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On the surface, Panzer Dragoon Saga has much in common with Final Fantasy VII. They’re both flagship JRPGs that span multiple discs. They’re both packed with cinematics. They both feature youthful male protagonists who encounter mysterious women with ancient powers.

The similarities pretty much end there, however. These two 32-bit games both adopt wildly different approaches to the JRPG genre. Furthermore, their legacies could not be more different. One is currently on part two of a three-part remake; the other is stranded on a 30-year-old console.

The gameplay in Panzer Dragoon Saga is a mix of on-foot traversal, dragon riding, and streamlined JRPG combat, which uses a variant of Square’s ATB system. Battle is all about positioning. You and your dragoon can move around to hunt for weak points or to avoid the brunt of enemy fire, and all the while your opponents do the same, hoping to gain the upper hand. You’re free to reposition yourself at any time, but actions can only be performed by consuming the ATB meter; often you’ll find yourself dodging while the ATB meter charges, and then moving into attack position when ready. Although relatively simple in practice, the combat is generally quite engaging. Enemies all have different patterns to analyze and take advantage of, and it’s fun to figure them out.

Enough about the combat, though. What really makes Panzer Dragoon Saga is the vibe. It mixes the innocent charm of Ocarina of Time and with the mysterious wonder of Shadow of the Colossus, while also taking clear inspiration from the classic Studio Ghibli films Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky.

Most impressive is the sense of scale. Despite the Saturn’s limited capabilities – the draw distance is frankly awful – this game feels big. The story takes you to a variety of locations, from mines and canyons to deserts and lakes, and each one feels majestic in its own way. Compared to modern games, the presentation is extremely spartan, but this actually works to the game’s advantage: My imagination fills in the gaps better than another couple million polygons ever could.

The story itself is a bit all over the place. You control a stereotypical shonen named Edge, who is hell-bent on vengeance, but he feels less like a protagonist and more like an accidental passenger in an adventure that’s way above his pay grade. It’s always a fun ride, though, and I enjoyed the cutscenes both for their content and artistic direction. The ending is touching, as well, and totally out of the Studio Ghibli playbook (albeit not as masterfully executed).

Is Panzer Dragoon Saga the “Final Fantasy killer” that all the magazines proclaimed it to be back in the 90s? Not at all. But it’s a strong game; one that does its own thing and thankfully doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. While it’s not an all-time great, it easily lives up to its reputation as a lost classic. If you enjoy unique games and have the means, don’t hesitate to check it out.

There's a solid game here but it's targeting two gameplay fantasies that will limit its appeal:

1. The element of management sims where you adjust randomly-generated personnel to get the most out of their unique skillsets while minimizing their shortcomings
2. Elements of games like Crusader Kings or The Sims where you can play matchmaker and watch the characters autonomously develop their own relationships as they age

If you strip out those, this is essentially an idle game, but they attempt to make up for it by layering a lot of extra considerations on top of those systems. People have their own skills but they also have their own passions and idiosyncracies, and all of these factor in when deciding how happy and productive they are in their workplace. If your brain is wired like mine there's a lot of fun to be had in shuffling people around and attempting to let everyone work the job they're most passionate about without making too many sacrifices with regard to production.

The thing that can ruin this whole experience, really, is realizing that it all comes back to production. Happiness, life expectancy, all of this is about having a productive workforce that makes numbers go up instead of down. They do a decent job of tuning this so that you have to engage in some strategy when assigning jobs, but it's not so challenging that you'll find yourself optimizing forever. There are long stretches of downtime in the game (largely mitigated by a ridiculously powerful fast-forward feature) that reveal that idle game underneath all of this, waiting for resource stockpiles to tick up until they reach a threshold that allows you to construct a new building, improvement, or invite some new villagers. Again, I don't think this is necessarily bad, but some people who are lured in by the strategy here will hit that dreaded point where they decide they've cracked the puzzle box before the game has finished showing all its tricks.

On a more positive note, though, it leans really hard into those fantasies I mentioned earlier. If you, like me, are used to games with this art style being casual cozy puzzlers or digital toys, you will be surprised by how many numbers and meters are in this thing. People have stats, skills, personality traits, likes and dislikes, health, social class, job preferences, and relationships - all of which factor into their ability to do their job and get along with other people in the village while doing so. The game does a good job of highlighting the relevant info, though, meaning that when you're doing the work of placing these people in a job or a relationship, it feels more like you're looking at a business card than jumping headfirst into a decade-old spreadsheet. It creates a situation where you never have to consider more stats than you want to, but continually offers just a little more in the way of stats that can be optimized if you want to really get everything exactly right.

