After completion of the monumental undertaking Phantasy Star II must have been, the development team was at the top of their game. They’d created a work of staggering importance to the medium of video game RPGs, so where to go from there? Apparently, to other things. One of the most important core members, Yuji Naka, left to create what would later become Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s 16-bit savior, leaving a large hole in the team. Ever the type to shoot themselves in the foot, Sega decided that they NEEDED another Phantasy Star, whether the original creators were available or not. So instead of patiently waiting for the band to get back together, they put together a team of questionably-qualified individuals and churned out Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom. I think you might already know where this is headed…
Phantasy Star III takes place on Alisa III, a world that was once bitterly divided in war between the legendary figures Orakio and Laya. The two fought a bitter war until both sides were left utterly devastated, Orakio and Laya themselves disappearing. The game’s story picks up 1000 years later in the medieval-esque kingdom of Landen. Knowledge of lands outside of Landen has been forgotten and the pathways between Orakion and Layan kingdoms sealed. One day a beautiful woman named Maia washes up on Landen’s shores and the young prince Rhys decides to marry her. Before he can, she’s kidnapped by Layans, the first sighting in 1000 years. Rhys vows to rescue her, setting into motion events that bring the world to the brink of destruction.
Now all that might sound simple to you, but it also quickly becomes pretty difficult to keep track of. You see, Phantasy Star III‘s claim to fame was its feature that let you play through three generations over the course of the game. Yes, you’d get to marry and have a child twice, resulting in branching paths that could make each playthrough of the game unique. So on top of trying to keep straight the 1000 years of history that continues to unfurl during the game, you have three generations of story to keep in mind, as well.
Unfortunately, PSIII‘s generation system, frankly, is a pretty weak character development mechanic. You see, depending on the woman you end up marrying at the end of the first two generations, your child inherits the skills from both parents. What this essentially boils down to is whether the child gets fighting strength or magic power. Rhys starts out a fighter with no spells, so you can either create a line that results in a very powerful fighter, a mage that has access to healing and attack spells, or some combination of both. I ended up creating a fighter that was able to use healing spells, which I imagine most players would probably end up doing, considering the fact that attack magic is weak to the point of being nearly useless.
And then there’s the story problems this introduces. At the end of Rhys’ generation, he can either marry the fiancee he’s spent the last 5-10 hours trying to rescue or marry some random party member he knows nothing about. Does that choice make sense?! I mean, none of the characters are ever developed enough for the player to feel any emotional attachment for, so it purely becomes a coldly calculated move for what skills you want to inherit. This generation system doesn’t even really deliver on its “unique storyline” promise. The second generation seems to be unique (I somehow wandered into an entire section of Alisa III that I assumed had to be used in the story branch I didn’t explore), but aside from the bookends on the third generation, its exactly the same fetch quest.
But, really, who’s gonna play Phantasy Star III four times in order to explore all the branches? This game is Terrible. That’s with a capital T. Almost every detail of the game is painstakingly put into place to make you despise the time you spend on it. Let me explain.
The battle system is drastically overhauled from Phantasy Star II. While that system certainly could’ve used some sprucing up, that’s not what PSIII does. No, it practically throws it all out! The first time I entered into a battle in PSIII I just about turned the game off in disgust. Apart from the grating battle “music”, the menu consists of pictographic symbols that describe what they do in an oblique way. There’s a big wind-up key, a little wind-up key with a big 1, smaller boxes that include a sword, staff, box and shield, and a person that looks like he’s running for his life.
I mean, really, this is ridiculous shit. Was something wrong with the traditional battle display?! At any rate, you find out that the big wind-up key fully automates the battle until you cancel out of it (a la Phantasy Star II), the little wind-up key automates 1 turn, the person running away obviously means escape and the little boxes gives you what a fucking battle menu SHOULD look like. The amount of work spent on enemy sprites plummets from the previous game. Whereas in PSII enemies could have several frames of animation, the sprites in PSIII have two, at best. Otherwise the game just makes them flash or shake. And the designs are all over the place and an eyesore. You’ll fight little baby chicks, circuit boards, giant floating musclemen and angry moosemen. I would have been embarrassed if someone had walked in on me fighting a battle in this game. And the player characters no longer show up in battle, going for more of a Dragon Quest feel. They wouldn’t want to distract you from the amazing monsters, would they?!
Magic is also affected by this new battle system, with attack magic affecting monsters based on how they’re placed on the battle screen. Monsters are placed in what are basically quadrants of the screen. Smaller monsters make up a front row and larger monsters are in the back. Normal weapons can’t attack back row monsters, but bows and guns can. Magic can affect rows or the left and right sides of the screen. PSIII‘s handling of magic strength is also quite unusual and annoying. Characters come into the party already knowing all the spells they can learn, and a grid made up of four spells controls each one’s relative strength. If you want a character to have a very strong single-target healing spell, you can manipulate the grid that way, for example, decreasing the power of all other healing spells. This also works for spells such as Anti which cures poison or Rever which revives a character, but the way it does this makes me tremble with fury. You see, Anti and Rever don’t work all the time. I think at neutral strength they only work, like, 50% of the time. Which means when someone is poisoned, you’ll spend lots of TP trying to cast Anti over and over, hoping to cure the poison. But eventually you just won’t fucking care because poison is an incredibly common status ailment in PSIII, so the moment you cure someone, you’re just as likely to get poisoned again. I have no idea why the developers thought it would be a good idea to make the curing of poison and the KO status be dependent on LUCK, but it sure doesn’t add to the enjoyment of the game.
