I owe my adoration for Panzer Dragoon Zwei to the demo disc that came bundled with what was then our brand-new Saturn: Amongst other delights was a single playable level of Zwei – episode 3 (the forest stage) – a level that just so happens to be one of the greatest rail shooter experiences of all time. To say I was hooked was an understatement – I was enthralled. And thanks to the Saturn being viewed at the time as a “dead” system with “no good games” on it getting my paws on a copy of Team Andromeda’s wonderful work was no trouble at all, literally pocket change quantities of money.
If you’ve played the original Panzer Dragoon, its recently-released HD remake, or the magnificent Panzer Dragoon Orta (a game that’s backwards compatible with the Xbox One and available to buy digitally worldwide – don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back), you’ll already have a firm grasp of Zwei’s basics: The human sitting on top of dragon setup gives you two basic shot types – a rapid fire manually-aimed gun and a slower homing laser that can lock-on to anything in range. Enemies come at you from all sides with little warning and in an exciting twist to the standard rail shooter rules Panzer Dragoon series expects you to notice and prioritise multiple incoming targets yourself, aided by nothing more than your own reactions and the small radar in the top-right corner of the screen.
Sadly for all its undeniably quality Zwei’s something of the forgotten game of the series; unlike the Saturn launch original it’s never been ported to a range of popular formats (PC, PS2, Xbox) and it can’t hope to compete with the rarity, price tag, or inherent nerd-cred of RPG-lite series continuation Panzer Dragoon Saga. Even Orta, the revival nobody asked for on the format nobody played Japanese games on, enjoys a greater level of general accessibility and awareness thanks to the incredible efforts of the team responsible for the Xbox’s backwards compatibility (re)releases. Zwei’s more unusual problem is that – apart from being sandwiched between a genre-busting original and a revered RPG – it’s a great game with no notable flaws that’s always been available worldwide with little effort, which twenty-four years down the line on a relatively niche collector-friendly format brimming with highly desirable import titles makes it an easy game to overlook.
Those that do talk about it quite rightly praise the mesmerising soundtrack, the frequently “impossible” special effects (the water reflections used in the fourth episode’s boss area are especially beautiful), and the sheer excitement of taking Lagi and Lundi (that’s the dragon listed first, and not by accident) up against an evil empire’s mightiest fleets and an ancient civilisation’s worth of bio-mechanical monsters all at once. It’s utterly exhilarating – the double whammy of episodes three and four will forever be one of the finest slices of rail-shooting action ever created – but Zwei has real depth to it as well, enough to satisfy even the most accomplished score-chasing arcade veterans. There’s a whole layer of detailed points-related mechanisms working away in the background here, and by studying these we can learn to see Zwei not only as thrilling ride but also as a game designed with extreme attention to detail, a shooter that deserves to be lauded for the intense skill it demands of anyone hoping to earn themselves a high score or a good end-game rank.
Before I go any further I want to stress that the text below shouldn’t be taken as an attempt to “correct” the way people play Panzer Dragoon Zwei. The calculations and situational bonuses described here aren’t the level of understanding everyone should be working towards or some ultimate goal for people who really want to appreciate Zwei in the “right” sort of way at all – there are many ways of enjoying the game and I am genuinely thrilled at the thought of people playing in whatever way makes them smile. The aim here is to look beyond those beautiful first impressions and show that for all its outward bombast Zwei is aware of and dedicated to its genre roots, possessing a level of quality and craft that can withstand close examination even when viewed purely as a true arcade-style points scoring title.
Oh and one last thing: All of the information below either comes from my own experiences with the game, the Japanese manual, or the excellent Japanese guidebook “Die Welt von Panzer Dragoon” (this is an all-new translation by me just for this post – so do let me know if you spot an error!). All of the names used in this post are an unprofessional hodgepodge of official translations I happen to remember from my time with the English games and whatever’s written in the Japanese guidebook.
This peek into the inner workings of Zwei begins in the options menu: You need to set the instruments setting to “full”, and everything else to however you usually like it. Now you’ll see your score displayed at all times in the lower-right corner of the screen, route numbers pop up whenever a switch point comes up, precise point values and their corresponding multipliers whenever you defeat an enemy, and boss countdown timers too. The radar also changes slightly, with sectors turning yellow or red if a particularly dangerous threat is in that area. If your score or the boss timer’s flashing then that means you’ve either exceeded your previous highest score for that stage or you’re currently faster than your recorded best – good job! The game’s always keeping track of all of this data whether you choose to see it or not, but if you want to make the most of the scoring side of things then it’s obviously a good idea to play with all of this information on-screen so you can see for yourself how the game reacts to the things you shoot and the paths you take.
