It’s been quite a whirlwind, grumpeteers! Over half a year of catching up with Sega’s underappreciated classic RPG series Phantasy Star. Why, you ask? Partly because of their historical significance to role-playing, especially Japanese role-playing, games. Partly to experience and describe to others a series of games they most likely missed out upon but always wondered what they were like. And partly because I was unemployed, taking a relatively untaxing curriculum and Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection came out for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 (which my circle of online friends refer to as Spinhog’s Software Pile) with all four iterations bundled neatly together for the first time in the West. In fact, I wouldn’t be lying if I said most of the reason I bought the collection was to be able to give Phantasy Star the sort of attention I thought it probably always deserved from me. It seems I have a sort of lingering condition from my days as a little lonely kid who only owned a Genesis where I feel like I must do everything in my power to try to like a Sega franchise. After completing this leg of my journey, the next logical step is trying to chronicle the Shining series and working up the nerve to start Yakuza again. But those are stories for a later time. For now, onwards with the story of Phantasy Star IV! Forget everything you knew about Phantasy Star III. Really. Just do it. You’ll feel better.
Phantasy Star IV takes place in the year AW 2284, 1000 years after the events of Phantasy Star II, referred to in-game as The Great Collapse. Ever since then, Motavia’s ecosystem has been slowly backsliding into an inhospitable desert, and biomonsters have started cropping up again, too. We’re introduced to Chaz, a young bounty hunter who has been taken under the wing of Alys Brangwyn, one of the most talented hunters there is. Their job is to deal with these menaces, and it’s during a routine biomonster extermination that they learn that Motavia’s two major problems may be interconnected. All paths seem to lead back to a frightening figure named Zio, a dark priest, forming a nihilistic cult that worships Dark Force as a god. But the Algo system’s problems lie far deeper than that, and Chaz and co. are on the brink of uncovering the dark secret of Algo’s true peril.
For people that have been working up to this entry in the series, the first thought to enter your head as you play is, “Wow, this is an RPG.” And I don’t mean that as a sarcastic insult to the quality of the previous two games. The original Phantasy Star was a revolutionary 8-bit RPG and Phantasy Star II‘s quick turnaround meant it was a 16-bit RPG with an 8-bit game design sensibility. This is the first time when people that were weaned on Final Fantasy IV or VI or Chrono Trigger can look upon a classic Phantasy Star game and say, “Hey, this looks familiar!”
Indeed, Phantasy Star IV feels like the first true 16-bit entry, with all the modern amenities. There are fully-realized, varying backdrops to random encounters. Commands aren’t automatically pre-set to a macro. You can easily target individual enemies without going through a tangle of obfuscating menus. And hey, characters enter your party at levels other than 1 and come with their own equipment! And hey, there’s more than a handful of bosses, and they aren’t the cheapest, most difficult assholes ever made! The time the original team took between II and IV obviously showed them what a 16-bit RPG should feel like, and they obliged. Things feel all around less frustrating, almost as if the designers made things with the player’s enjoyment as a priority. Imagine that! Encounters seem a little less frequent, random battles aren’t nail-biting, do-or-die affairs, weapons and armor stores clearly show who can equip them. Beautiful. Dungeons are also a lot more like dungeons in other RPGs than they are like past Phantasy Star dungeons. Instead of being vast labyrinths that the player would spend the majority of the game attempting to navigate, they’re more a series of interconnected rooms that sometimes have a dead end. Very low on frustration when it comes to exploring.
And that’s without getting into wholly new features. One of the biggest changes is the addition of honest-to-god macros. Phantasy Star has flirted with the idea before in II and III, but in IV we see them employed to their full effect. Instead of just setting up a series of commands in a battle and mimicking it over and over, clearing the memory after the battle is over, Phantasy Star IV allows you to create and save macros outside of battles. It’s a total time-saver to set up characters to just do an all-out attack, or to have a more conservative approach of characters casting buffing techniques and doing some spot-healing. More classic turn-based games should be taking this approach, even to this day. I believe Final Fantasy XII to be the apex of the evolution of the macro. But for a 16-bit RPG, this was more than I could ask for!