Hard to say too much more than that. If you want to tinker directly with the social foundations of a village and then sit back and watch as it grows into a kingdom, this game is designed for you more than any other game has been designed for you. If you're hoping for a city builder or a particularly challenging strategy game, you might still find some value in this if you're willing to meet it on its own terms, but that's much easier to do if you're picking it up during a sale.

this game STILL feels like shit to play, it STILL feels like slamming 2 pngs together and watching them fly around the screen. I refuse to accept the revisionist history that what I played in 2022 was a beta

Masterfully surreal and endearing. The less you know the better, just play it. Hair to hair.

That’s an interesting positive opinion you have of Kane & Lynch 2. Which video essay did you get it from?

Yeah, sorry, everyone. Kane & Lynch 2 is fucking phenomenal. I was ping-ponging between the hope that this would be as great as all of the Very Serious Gamethinkers have been putting it up as in the retrospective, and the alternative that this was a complete dumpster fire that's only been gassed up in the past few years thanks to the efforts of some people as influential as they are pretentious. Hell, that second one might still be true. Maybe I’m the chichi dickhead and the call is coming from inside the house. What I can’t begin to deny, however, is that I loved nearly every moment of this game. It does everything that it set out to do, and is almost everything that I wanted it to be. I don’t have any idea how IO managed to trick Square Enix into funding this, and then somehow tricked them further into releasing it. What I do know is that nobody is ever going to be allowed to release something this intentionally sloppy at this scale ever again. We’re all too consolidated now. Too global, too safe. Anyone else trying to fool a Japanese studio into giving them millions to make some shit inspired by snuff films is going to be caught the second that they get the in-house translator to actually read your proposal.

Kane & Lynch 2 is alive, and it’s fucking mad. It doesn’t want to be. It knows what you want from it, and it hates you for that. Lynch ducks behind a chest-high wall or a stone pillar, and you think that it would protect him from incoming bullets, because you think that you speak the same language as Kane & Lynch 2. You think Kane & Lynch 2 wants you to play it the way that you play its contemporaries — what you believe to be its peers. Lynch gets shot while he hides in cover. Fuck you. Enemies will pepper away at your health from a distance, slowly, slowly chipping you down. If you’re not getting headshots, you’ll be doing much of the same. You expect to dig in and prepare for the slow grind, popping out whenever you can and quietly regenerating your health when under heavy fire. A guy you didn’t see then flanks you and kills you in something approximating sub-reaction time because enemy damage scales drastically based on their proximity to you. Fuck you. Gunshots and screams peak the audio track, evoking the period-accurate loudness wars and lo-fi recording equipment, leaving you in an overstimulated daze. Flashes of white and red and black and grey. So grey. Gunshots. Screams. You died. Do it again. More screams, more gunshots, more flashes. Fuck you. Fuck you.

Why are you so upset? Isn't this what you wanted? You wanted two guys with guns to go and rampage through some far-off country, never thinking twice about the bodies they're putting in the ground. You wanted stories about gritty, bad people making hard choices and killing anyone who gets in their way. You wanted these guys to be motivated solely by the excuse that they're providing for the women in their lives regardless of whether or not those women appreciate it. You wanted this. You asked for this. Now you've got it, and you're upset because you didn't understand what you were inviting into your home.

How else could this have gone?

Kane & Lynch 2 is a deeply ugly game, in every sense of the word. It has learned to hate. It hates itself, it hates you. Trying to pick out anything specific from this colorless milieu is like bobbing for bricks in a pool of wet concrete. To look at Kane & Lynch 2 is an act that requires backbone. This shit will put some hair on your chest. Don't get it twisted, though; there is purpose here. Much like its distant cousin Cruelty Squad, all of this hideousness wasn’t put in place by accident. We live in a world that’s beautiful, and to make it this utterly devoid of life, of color — yes, it was a trend at the time, but to suggest that as the only reason is to give up before you’ve considered any of the implications. If everyone was following a leader, then that leader had to have had a reason to do it first. On the surface, a lot of games looked like Kane & Lynch 2, but few games move like Kane & Lynch 2. Few games have characters as awful as Kane & Lynch 2. Few games are as unrepentantly miserable as Kane & Lynch 2.