It might be a good idea to list a few universal points-assisting tips before we get into the more technical bits and pieces:
- Shoot anything that’s not the wall or the floor – there’s a lot besides enemies that can be destroyed, and you’ll get point bonuses for doing so.
- In theory, make sure you’ve got max lock on before firing (the targeting reticle will turn red) as the enemy’s base point value is multiplied by the number of targets you had locked-on when it was killed. However it’s better to shoot things down “wrong” than not at all – don’t get so caught up in playing perfectly you let enemies get away from you.
- Lagi’s lock-on ability and the lasers that come after it can reach around corners and go through unopened barriers – the only thing that matters is range. So if an enemy’s on the radar but there’s a wall in the way it’s still worth sweeping the cursor in that direction as you’ll probably catch them anyway.
- Lock-on targeting doesn’t break if you turn to face another direction so long as the enemy is still in range and you’ve not let go of the button.
- You can shoot Lundi’s gun and use Lagi’s lasers at (almost) the same time – lock on, release the lasers, then mash that fire button – you don’t have to wait for Lagi’s lasers to hit (this does not apply to his berserk shot, you do have to wait for that)!
- The game is not as aggressive as it first appears, even on harder difficulty levels. Most shots will be in your general direction but the majority aren’t actually heading straight towards you, so stay calm and prioritise your targets – from a scoring/shot down ratio perspective that’ll be anything about to leave the screen first, even if they’re not a threat.
However well (or otherwise) you end up doing Zwei’s ADEC System – that’s “Automatic Dragon and Enemies Control system” – is always busy adjusting the challenge sent your way, aiming to test the confident and ease off on those still learning the ropes. It’s adaptive difficulty before we had a common-use catchy name for the term. This is altered on-the-go based on five different factors: The number of continues used, the episode cleared, the total number of times the game’s been finished, the previous episode’s enemy shot down ratio, and Lagi’s current form. The standard game shifts up and down a scale of three difficulty levels – hard, normal, and easy – with a further three – super hard, super easy, and ultra easy – accessible via the unlockable Pandora’s Box difficulty select option. Besides the obvious life-saving/life-threatening adjustments to the game the ADEC System effects the score multiplier, ranging from one to three. The full x3 bonus is used on super hard and hard, x2 on normal and easy, with the base x1 reserved for super easy and ultra easy. If you’d like a simple theoretical example: Imagine an enemy awards 5000 points when killed. If the ADEC system has adjusted the difficulty up to hard then the player will get 15,000 points for shooting it down (5000×3), whereas someone on super easy will only gain a flat 5000 for dispatching the exact same monster.
If you’re going to worry about your score then it’s important in Zwei to consider which route you’re going to take to earn it. There are set points in episodes two, three, and four (there are none on episodes one, five, or six) where you can go down an alternative path, with the splits being so significant they last until the end of stage boss appears and feature their own unique enemy formations, minibosses, and even music. The first time you encounter this new addition to Panzer Dragoon’s formula is while running through the canyon in episode two: There’s a clear branch in the road, and players who veer to the left will end up taking Lagi on his first heart-stopping leap off the end of a sheer cliff face… and soar through the air, the pair of them taking down imperial airships as the go before landing and rejoining the main route to face the stage boss. The right path – the path you’ll go down unless you consciously choose the former – keeps Lagi on the ground, the two of them working their way through an imperial fort bristling with enemy forces and stopping to dismantle an exclusive miniboss on the way before heading to the final battle. Episode three’s choice is represented by a split in the dense forest trees (you will probably be busy being attacked by a trio of flying enemies at the time) – the left route is again the nonstandard option) – and episode four has not one but two additional paths, a very early upper one (route three – just after the first batch of enemies), and another found by taking route one until the point where you see a very narrow corridor ahead and a wide opening to the right – ahead is the final segment of the first route, while holding right will take you to route two (you’ll see an enemy under the surface of the water head off in that direction beforehand to give you a hint).
