In my ongoing attempt to catch up on the overlooked RPG series, we revisit Phantasy Star II. Released a scant seven months after the Genesis’ launch, Phantasy Star II was hurried into development soon after the completion of the original Phantasy Star. Of course, this was back in the days where RPGs didn’t take five years to develop. Phantasy Star was one of the last games to hit SEGA’s Master System, and with newer, shinier technology at their grasp, Rieko Kodama & Co. decided to reach for the stars…
Phantasy Star II takes place roughly 1000 years after the end of the original Phantasy Star. In that game, you ended up saving the Algol star system, comprised of the planets Palma, Motavia and Dezoris, from the clutches of the corrupt governor Lassic and the evil entity named Dark Falz. Alis Landale, the girl who had saved the day, was named queen and ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity. Somewhere along the way, a powerful supercomputer named Mother Brain was installed to oversee the day-to-day functions of life in the star system, using Climatrol and the BioSystems Lab to control the weather, flora and fauna. Mota (formerly Motavia) has transformed from a desert wasteland into a paradise. Poverty no longer exists, the people can choose how hard they want to work, if at all; all their needs and comforts are taken care of for them. Even death is no longer an obstacle, because for a small fee you can get yourself cloned at a clone lab.
All was perfect until two years ago when the BioSystems Lab started pumping out monsters. The game stars Rolf, a young agent of Mota’s government. He’s introduced by having disturbing nightmares of Alis fighting against Dark Falz… and losing, although the legend of Alis and her accomplishments have faded into obscurity. Rolf is tasked by his commander to find a way to recover the BioSystems Lab recorder which may have an explanation for why Mother Brain has been acting abnormally. Before Rolf leaves, his half-monster friend Nei, whom he treats like a beloved little sister, refuses to let him leave without her, so the duo set out to uncover the mystery of the origin of the monsters and Mother Brain’s suspicious behavior.
To be blunt, Phantasy Star II behaves like a missing link between 8-bit and 16-bit RPGs. This shouldn’t be surprising, given its comparatively brief development time. Phantasy Star II was one of, if not the, first 16-bit RPGs, so no one really knew what a 16-bit RPG looked or felt like yet. The development team didn’t seem to have enough time to really explore what the increase in processing power and memory could do to forward the mechanics of the genre past its clunky Dragon Quest roots.
I should say up front that the battle system is largely an improvement over the original. Instead of having a typical DQ-style screen with player characters off-screen staring dead ahead at monsters, it actually has large sprites of the party members visible in the foreground above their status screen. Instead of taking place on the field, battles are whisked away to an oddly charming blue grid where you face the monsters. Unlike the original Phantasy Star, multiple monsters of the same type are actually represented with individual sprites, so it’s easier to keep track of how many monsters are actually in the battle at any given time. And in a shocking turn of events, you can ACTUALLY TARGET SPECIFIC GROUPS OF MONSTERS this time, although individual monster targeting still eludes the series. This is a great leap from the original where you just had to pray that the characters would hit the monster you wanted them to. The battle system also deals out damage better than the original. In Phantasy Star, it had a sadistic tendency to deal out damage evenly across all monsters, which meant that they would be defeated at the last possible moment, leaving the player to soak up all the damage from the turns the computer wasted. In Phantasy Star II, there finally seems to be a leap to dealing out damage in a truly random fashion, meaning that instead of the game carefully measuring out how to spread out damage across a group of monsters, you might actually have a chance of attacking that one monster a few times in a row to knock them out quickly. There is a fairly large drawback to Phantasy Star II‘s battle system, though. Battles are automated by default. What that means is that if you don’t hit any buttons, characters will continue performing their last action in the following turns. I’m sure the developers thought they were being nice to the player by having them reduce the amount of times they had to press buttons, but in reality it’s a really messy way to do things. For example in tense boss battles where strategies have to keep changing for each character in order to survive, it becomes crucial to micro-manage what each person is doing, which means remembering to press the button to make sure the next turn doesn’t automate. I had a few circumstances where I forgot to do so and had characters doing things I didn’t want them to do. Also, characters will continue using attack techniques until they run out of TP (PSII‘s version of MP), but if they’re using a curative technique, it automatically resets to attack the next turn. ARGH.