I'm writing this right now through a splitting headache and a churning stomach brought on by an impacted wisdom tooth that I never got out, and I think that's the ideal physical state to be in while thinking about this game. I took a break after I wrote that last sentence and came back a day or two later with what’s probably a staph infection in my nose that’s probably going to need antibiotics. The cool thing about these write-ups is that there’s no sense of temporality outside of the exact context that I provide for you. I can lie, I can omit shit, I can skip over hours or days or however long I feel like skipping past and you’re forced to come along for the ride as a passive consumer. Kane & Lynch 2 will almost always give you a time, almost always a place, some sense of urgency — we need to meet for the deal tomorrow morning — but everything blurs together. In the hail of bullets and the identical-looking streets, you wind up lost. You can seek out all of the little landmarks or anchor points that you’d like, but they’re going to disappear behind walls and buildings that block your view even when you’re outdoors. In the open, in a building, it doesn’t matter. The city is built like a cell without windows. Time passes, but it’s really only clear that it is because the game is telling you that time is passing.

I cast my gaze upon Lynch, and his shitty hairline, and his awful clothes, and his destroyed mental state, and his inability to do fucking anything right besides hurt others, and my body feels as though it is flooded by divine light. I love Lynch. He's awful. He is the Elephant's Foot given flesh — a soft, advancing mass, a poisonous existence, radiating death. Less an "oh, he's just like me!", and rather a more subdued and disturbed "oh Christ, I could have been him." There’s something very raw, very pathetic about Lynch. Unlike Max Payne in his third game — a game which ripped this the fuck off, I should add — there’s nothing noble about Lynch. He’s not a poet, he’s not particularly smart, he’s not endearing. He’s a sick animal. He spends most of the firefights ranting to himself under his breath, going off about how he’s going to kill all the bastards shooting at him, but then switches gears and quietly weeps. None of this is presented as “badass” the way that a lot of mentally disturbed twisted fucking psychopath protagonists usually are. It’s pathetic. Lynch is not holding himself together, because his life is shit and it’s entirely his fault. While we get much less of Kane in this one, his story is broadly the same; he can’t stop hurting people, and he doesn’t have the excuse that he just fucked up, because always comes back for one last job. He’s addicted to this shit. Kane and Lynch deserve each other, and they deserve the life they live. They’re miserable people doling out misery and getting misery in return. The only conclusion is one where they're killed; the game ends with them getting on a plane and flying away, nothing resolved, with that responsibility shunted onto whoever has to come in and clean up after them. There is no closure. They will continue as they have been.

The only real problem I have is in the later stages of the game when Kane and Lynch hijack and helicopter and do a turret section. This alone isn’t bad. It’s an escalation that I think is a bit too far, but it’s fine. They crash land in the building they’re shooting up, then rampage through it in search of the mob-boss-cum-politician who’s been siccing his goons on the two of them. As they go through the offices below his penthouse, other helicopters fly up and start shooting at them, and it falls to the player to shoot back at the helicopters until they explode. The game, up until this point, has remained fairly grounded, and getting into helicopter fights is encroaching on Gordon Freeman’s turf. They don’t even have rocket launchers; they can blow up these helicopters with handgun rounds. It’s not necessary. The game feels far, far better when it’s a grounded shooting gallery where you can die in a fraction of a second from a guy with a MAC-10, and not when Lynch is given a sudden boost in survivability to help him in ducking minigun fire. Doubling down further on these small, lethal skirmishes would have accomplished a lot more tonally than adding helicopter minibosses.

This is Blood on the Sand if it was on purpose.

In January of last year, I made a review of this game, but I posted it on the page for the console version of the game because the GBA version didn't yet have a page on Backloggd (iirc, I don't think it even was listed as a platform on the other page? I've slept since then, though). I... was going to include the original review at the end of this one for posterity, but I already deleted that log, and then I forgot to paste it and now it's gone, so... oops. You're not missing too much though - onto the actual review.

Batman Vengeance on GBA is a strangely ambitious game. Upon hearing about it, you probably assume you'll just do some light platforming in 2D action levels as Batman, as pretty much all previous and future handheld Batman games have done, but in reality, this game features a whopping four different gameplay styles. Anytime I think of this game, I ask myself "why did they do so much with this game?" I feel as though they intended on only having the Batman sections, and maybe one other, but some execs were like "oh, we want to include the Batplane and Batmobile in to sell people on the game, you need to include those. And people like Robin, right? Give him some levels." And then what was perhaps a lowkey game turned into four different gameplay styles in one (can you tell I have no idea how these things work? My point is just that this game is really loaded and I imagine they were pushed to do so).