For anything other than getting Lagi to evolve into either the special Skydart dragon or his true form – the blue “Solo Wing” dragon from the first Panzer Dragoon – (more on that shortly) or for taking on a path with an easier to achieve shot down percentage or secret bonus (more on that later) your route choice is down to personal preference, so please try them all out and go with “favourite” rather than “best” – and even if you are playing for score do make sure you mix it up every now and then anyway because they’re all brilliant. It’s worth pointing out that once you’re on a route any enemies that would appear in another are completely erased from existence (not that you’d ever see them anyway) – only enemies that are present on the route you’re travelling through count towards any end-of-level rankings.
Lagi’s evolving form and the expanded capabilities they bring is another new addition to Zwei, one that would be repurposed into the impressive on-the-fly 3D model morphing in Saga and go on to give Orta its distinctive type-switching play. In this game the evolution you receive is determined by a series of fixed point thresholds, based on the special end-of-stage clear/route/technical tally:
- Clear points: These are given for finishing an episode, and guarantee that no matter what you’ll always have something going toward your next Lagi evolution, even if it’s not a great amount.
- Route points: You gain these from choosing the alternative path through the level at a route change split. Episodes two and three give one point, and episode four gives two. If an episode doesn’t have an alternative route (one, five, six) then no points are awarded.
- Technical points: This is your shot down ratio bonus. This is only concerned with the number of enemies that appeared vs. the number of those enemies you killed – accuracy doesn’t matter at all. Scoring a minimum of 90% per stage always awards the full two point bonus, whereas scoring 80-89% gives one point. Anything less than that gets nothing.
Once you’ve reached gained enough points Lagi evolves into a new form at the end of the level, as detailed in the list below:
[Stats are listed in this order: Lagi’s health/Maximum laser lock-on (Lagi)/Gun shots fired per button press (Lundi). Health is ranked from 1 (worst) to 5 (best).]
- 1st form “Hatchling”: 0-1 points – 1/4/4
- 2nd form “Glideling”: 2-5 points – 2/6/6
- 3rd form “Windrider”: 6-12 points – 3/6/6
- 4th form “Armonite” 13-17 points – 4/8/8
- 5th form “Brigadewing”: 18-22 points 5/8/8
- SPECIAL FORM “Skydart”: 2/12/8
- SPECIAL FORM “Solo Wing”: 1/8/8
To morph Lagi into the Skydart form you’ll need to have either earned a minimum of fifteen points by the end of episode four or have all four possible route points by the end of episode four and zero technical points.
If you want to transform Lagi into his famous Solo Wing figure from the original game you’ll need nothing less than a perfect score of twenty-four points end-of-stage points by the end of episode six – that means getting a minimum of a 90% shot down ratio on all stages and taking all the alternative routes.
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, because to reach that stat-increasing tally you’ll first have to defeat the episode’s intimidating boss. Yet another hidden score mechanic comes into play here, this time based on how quickly you defeat whatever ancient horror or Imperial irritant is standing in your way. Each one has a different length timer, and it’s important to keep this in mind as there are two possible bonuses to be awarded when the enemy’s finally toppled: If over a minute’s left on the countdown then you’re awarded 10,000 points, which are then multiplied by the current ADEC difficulty level. If less than sixty seconds remain then the calculation works like this:
- [Seconds left (milliseconds rounded down)] x 100 x [ADEC difficulty multiplier]
- Example: 22.86 seconds remaining on hard difficulty or higher would make the calculation 22.8 x 100 x 3, which would be displayed in-game as 2280×3 as the boss goes down.
The exact time allowances are as follows:
- Episode 2 Imperial Transport: 150sec
- Episode 3 Hanumunn: 120sec
- Episode 4 Rand-Doula: 180sec
- Episode 5 Nuse Mk.2: 150sec
- Episode 6 Shelcoof Core: 100sec
- Episode 7 Guardian Dragon (First form): 180sec
- Episode 7 Guardian Dragon (Base form): 120sec
Now there’s not much point in me saying “Kill them quickly” if I’m not going to help you do that, is there? So below are a few general pointers that may either be very obvious, so very obvious that you perhaps haven’t thought of them, or on a rare occasion something that’ll actually be of use to you. Don’t forget that you can often deal damage to bosses with Lundi’s gun before the countdown timer starts ticking (which has the welcome knock-on effect of giving your berserk bar a handy pre-fight boost), and that incoming lasers and other energy-type shots must be dodged – and that dodging is only possible when facing forwards (labelled “Drive mode” in the Japanese manual).
