarely a mere copy of Mad Max, as is often the case in modern, North American post-apocalyptic settings.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 1

This beautiful sunken city provides a great intro to the game’s mechanics.

In Panzer Dragoon, humans have started to form factions to rebuild society, but are constantly at the mercy of dangerous creatures that roam the Earth. One of these factions, the Empire, have found an ancient weapons stockpile in a large black tower. Harnessing the weapons, they create a militant regime that enslaves their populace. Meanwhile, in an FMV that appears at the outset of the game, a lone hunter named Keil Fluge gets separated from his hunting party, and witnesses a rider on a large blue dragon get killed by a black dragon. The blue dragon approaches Keil, telepathically telling him that the black dragon can’t be allowed to reach the black tower. Keil mounts the blue dragon, thus taking on the quest of the deceased rider. The Empire seeks to kill the blue dragon, meaning that as Keil, you spend the game’s seven episodes hunting the black dragon, while thwarting the Empire’s countless gunships.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 4

Sega proving that it’s games are still the fastest in town. This corridor level is lighting quick.

Panzer Dragoon‘s graphics might be archaic by today’s standard, but in 1995, a console shooter that took place in a fully 3D environment was cutting edge. Those of us who were gaming when consoles made the leap from 2D to 3D remember how exciting the experience was. That being said, even at the time, the Saturn wasn’t known for having particularly impressive 3D visuals, especially compared to later games that were released for the PSX and N64. In 1996, Panzer’s graphics may have been impressive, but now, many of the game’s smaller enemies look like polygonal smudges. The large airships and other bosses look decent, as do the environments, which are fairly basic, but make nice use of the available color palette.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 10

The Dune influence is pretty obvious here.

If you’re willing to look past the dated graphics, Dragoon’s visual design and mood are one of a kind, at least in the world of video games. Borrowing from classics like Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Moebius’ Arzach, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Dragoon’s style wasn’t totally unique, but it was, and still is, quite different from most video game sci-fi design. The game presents a mix of primitive technology with super advanced tech. The bedouin-inspired clothing and turn-of-century airships juxtapose with the high-tech remnants of the pre-apocalypse civilization. Speaking of the airships, instead of looking like cylindrical zeppelins, they come in strange conical shapes. Takashi Iwade, the lead character designer, said in an interview that instead of drawing inspiration from typical sci-fi anime, he looked at things like industrial revolution-era mechanics, myriapods, marine mollusks, and ammonite for inspiration. This creative approach to design has always been my favorite aspect of the series. Every stage has its own unique environment, ranging from a sunken city, to an underground labyrinth.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 12

The boss fights are really strong, and almost always  transform through multiple forms.

In terms of gameplay, PD introduced an on-rails attack system that has been emulated by several games since (Sin & Punishment and Rez come to mind). Essentially, you can hold the shoot button down to lock onto several targets and fire homing lasers, or you can repeatedly tap the shoot button to fire rapid volleys of weak projectiles. The system sounds simple, but allows for a deep level of mastery. Although it’s tempting to mostly use the lock-on attack, the rapid fire is required should you need to shoot down incoming enemy missiles. Also, as any PD fan knows, you’ll deal significantly more damage to bosses if you alternate to rapid fire during the few seconds while your homing attack cools down. In addition to the duel firing options, Keil can be rotated to face any one of four directions (front, sides, and rear). This adds significantly to the challenge, because if you aren’t careful you’ll find yourself being attacked from multiple directions at the same time. Luckily, an onscreen radar shows you where to expecting incoming enemies, and the game is programmed such that if you time the location of your attacks, you’ll never be fired on from two directions at once.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 11

The lock-on homing shot getting some play.

As with any shooter, the best defense is a solid offence. Surviving in PD means shooting down enemies before they can fire at you. Your character has a relatively small health bar, so you really need to stay on your toes to see the game’s ending. My biggest complaint with PD’s gameplay is something that was fixed in later entries. Basically, there are times when you’ll be facing the proper direction of incoming projectiles, but your aiming reticule is just out-of-reach. You can’t target the entire view screen, which is something I’ve found to be pretty annoying. You know a projectile is incoming, and you have plenty of time to react, but you just can’t seem to hit the stupid thing! Other than that, the game has a reasonable difficulty progression. Other than Stage 5, which is really difficult, the game is challenging, without being too punishing.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 8

Expect plenty of cutscenes that flesh out the story.

