Three difficulty settings are available, and they influence your enemies' power and aggression levels but don't really change the enemy patterns or the layouts of the levels themselves, even though most levels offer several different routes that you can take to the end. As such, you'll become familiar with a given level after you've attempted it enough times. That seems like something that would diminish replay value, and to some extent, it does--but a big part of all traditional shooters lies in memorizing enemy movements and knowing what's ahead. This is where the shooting gallery appeal kicks in, and Panzer Dragoon Orta rewards you for getting through the levels while killing as many enemies and sustaining as little damage as you can. It's possible to get through each stage without taking a single hit and without letting a single enemy survive, and the deep learning curve of the game, coupled with a built-in rewards system, will inspire many players to attempt to do this.
Most all the game's levels present varied and exciting challenges, though the ones that pit you against the empire's war machines tend to be the most satisfying. You'll likely feel a shiver down your spine as you witness the panicked cries of your imperial adversaries--not because they're evil or because they're cowards, but because Orta and her dragon are apparently the prophesied harbingers of the empire's doom, and you're as evil to them as they are to you. It's not often that you feel a sense of pathos for your enemies in a shooter, but then again, Panzer Dragoon Orta is an uncommonly good game. Some of the later levels aren't as varied or complex as the earlier ones, mostly because they revolve around even bigger boss battles than the ones you'll have survived in getting to those points. Yet even though it can't be said that every stage in Panzer Dragoon Orta has the same level of incredible detail as all the others, each level is intensely enjoyable, and most all of them are spectacular to behold.
Its visuals will certainly contribute a lot to your overall enjoyment of Panzer Dragoon Orta. In fact, it's hard to imagine such an impressive-looking game appearing anywhere other than on the Xbox. Technically, the game's silky smooth frame rate and highly detailed, meticulously animated characters are undeniably impressive, as are the sweeping and richly colored environments. But the artistic design of the game is what truly stands out, lending Panzer Dragoon Orta a look that's unique and an overall visual design that ranks up there with the very best of what the Xbox has to offer. From the fearsome looking dragonmares to the improbably diminutive and terribly concerned-looking Orta, most all of the creatures and characters seen in this game are distinctive and memorable.
The audio in Panzer Dragoon Orta is also exceptional. The constant zapping of Orta's pistol, the swooping of the dragon's wings, the pinging of its targeting locks, and the scorching sound of its homing lasers seem like they'd become repetitive, but you'll appreciate the constancy of these things as the action surprises you from all directions. The beautifully done synthesized musical score never overwhelms the sound effects but is always clear and helps establish the game's epic tone and fantasy theme. A couple of the tracks that play during some of the game's boss battles are especially terrific, and the voice-over work in the game--though it isn't in English--is uniformly excellent, especially for the dragonmare squadrons' Captain Evren and the other imperials. Dolby Digital 5.1 support of course makes the game sound even better if you have the hardware, and the fact that you'll be attacked from all directions means that the surround sound is tactically valuable and not just cool to hear.
Panzer Dragoon Orta is filled with style and substance, making it a must-play if not a must-have.
For good measure, Panzer Dragoon Orta is filled to the brim with extra features, including a full-on port of the original 1995 Panzer Dragoon game, which, though it doesn't look nearly as good now as it did in its day, is still a lot of fun, boasts a timelessly great orchestral soundtrack, and is well worth playing today. Other extra features include stand-alone scenarios that will test your shooting skills to the fullest, as well as a surprising seven-mission side story from the perspective of an imperial boy in military training. You'll even get to unlock additional playable characters, plus tons of artwork and a virtual encyclopedia about the Panzer Dragoon world. All this should add up to at least 20 hours of gameplay, which is a lot for a single-player shooter.
Overall, Panzer Dragoon Orta is an outstandingly well-executed game, featuring gameplay that's easy to grasp but rewards continued practice, exceptional graphics and sound, a good story, and a lot of worthwhile extras. While the gameplay itself couldn't be called revolutionary, it draws on the conventions that once made shooters the most popular gaming genre in existence and refurbishes them with a few keen, new twists and a terrific presentation. This makes Panzer Dragoon Orta a game that most any gamer would really like, while those who've kept up with the Panzer series over the years should be especially pleased that the series has evolved this well.