Episode 2: The Imperial Transport ship comes into view ahead and to the right (ignore the flying creatures, they’re just a little added visual drama and don’t count towards any totals). Feel free to take a few goes enjoying stripping this one down to its bare frame; watching gangly cannons slowly fold out just so you can shoot them off and chunky missile containers break open as they hit the ground and spill their contents across the earth. As you’d expect of a first boss it’s a straightforward fight so just go all-out (remember – Lundi’s shots will build up your berserk gauge pretty quickly) and shoot down any projectiles that come your way.
Episode 3: Hanumunn appears behind before passing overhead and dropping down in front of you. When they’re in the canopy hidden from view you can still attack them with Lagi’s lasers, so make sure you do so to keep the damage flowing. When they stop and attack by slamming their arms down you’ll need to quickly move to the opposite side (you’ll need to move right, then left), and if Hanumunn decides to unleash their tail-boomerang (they’ll run away and ahead beforehand) you can avoid the first by moving to the side, and the second horizontal attack by keeping low to the ground. This one’s very much a leaping all over the place sort of boss, so one of your main troubles will be to keep them in your sights!
Episode 4: The piscine Rand-Doula starts off lurking under the water to your front-left – you can see the bubbles in the water before you see the boss. Don’t forget you can still shoot the boss by manually aiming Lundi’s gun while it’s underwater (Lagi’s lasers won’t lock on – or hit – unless the boss is above the surface), but don’t get too carried away because there comes a point when it releases pink coloured “mines” that are best left alone to harmlessly float away, as if they’re shot they’ll “break” and release lasers at Lagi. Otherwise it’s a case of being persistent with the gunfire and quick on the draw when the chance to use Lagi’s lasers do arise.
Episode 5: There are two ways to defeat Nuse Mk.2 – the slow way, and the hard way. The slow way isn’t very exciting and won’t do your score any great favours but it does get the job done (and make your hand ache) with the minimal amount of fuss: Notice that orbiting flat object? That’s an anti-laser shield, and as long as that’s around you’ll have to rely entirely on Lundi’s gun to do any damage at all. The good news is so long as that shield’s up Nuse doesn’t do much more than lazily circle you in a predictable pattern and release the odd easily-dispatched set of projectiles. The alternative method is to deliberately fire off a laser, causing their anti-laser shield to whip around to your position and stay there for a short while which is your cue to viciously blast it with Lundi’s gun. Repeat until broken, triggering the second phase of this battle: The boss will now wiggle around an awful lot and fire vast quantities of massive purple orbs that hurt like all heck, but it is at least now vulnerable to absolutely anything you can throw at it.
Episode 6: Shelcoof core, dead ahead! “Short but sharp” might be the best way to describe this one, as it just sits there and soaks up all the damage you throw at it but there’s also a lot of figure-eight dodging to be done if you want to survive all of those incoming lasers. Towards the end it can be a bit difficult to target the smaller remaining “shell” fragments when moving around, so try to save your berserk for then rather than unleashing it at the beginning when it’s easiest for you to hit without any extra help.
Episode 7: Guardian Dragon: A proper one-on-one battle against an adversary that’s quite hard to miss with a lot of helpful targeting spots. I’d say the main thing here is to avoid those large plates when they fan out as this is a sign that the dragon is going to suddenly brake, forcing you to swiftly manoeuvre through the gaps (aim towards to upper-left side), and if it’s turned to face you then it’s going to do a vertical attack with its tail – move to the side as it comes in to avoid this.
Final Boss: If you’ve earned all twenty-four end of level points then this is when Lagi will reveal his true form and you’ll have a very powerful – but rather fragile – dragon in your capable hands. The base form of the Guardian Dragon is so small, fast, and agile it’s quite hard to reliably hit; I find the best thing to do here is wait until I’ve got the maximum target locks before firing over fiddling with lots of smaller lock/release lasers. Bar the times it stops still and fires the blue/grey projectiles or flies straight at you it’s unlikely (although not impossible) for it to do you any harm, so don’t take any special measures to avoid it when it’s flying around and just try to take it down before the timer runs out.