So battles are a source of frustration, especially since they have the same high encounter rate as ever. But honestly, battles are welcome respite from the unbelievably shitty maps in the game. Everything in Phantasy Star III is S P R E A D out over vast distances. It’s as if the designers took sadistic joy from putting things at the opposite end from the player. Thanks to the limited view afforded by the screen and the VAST EMPTINESS that surrounds most towns and dungeons, without maps of the game’s overworlds, you’ll likely spend hours and hours just wandering around getting into battles every few steps, disorienting you even more. And when maps aren’t dull stretches of flatland, they’re still designed with the idea to waste the player’s time and patience. Instead of the clever, devious, maddening labyrinths from previous Phantasy Stars, dungeons in PSIII are simply designed in a zig-zag or spiral pattern to reach the person or item you’re looking for. But just because the pattern is simple doesn’t mean it’ll take you any less time to reach the goal, considering the high encounter rate and the incredibly slow walking speed that just exacerbates the game’s map design problems. Even without random battles, it can take MINUTES to navigate a map in some cases. And most of the dungeons in PSIII don’t even switch it up in terms of design. You’re either in a cave or on a bunch of square platforms linked together by walkways on four of the sides that may or may not be obstructed. It’s so LAZY. At least in PSI and II, there was a brain-teasing fun in trying to find the correct path through a dungeon. In PSIII, it just adds to the tedium since you probably know where to go from the start, it’s just getting there that’s time-consuming.
As for the regular menus… oh my god. Everything is displayed on these six tarot card-esque panels. So when you go into individual characters’ inventories, instead of seeing things in a continuous list, you have to hop across the screen to read the inventory. And when selecting who to cast a healing spell on, you have to keep navigating through the cards after each spell because it resets to the lower middle card where the protagonist is. There’s a reason no other RPG has a menu like this: it’s rotten.
And graphically, wow. Previous Phantasy Stars probably wouldn’t have won many beauty contests, but PSIII takes the fucking cake. The whole game looks like it could’ve been made in RPG Maker, by a mediocre designer, at that. The colors of PSIII eschew the vibrant palettes of past games, instead going for a muddy look that frankly is a bit depressing to look at. And while past player sprites were basically paper dolls that moved around the screen, the sprites of Phantasy Star III are a little blurry and indistinct. The bold lines of the sprites from PSII at least made them pop out from the background. The ones in PSIII are just blurry messes. And the character portraits… sheesh. Some of the designs are interesting, but most are just uninspiring and embarrassing to look at.
As you can see, Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom barely holds any resemblance to the games it precedes, either in story or gameplay. It’s mostly medieval in setting while Phantasy Star is a science fiction series. It’s not in the Algo star system, which the other games take place in. There are no familiar characters, or references to familiar characters. There’s practically nothing in the game at first glance that could possibly tie it to Phantasy Star, besides the name on the box. Well, I don’t think I’d be spoiling too much to say that there IS a tenuous connection to the other games in the franchise that becomes more apparent near the end, although it’s in a location in the game that’s entirely optional to visit, and since the game makes practically no mention of this location and exploration is such a pain, most players on a regular playthrough will probably ignore it. And there’s a familiar villain near the end, that PSIII nearly ruins by giving dialogue to.
Would Phantasy Star III have been better off if it had been called something else? That’s a difficult question to answer, but I’ll end up saying yes. Not because changing the name would’ve improved the game itself. If it had been called just plain “Generations of Doom” or “Rhys’ Quest” or something, it still would’ve been saddled with the myriad of problems it had, and would’ve sold even worse without misled Phantasy Star fanboys buying it only to be cruelly disappointed that it wasn’t a continuation from the edge-of-your-seat conclusion from Phantasy Star II. I say it would’ve been better for it to have a different name because there would’ve been less damage done to the Phantasy Star franchise. Phantasy Star II was released so early in the Genesis’ lifecycle that it was easy to miss, and with PSIII, Sega had a chance to market its franchise to even more players than before and really gain momentum with the brand. With a good game, perhaps they would’ve succeeded, but with a frustrating abomination like this, players were either burned and wrote off Phantasy Star as jumping the shark or never even gave the series a chance at all.
At the end of the day, Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom is a pile of shit. No, not just that. It’s a king-size cornucopia of putrid bilge on a throne of frustration in a castle of disappointment surrounded by a moat of bubbling feces. It’s like the team that made this game hated video games, or were locked in a room and weren’t allowed to look at previous Phantasy Stars to see what made them good. Perhaps its one highlight is the fact that it’s brief, although the gameplay is so tedious that each playthrough seems like a lifetime. Sometimes old games can’t stand the test of time and it’s not really their fault because they were a product of the times, from developers that didn’t know any better. But there were two good Phantasy Stars before this one, so I don’t have any mercy or compassion for Phantasy Star III, even though it looks like they had little more than a year to develop this skulking abomination. Anyone (anyone) who plays this is wasting his or her time. Even me.