Unfortunately, the game also suffers from a really clunky, awkward and confusing user interface. The worst offense is the nonsensical naming convention for techniques. There’s a five-character limit when it comes to technique names, and techniques come with names like Eijia, Gires and Nafoi. Can YOU figure out what they do just by looking at them? I hope so, because the game doesn’t let you know until you actually try casting it. Unless you’re looking at a FAQ sheet, good luck trying to experiment and see which ones are the most useful and TP-efficient. They really should have made it easier to at least figure out which ones cured you, since those are the ones you’ll be using almost exclusively, since most of the techniques in the game are a waste of TP. Apart from obtuse names, the menu and inventory seem to be fighting the player every step of the way. Each character has a limited inventory that has to share space with the items they’re equipped with, so you’re constantly having to sell or just plain drop items in order to make room for the ones you really need. The game provides a baggage room where you can store stuff, but even THAT has a limited capacity. If you want to cure someone from the field menu, you have to go through a tree of menus until you find the spell and select the party member to target. Then the game CLOSES OUT OF ALL THE MENUS so you have to go through all the branches of menus a second time if you want to heal again. Why not leave the menu open, SEGA?! It’s also a chore selecting options in the battle menu, since you have to work both out of the middle box in the screen and a separate menu that pops up underneath each character, using an icon system to select attacks, techniques or items. Furthermore, if you’re looking to heal someone, but can’t remember how much HP they have, the series of windows can easily block that person’s stats. And the battle windows don’t even show a character’s max HP in relation to their remaining HP, meaning you either have to memorize that person’s max HP to decide if healing is required or go through a bunch of menus to find their status page outside of battle to see their max. Equipping also becomes a trial because the game won’t tell you upfront if the weapon or piece of armor you’re buying is able to be equipped by a character or how much it will increase their stat. Again, online FAQ sheets are the order of the day unless you like wasting meseta through experimenting.
The worlds of Phantasy Star II are just as unfriendly as their predecessor, as well. While PSII is a little bit more kind in that it starts you off with a second player character, it quickly becomes clear that it did so just to give the excuse to throw more monsters at you, since the character does not come with a weapon, meaning that she cannot attack until you buy her one. Fortunately, they left enough meseta in your pocket to buy her one at the outset, but why not just trade the meseta for having her start out with a weapon equipped?! Rolf’s given a general idea of what to do at the start, get the Biosystems Lab recorder, but you have no idea how to go about retrieving it, or even where the Lab is! Back when I first played this in my proto-RPG fan days, I thought the first dungeon I discovered was the lab, since it was obviously the first one in my path. During that rental I got no farther and essentially gave up, so I had no way of knowing that the Biosystems Lab was actually A COUPLE dungeons into the game. You’d never have any way of knowing this because although the dungeons do have individual names, they’re never displayed, so you always have to guess where you’re going unless you’re in possession of a map. And by that, I mean a map in the real world, since the game has no such thing to give you.
And the dungeons, wow. I thought Phantasy Star‘s were bad because they were first-person corridor affairs with trap doors and multiple levels. They’re a piece of cake, by and large, compared to the monstrosities in Phantasy Star II. The developer team, AM7, must’ve spent all the time they had designing dungeons, because the ones in this game are devilish torture chambers designed to erode the human soul. Dungeons are now third-person, meaning you can see your little guy running around the floor maps. You’d think this would make navigation easier, but nooooo. At least in the original, dungeons were single-file corridors with twists and turns. This change in design opens up dungeon design into new kinds of configurations.You either have to have photographic memory, make your own maps, or use premade maps in order to keep your sanity. There’s an especially dastardly dungeon near the end of the game where you can only progress via falling through holes in the ground. If you fall through the wrong ones, it dumps you at the bottom of the dungeon and you have to climb all the way back up to the top and start over.