There’s one last thing we need to cover – secret bonuses. There’s one for every route on every level, although some are much easier to trigger than others. All of these bonuses are further multiplied by your ADEC level with the exception of episode five’s, which appears to be fixed.
- Episode 1: 100 points: Shoot the Quo-pa (the large black assault ship with a pointed back end and two “arms”) that appears overhead later on in the stage with Lundi’s gun. This bonus stacks, so if you keep firing you’ll earn 100, 200, 300, etc. until either your hand drops off or the ship finally goes out of range, whichever comes first. My current personal best is a finger-busting 1700 points.
- Episode 2, route 1: You’ll gain 10,000 points for destroying all of the turrets on the miniboss (the fortress wall thing – officially called the “round-bout”), leaving the solo one on the lower-right of the structure for last.
- Episode 2, route 2: There are 10,000 points to be had for defeating the Coolia (Panzer Dragoon’s bipedal not-Chocobo mounts) being pursued by the two Karura (the smallest type of Imperial air fighter) in the canyon. Timing’s everything for this one as the bonus won’t be awarded unless you kill the Coolia after it’s turned around and is heading back towards you.
- Episode 3, route 1: 10,000 points are awarded when the blue Naga appears – to make this happen you must quickly defeat four standard Naga (the large flying red worm-like creatures) in the episode’s sole Naga section.
- Episode 3, route 2: Using Lagi’s lasers – and only Lagi’s lasers – to defeat the Quo-pa (the same black assault ship seen in the first episode’s secret) will net you 20,000 bonus points. This one’s quite tricky as even a single stray shot from Lundi’s gun will instantly invalidate the bonus.
- Episode 4, route 1: If you can destroy all of the suspended body parts before they scroll out of sight in the elevator segment you’ll gain 10,000 extra points. I find this one to be an utter pain in the backside, not recommended, 2/10, I demand to speak to the manager.
- Episode 4, route 2: Shortly after the route change you’ll be in a darkened room and lots of “Titan” enemies will come out of the water and head straight for you – if you can defeat them all you’ll add 10,000 points to your score.
- Episode 4, route 3: There’s a point in this route where a load of missiles will appear suddenly behind and try to skewer Lagi as they go past – if you can stop twenty of them from hitting the wall ahead you’ll receive 10,000 points (I recommend saving your berserk if you want this one, shooting them down with your gun is a bit unreliable).
- Episode 5: Hitting the very end segment (and only the end segment) of the chains of Tarran enemies (small pointed white creatures) with Lagi’s lasers adds 3330×3 points to your score. And oddly satisfying little bonus when you can get it right.
- Episode 6: When you end up outside next to Shelcoof’s left “engine” (the three paddle/wing-like structures), obliterating them and the turrets/ports by their base will net you 10,000 points.
Once the game’s over, the credits have finished rolling, and you’ve done your best to play as well as your fingers can muster you’ll be awarded a fancy title for all your efforts. As this is based entirely on the total shot down ratio achieved while playing and nothing else it’s helpful to decide whether you’re aiming for WINGED DEATH (a perfect 100% clear) or a great score (please feel free to share your photos of them with me on Twitter!) as the two are similar but not entirely compatible tasks. If you do decide to pursue that top title the best advice I can give is practise, save your berserk for swarms of enemies, pick routes based on how easy you find it to shoot down enemies in them over anything else, and try not to swear when you miss one enemy on episode six again.
Like all the greatest classics, Zwei is generous enough with itself to allow anyone who’s prepared to give it a go to have a great time in whatever way suits them best: If you choose to play it as a cinematic blast ’em up, you can. If you want to lose yourself in the series’ scarily-deep lore then Team Andromeda have a rabbit hole just for you. But it’s also game enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone’s favourite rail shooter, with anyone’s most cherished score attack challenge. Panzer Dragoon Zwei is not the original’s B-side or an expansion pack padded out into a sequel, nor is it proto-Orta before consoles had the technical muscle to pull a game as gorgeous as that off. Zwei is Zwei. It’s beauty and brains. It’s atmospheric and challenging. It’s a beginner’s journey through an awe-inspiring adventure… just as much as it’s an expert’s gauntlet through an exacting technical shooter.