Panzer Dragoon Orta – the final instalment in the SEGA published Panzer Dragoon series – is a hidden gem from the era of the original Xbox. A relative behemoth in the niche gaming genre of rail shooters, it’s a post-apocalyptic tale of a young girl forsaken by society – the titular Orta – who’s rescued from captivity by a comparably lonely ancient dragon. Relentlessly hunted by the antagonistic forces of the Empire, the game follows Orta’s journey as she attempts to make light of a world that continues to ostracise her and gain understanding of the complex, often conflicting chain of emotions that comes with being human. In retrospect, it was perhaps one of the most intricate and compelling video games of my childhood – with its prevalent themes of isolationism, morality and military oppression wrought together by excellent storytelling that continues to hold weight today.
At the time, however, my infatuation with the game had more to do with the fact that I got to ride a big ass dragon and spam lasers at unwavering hordes of alien-like foes for long periods of time. Despite my lack of experience with rail shooters prior to picking up Orta, I recall breezing through the majority of the game’s expansive but linear levels with comfortable ease. But its climax – an intense showdown with a multi-formed monster that had insisted on making your life living hell for the majority of the game – was a test of endurance that not only attested to the notorious spikes in difficulty often associated with rail shooters, but was an experience that would probably go on to shape my play habits forevermore.
A gruelling, ever-changing pattern of attacks. No health recovery between forms. Heck, seldom few opportunities to recover even the slightest bit of health at all. There was no cheesing your way through your face-off with the Cradle – you had to dodge blows with pinpoint precision, be extremely conservative of your health and time your special attacks to deliver maximum damage. It would be lying to say that finally finishing that bastard off and witnessing Orta’s relatively innocuous ending justified the countless attempts and fits of juvenile gamer rage I had racked up in the process. But if anything, the ordeal was a valuable lesson in perseverance and exercising caution in combat situations – and given that my death counts during recent playthroughs for Breath of The Wild and Nier: Automata were two and zero respectively, I’d like to think that it’s a lesson that I’ve learnt well. Although perhaps I could do with a lesson or two in the art of sitting down and being humble.
Although there wasn’t much more to gleam from Orta outside of the ten episodes that comprised its story, it did offer an interesting aside in the form of a bonus side story centred around Iva – an Imperial boy orphaned after his father died by the hands of Orta and her dragon. Plagued by an illness that required him to take medication daily, he’s forced to enrol the Empire’s military academy in order to survive and carry out his vengeance – even if it is at odds with his own viewpoint when it comes to war.
Much like the main story’s final boss, however, Iva’s missions proved to be frustrating – and courtesy of a wildly different control system and an unforgiving lack of do-overs, I failed the first in record time. As a result of my apparent ineptitude at piloting what looked like a hovering mobility scooter, Iva was deemed unfit to serve the Empire and thrown out into the desert. Without any of the medication he so desperately needed, he perished without a single person left to mourn his passing.
Where many people would’ve simply opted to try again without hesitation, Iva’s grisly fate in the desert served as head canon for myself. The irony of quitting after a single attempt is not missed given the whole perseverance spiel I gave earlier, but there was a morbid finality to the method in which the game framed his death – an almost otherworldly journal entry from his perspective – that personally I deemed as ideal closure for his tale. Perhaps it wasn’t the conclusion that the game’s writers had intended for poor Iva, but it was a plausible one given the horrifying state of the world he inhabited. He’d be a tragic footnote that demonstrated the depths of inhumanity society will sink to enforce their own rotten agendas.
On a more positive note, however, Orta is a fantastic footnote in the timeline of my gaming experience. It’s sad to think we’ll probably never seen another entry in the Panzer Dragoon saga given both the studios that developed – Team Andromeda and Smilebit – have ceased to exist, but I’ll hold on to the hope that one day somebody might just defy the odds and breath life into the series once again.