Batman's levels are pretty much as I described above, 2D platforming across rooftops and in villain hideouts with simple combat mechanics. Enemies are defeated in no more than three hits, and don't really pose a threat. Batman can glide to cross larger gaps (a surprisingly niche ability across Batman games from my experience - really, his gliding I feel is underutilized in most media) which is somewhat unique amongst its peers, and has the Batclaw to climb to ceilings directly above him, and Batarangs to take out farther enemies. These levels are really nothing special. The first two settings - across Gotham's rooftops and in a building occupied by Mister Freeze - are plain and don't really have any frills. The third set of levels has you scaling up a large building that's been infested with Poison Ivy's plants, so it has a lot more verticality and push you to glide a lot more. Then finally you take on the Joker and Harley at some gasworks which has you using some elevators and limited ziplines; ziplines might sound exciting, but it's really not. The Poison Ivy levels are the peak of the Batman levels, and they're not very special, either. Unsurprisingly, the Batman sections take up the most time of the game, yet they're the last part of the game I think about; they're not good enough to be what I remember most fondly, and they're not bad enough to be was I grimace at in remembrance. They're entirely mediocre.

Next are the Batmobile levels which actually utilizes the setting of the game really well! Gotham City is in the U.S., and boy do these streets keep in mind American infrastructure really well! Semis barreling down the highway, cars speeding down the wrong side of the road or in the middle of it, massive potholes freckling the pavement, and construction ramps and crates littering the way - Gotham put these construction efforts in five years ago, and they aren't planning on being done until 2028, so Gothamites will just have to deal with these for a while. The streets don't make any geographical sense (this is also an American infrastructure thing, not a jab at the game design), and all the highways hilariously end in either sharp 90 degree turns to get into another street, a dead end that's just a building, or, my favorite, more construction. But until you reach the end of the levels, you'll be met with what could be called a Spy Hunter clone. I haven't played Spy Hunter so it might not be a super apt comparison, but that's what it reminds me of - speeding down a highway while shooting at enemy vehicles. For offense, you get an electrical charge that stuns other cars. At first, I didn't realize you could just spam these things, but you really can with just zero drawbacks and effectively get rid of what would be the only bit of challenge in these levels; not that they were difficult to begin with, and frankly it's not very fun either way.

Then there's the worst part of the game: the Batplane. Sidescrolling shoot 'em up levels that are so slow and boring, and, again, not challenging. It's been a while, but from what I remember, the only thing I did in these levels was just hang out at the top as long as I didn't have to go through a narrow passage. You're practically invincible if you hang out at the top, and mostly just riding out till you finish the level, and once again you can just spam electrical charges and obliterate anything that might come your way. These levels really could have just been cut out, and I would say they should have been replaced with just more of the other level types, because this is the most dull and uninspired of the bunch. I guess a bone I'll give it is that this game uses the Batplane more than the entirety of the Arkham series? Congratulations?

Finally, there's my favorite set of levels, Robin of Lolo. Er, I also haven't played Adventure of Lolo, so that might also not be an apt comparison, but I'm using it lightly anyway. The Robin levels are all overhead puzzlers where you push and pull crates to get through rooms or find key cards and such, with some parts where you need to dodge obstacles and use an RC vehicle to hack into systems (a very strange gadget... I like to think he just got it for Christmas one year and upgraded it to hack into stuff). Are they the most enthralling puzzles I've seen? No, and I'm sure similar games use the concept much better, but I couldn't help but want more of them. If they had made a full game of just the Robin levels, well, I'd certainly try it out. Unfortunately, Robin only has two sets of levels. I think they are the longest singular levels, but only two sets.

Yeah, this game isn't very good. The Robin levels are decent, but that's the height of the game, and not really worth playing the whole thing for. Seeing the Animated Series designs used in 3D and then shrunken down for stills in the GBA cutscenes is charming, but that's reaching for positives. I don't think anybody can really call this a horrible game or anything, but there's nothing good enough for it to be notable. Just skip it.

Nintendo lowkey genius making the New Soup engine feel abhorrent with how slippery it is, so that they could sabotage future fangames.

WAIT
(quickly looking at pokemon go, then back to this, then back to go)
it was YOU

I felt like both a coward and a nobleman for not taping it to the desk fan

somewhere out there is a pokewalker housing a poor, lonely ursaring inside that I lost during a move eight years ago. i think about him and the cosmic, existential horror of being trapped in a digital oubliette a lot. i’m so sorry ursaring, you would have hated gen 9