Panzer Dragoon’s visuals might seem primitive to modern gamers, but if there’s one element of the game that hasn’t aged since 1996, it’s the incredible soundtrack. When I say incredible, I mean: “one of the best video game soundtracks of all time” incredible. Seriously, it’s that good. Composed by Yoshitaka Azuma, it was his first video game soundtrack. The title track sounds like an Ennio Morricone song, and is comparable in tone to the title track of a Miyazaki film. Meanwhile, the rest of the songs have a more electronic, proggy sound. I’ve heard that Azuma was influenced by Tangerine Dream, so if you like their brand of ambient electronic music, you’re in for a huge treat. I’m not someone who owns many OST’s, but I’d place this near the top of my list of must-haves. In a game where you’ll inevitably die several times on the later stages, it’s nice to have a good musical accompaniment to your failure.

Panzer Dragoon might not be the prettiest game in the series, but considering it was the first entry, it established a truly unique setting and gameplay system. If you like on-rails shooters, PD is a classic example of the genre. This is a game that’s long overdue for an enhanced remake, and would probably find a receptive audience as a digital download, or as a physical release on a system like the 3DS.

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Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Panzer Dragoon

 

Comics seem like an ideal medium for science fiction. From an artistic perspective, the possibilities are near infinite, and unlike in other visual mediums (i.e. movies, television, and video games) you’re free to be as imaginative as possible, without having to worry about budget restraints. Narratively, you might not have the same freedom as in a novel, but you should be able to at least parallel the storytelling of any visual medium. Furthermore, the serialized nature of comics lends itself well to an ongoing saga. With all that in mind, you would think that 70-something years of comics would have given us all kinds of classic sci-fi. In places like Europe and Japan, this is the case, but in North America, there’s still a lot to be desired. Sure, the States has given us a million different superhero comics, each of which exhibit elements 0f science fiction, but none of them are what I would consider true sci-fi (or at least not the sci-fi I’m looking for). I doubt my readers will be shocked or offended to hear that I really couldn’t care less for most superheros; sorry folks. The only sci-fi sub-genre that has gotten a decent degree of attention in the States is cyberpunk; perhaps because it’s so visually appealing, and it’s often fairly near future. Otherwise, you’re mostly relegated to media tie-ins with movies or video games; Halo, Gears of War, Star Wars, Ender’s Game, and Aliens come to mind. Luckily, the recent reboot of Prophet is a huge step in the step in the right direction. This review focuses on the first six issues of the reboot, which can be found in the Prophet: Remission trade paperback.

Prophet Remission -- Cover Art Simon Roy

Prophet: Remission TPB Cover — Art Simon Roy

Prophet: Remission TPB
Publisher: Image Comics
Volume: 1
Issues: #21 – 26
Main Writer: Brandon Graham
Illustrators: Simon Roy (Issues 21-23), Farel Dalrymple (Issue 24), Brandon Graham (Issue 25), Giannis Milogiannis (Issue 26)
Colors: Richard Ballerman (issue 21-23), Joseph Bergin (Issues 24, 26), Brandon Graham (Issue 25)
Release Date: 2012

Prophet was originally an Image superhero comic that debuted in 1992. After eleven issues, it was put on hold, and then later continued for another eight issues in 1995. In 2011, Image announced that it had plans to reboot the Prophet series. For whatever reason, they decided to continue the series at issue #21, rather than just starting back at #1. The content of the reboot has (from what I understand) nothing to do with the original series, so I can’t imagine why they bothered to continue with the old numbering. Suffice to say, I’m sure it was due to some strange politics or marketing within Image.

Prophet Issue 24 -- Cover Farel Dalrymple

Prophet Issue 24 Cover — Farel Dalrymple

The revamp comes to us courteousy of writer and artist, Brandon Graham. Previous to Graham‘s work with Prophet, he wrote and illustrated several indie comics that I haven’t read, but have heard are quite good. I spent some time reading Graham’s personal blog; it’s obvious that he’s a big sci-fi fan, and his inspirations range from Miyamoto‘s work on Nausicaa, to Moebius‘ contributions to Métal Hurlant in the 70’s. Anyone with those inspirations is a winner in my book.