And there’s an added element that made me want to tear my hair out. You see, I suppose AM7 wanted to demonstrate some of the Genesis’ flashier abilities, because there’s always an added layer of foreground obscuring your character in Phantasy Star II‘s dungeons. It could be piping or mist or sea bubbles; anything to make it more difficult for you to actually see where you’re going. And the maps are so vast and the screen size so small that you’re frequently blindly running into dead ends during maps that could span multiple floors via elevators and holes in the ground. You basically bumble around until you find what you’re looking for, which actually helps keep you from grinding, since you’ll most likely have spent the time you would’ve spent grinding trying to navigate the labyrinthine dungeons. The game is really based around a very cautious, patient play style. You’re supposed to venture out as far as you dare, then retreat back to the city to heal up and try again and again until you’re finally strong enough to make it all the way through a dungeon. And god help you if Rolf dies, since he’s the one with the dungeon escape spell.
The game features a motley crew of characters; Rudo the Ranger who’s strong and has high HP, Amy the Doctor who has all the advanced healing spells but can’t attack worth a crap, Kain the Wrecker who’s super-effective against machines, etc. etc. The recruitment’s a bit odd since the game metes each party member to you after you visit a new city. Pretty much every time you enter a city for the first time, you need to teleport back to the first city and enter your house, where the new recruit will be waiting for you. They’re introduced at a good pace until near the halfway point in the game where you have access to several cities at once, meaning that you can get half your party members within a few minutes. And they all join at level 1! Swell! An interesting character to note is Shir, a rich girl who pickpockets for thrills. If you have her in your party and enter stores, there’s a chance she will steal something and leave your party. Then you have to go back to Rolf’s house, where she’ll be waiting with the stolen item tucked safely in her inventory. The interesting part about this is that the items she steals are random, dependent on the store you enter and have a possibility of being an item unable to be purchased in the game. Shir is the only way to get Moon Dew in the entire game, an item that allows you to revive party members after they’ve been knocked out. Which is ridiculous, since that means you spend a good deal of the end of the game trying to farm Moon Dews in order to prepare for the final dungeon, because god knows you’ll need it. Honestly, though, you end up using the same four characters in your party for the majority of the game, since most of the other party members either don’t have useful enough techniques or are statistically less powerful than the others. I never even touched Hugh the Biologist. A funny quirk is how whenever you meet a new character, they’ll ask you what you’d rather call them, seeming to almost beg you to rename them. What strange, sycophantic people!
Now aside from all this gameplay stuff, which is a given that it’s going to be hoary and outdated by today’s standards, how is the story? In a word: heartbreaking. Phantasy Star II is one of the few RPGs out there with a pervading sense of sadness throughout. At the start of the game, you’re thrust into a formerly utopian world now thrust into chaos because of actions outside of the average person’s ability to comprehend. At first it seems like typical RPG dialogue when NPCs ask, “Mother Brain is watching over us, right? Then, why do accidents happen?” But really, that sums up an important facet of the story. Everyone on Mota is completely dependent on Mother Brain, like an infant is to… well… you know. Anyone playing this after Phantasy Star will be struck by how infantile the attitudes of the people are in Phantasy Star II. People no longer travel via vehicle because they can just teleport. They don’t travel by ocean anymore because Mother Brain told them not to. They don’t travel through space anymore because there was a shuttle accident and Mother Brain decided it was safer for them not to. Life is so decadent that characters ask, “Why should I work for a living?” There’s genuine disbelief that Mother Brain, who has been a benevolent tyrant for so long, could ever do anything to harm the people. “The Biosystems Lab is controlled by Mother Brain. It cannot make mistakes!” People are so helpless and soft that once disaster strikes them, they give up the will to live. An NPC says, “Even if those monsters are gone, Mota is still devastated. There’s nothing we can do.” The townspeople frequently say that things that were once possible are now impossible, though only because of the sheer lack of ambition in any of them to do anything about it. Unlike other RPGs where everyone is urging you on to succeed, everyone in Phantasy Star II either refuses to believe anything bad is happening or has given up the will to fight. Rolf and friends go on to achieve things that the average Motavian couldn’t dream of not because they’re special, but because they’re the only ones left who care enough to try. Even then, the whole thing started not because Rolf was a brave hero; he just had a job he was assigned to do.