Prophet tells the tale of a man named John Prophet who awakens in the distant future, on a planet that seems very alien. His mission is to reignite the empire of man, which has been dormant for (assumedly) many years. To accomplish this task, John must travel to a distant mountain, around which orbits a satellite that he can use to relay a crucial message. After a few issues, the story arc takes a slight turn, and we realize that the world of Prophet is actually incredibly expansive. Apparently Graham has gone on record for saying that one of his goals with the comic is to “one-up” Conan at its own game. Like in any Conan story, Prophet is constantly referencing individuals, places, and events that the reader is likely unaware of. This creates the allusion of a rich universe and backstory, but is also fairly confusing, considering that we have no idea what anyone’s talking about. Another comic that comes to mind is The Metabarons series by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Prophet Issue 24 -- Farel Dalrymple

Prophet Issue 24 — Farel Dalrymple

Prophet Issue 21 -- Simon Roy

Prophet Issue 21 — Simon Roy

Prophet is refreshingly creative, and constantly challenges the norms that we’ve come to expect from sci-fi. Within the first couple issues, John explores a meat farm, a city that’s fashioned out of a giant decomposing organism, and a living creature whose inhabitants travel around in like a train. The later issues feature even more imaginative locales, and within the first six issues contained in Remission, we explore several planets. Graham, who was the chief writer, does a great job of blending grim sequences with effective comedy relief. Issue 24 (chapter 4 of the tpb) is extremely dark, and features a twisted doppelganger version of the protagonist stalking him through endless corridors. On the flip side, issue 25 is really light in tone, and features a fun planet-hopping robot.

At the risk of sounding overly positive, I need to point out that Prophet can be reasonably difficult to follow. As mentioned earlier, random events and people are frequently mentioned, sometimes at the expense of the main storyline’s clarity. Furthermore, nearly every issue features different protagonists, each of which have goals or motives that aren’t clearly explained. The protagonists are always in search of something, but what that is, or why, is often unclear. That being said, Remission only contains the first six issues; I have no doubt that things will start to make more sense in the later issues.

Prophet Issue 22 -- Simon Roy

Prophet Issue 22 — Simon Roy

Prophet Issue 23 -- Cover Simon Roy

Prophet Issue 23 Cover — Simon Roy

This wouldn’t be a Xenomorphosis post without a heavy analysis of Prophet‘s visuals. It should be no surprise that the artwork was the first thing that drew me to the comic. Within the first six issues, we’re introduced to no fewer than four illustrators, each of which were obviously inspired by french comics like those of the aformentioned Moebius. Like with Moebius, the art is heavily focused around detailed line drawings, and the shading is accomplished more through hatching than through solid black ink shading. The colors are vibrant, and each locale has a predominant color palette. Also like in Moebius’ comics, the coloring looks like a loose watercolor, although in this case it is clearly done digitally. I personally love this style, and I think it serves as a great tribute to the works that inspired Prophet.

Interestingly, the branching storylines are each illustrated by a different artist. Graham explained in an interview that this was intentional, and is meant to reflect the differences lens through which each character perceives the world around them. The only downside to this approach is that it makes the storyline even harder to follow.

Prophet Issue 25 -- Brandon Graham

Prophet Issue 25 — Brandon Graham

So, who are these artists? Simon Roy (Atomic Heart) for issue 21-23, Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War) for issue 24, Brandon Graham for issue 25, and Giannis Milonogiannis (Old City Blues) for Issue 26. Presumabely under Graham‘s direction, each artist does an excellent job of bringing Prophet’s imaginative world to life. Of the three, Graham’s style is by far the most surreal and “frantic” (in a good way). He’s clearly more influenced by Japanese pop-art aesthetics than the other two, which makes sense considering that he has illustrated comics for publishers that usually deal exclusively in Japanese content. Although his artwork is fairly different than the other two, it’s just as impressive, and serves to add to the overall quirkiness of the comic. Milonogiannis‘ art is also Japanese-inspired, just not with the same pop-art aesthetic.

For anyone like me who’s been waiting for a North American sci-fi comic that isn’t based on an existing intellectual property, I can’t recommend Prophet highly enough. However, be aware that you’re in for a crazy, surreal ride, albeit a ride that is grounded in a strong concept. Sci-fi fans who stick closely to traditional content might find Prophet’s dismissal of genre conventions off-putting. On the flip-side, even non sci-fi fans will appreciate the modern quality of the artwork and stroytelling. Graham’s art in particular would be right at home in magazine’s like Juxtapoz. I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on this comic in the future. Hopefully Prophet inspires many more North American sci-fi comics!

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Prophet: Remission-related images