Phantasy Star II is a tragedy, pure and simple. The people of PSII have a tragic flaw that is their undoing. Even if Rolf and friends manage to save the world, then what? Humans no longer have the drive to stand up on their own two feet, dust themselves off and try again. Early on in the game, there’s a devastating turn of events. A man named Darum is blocking entrance to an important tunnel, killing people and taking their money. You come to find a ransom note in a dungeon, demanding that Darum pay a large sum of meseta if he ever wants to see his daughter Tiem again. When you do rescue Tiem, and bring her to her father, he doesn’t recognize her and holds her up for money. She refuses to give him anything, ashamed of seeing her father reduced to a thug and Darum kills her before understanding who she was. Distraught, he vows that Tiem will not die alone and commits suicide by exploding himself with a bomb. That’s a friggin’ bleak scene, and it’s in a game released in 1989. I won’t spoil the ending of Phantasy Star II, because it’s one of its highlights, but I will say that the game does not end on a typically happy “Yay, we saved the world!” note. Instead, my reaction upon finishing the game was to drop my jaw and mutter, “W-what?”
That isn’t to say that the storytelling blows games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger out of the water. Unfortunately, this game was made when stories in games, even RPGs, were still fledgling concepts where developers were taking only timid steps in the right direction. The original Phantasy Star itself was a quantum leap above contemporaries such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and again Phantasy Star II is a step above that, showcasing a more complex and well-developed plot. Unfortunately, however, the story is still relatively sparse compared to today’s games. You’ll have to slog through three, maybe four dungeons at a time before the story gives another chunk of the narrative, another carrot on a stick. But I found it to be quite a delicious carrot. The party members, too, are sparsely developed, barely a presence in the story at all after their initial introductions. What Phantasy Star II does have in its favor, however, are the nice, big, colorful anime-style designs it uses in cutscenes to move the story along in a very cinematic fashion. The music is also really quite special. The catalog of Phantasy Star tunes may not be as well-known as Final Fantasy‘s, but the music in the franchise is quite unique and stands out as being some of the best you’ll find, especially on the Genesis. The music definitely has that late 1980s anime feel to it. I feel like I should be watching Project A-Ko on the Sci-Fi Channel on Saturday mornings in my pajamas when I listen to it. And the rearrangements of its music are pretty swell, too!
Phantasy Star II was a huge, expansive game when it came out, and also quite pricey. I wish I could find reliable information on it, but it was far and above beyond what we would consider paying for a game nowadays, especially adjusting for inflation. I keep talking about how old-school Phantasy Star II is, but would a remake work? Believe it or not, SEGA already developed one in Japan for the PS2. The game updated the graphics, music and even gameplay of the original Genesis game. It also added more dialogue to characters to help flesh things out in ways the original didn’t. Unfortunately, though, the redesigned characters lost a lot of their original charm, in my opinion, and by some accounts the game is even more difficult than the original. Honestly, any true remake would have to change very fundamental parts of the game, such as the dungeons. They’re just long and tedious and are the biggest hurdle toward accessibility the game has. And since the hardcore crowd would likely bitch out SEGA for touching the dungeon designs, and they’d likely find it too grand an undertaking in the first place, it doesn’t seem like a true modernization of Phantasy Star II is in the cards.
But if you’re playing a game like Phantasy Star II, modern RPG creature comforts are probably not at the top of your list of priorities. Why should anyone give a crap about this 20 year old RPG? Well, for starters, it has one of the most unique, haunting stories of any RPG that’s ever been made. I could probably count the number of RPGs with sad endings (not counting ones with multiple endings) on one hand. Secondly, it’s balls-hard. If you’re one of the ones complaining about how you can play a modern RPG without dying once, then treat yourself to PSII where you’ll be living in fear of the game over screen for pretty much the entirety of the game. And lastly, this game should be at least tried by every serious RPG fan out there. I’m not saying everyone out there has to like Phantasy Star II; it’s far too archaic and unfriendly to garner mass appeal. Instead, people should play around in it and experience a different sort of game, one that doesn’t try to ape Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest blindly. There’s no other RPG out there that’s quite nailed the sort of atmosphere that Phantasy Star has, not Star Ocean, Xenosaga or even Phantasy Star Online/Universe/Portable/0/whatever the fuck they’re calling it lately. I’d truly love to know what a REAL Phantasy Star game, not one based on PSO or Monster Hunter, would look and feel like using modern design ideas and technology. I imagine something achingly beautiful and touching like Skies of Arcadia or Valkyria Chronicles. But just my luck it’d probably just be Final Fantasy X with spaceships.
Tags: Phantasy Star