There was also the bonus of skills. Skills in Phantasy Star IV are consumable techniques that are used primarily in battle. While techniques use up TP, the game might only give you 3 uses of a certain skill before you’re out. These can thankfully be refilled at an inn. Skills are basically best-saved for boss fights, to give an extra wallop. AND they lead to one of the coolest additions of the game: combination attacks. Yes, like in its contemporary, Chrono Trigger, you can combine certain attacks between certain characters to lay waste to the enemies. This would be stupendous (and slightly game-breaking) if it weren’t for some unfortunate quirks. It seems that the way the game is programmed, combos are only triggered if the characters involved get their turn one after the other and, in certain cases, if the attacks are performed in a certain order. This can wreak havoc in a boss fight where you might be counting on a certain combo in a pinch, only to see it interrupted by another character or an enemy attack. Apparently, using macros to force the order of character actions is one key to making the most of combination attacks, but one I learned too late for it to be of any real value.
There’s also a slightly neat sidequest feature, where you can visit the Hunter’s Guild that Chaz belongs to and get assignments from the receptionist. These can range anywhere between finding a lost, overweight dog to defeating a vicious sandworm. You’re rewarded with cash upon receipt of completion, but there is a dark side to the business. It’s possible to have a sidequest expire during a natural playthrough of the game. I decided to focus on sidequests late in the game, right before the final dungeon, only to find that the final, and largest, sidequest was now unavailable. Oh, C’MON, Sega!
The story itself is rather engaging. Cutscenes play out in Phantasy Star‘s trademark manga panel layout, with scenes overlaid on top of one other as they scatter across the screen. And there’s quite a bit of it this time! Characters get into conversations, there’s one, maybe two major cutscenes inbetween every dungeon in the game, and the plot is always just enough to draw the player in a little bit more to figure out what’s going on. Characters are vibrant and full of, well, CHARACTER for once. Chaz is your typical brash, young protagonist, Alys a teasing, laid-back mentor, then there’s Rune, a familiar-looking esper with a sardonic wit and a tendency to pick on Chaz, the requisite numan, Rika, an endearingly naive waif experiencing the joy of going out into the world on her own for the first time and Wren, a no-nonsense android. There’s other secondary characters you pick up along the way, like Demi, the moe android sidekick, Gryz, the hardened Motavian native with an ax to grind against Zio, and Raja, a Dezolian priest with a corny sense of humor, among others. There’s actual banter between party members thanks to the DQ-esque Talk option you can find in your menu. Its main purpose is to remind the player of objectives (also a nice convenience), but nestled among the jabbering of your quirky party members. The motley crew’s a far cry from the mostly silent party members from Phantasy Star games past.
Unfortunately if there’s any real failing in Phantasy Star IV, it’s that it doesn’t reinvent itself quite to the same point of polish as its contemporaries, Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. And while it may seem a little unfair to compare it to RPGs released on another console, people are going to do it anyways, so I’m saving them the trouble. The gameplay in PSIV doesn’t have the same endless variety of FFVI and battles don’t click as well or run as quickly as they do in CT. The graphics are good for the Sega Genesis, but can’t compare to FFVI or CT, which might be the graphical peak of RPGs on the SNES. The music in PSIV is snappy, but hasn’t engendered the same frothing cult that FFVI or CT have. It’s really a shame that there was such a long hiatus between PSII and IV (and with an ill-fated attempt to develop it on the Sega CD), because PSIV can’t compete with two of the pinnacles of 16-bit RPGs that came out roughly around the same time as it did.
But while Phantasy Star IV may suffer on an individual level, when placed into the context of the franchise it was intended to end, it’s certainly a crowning jewel. Designed as the climax to the saga of the Algo star system, Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium brings a certain weight, completion and portentousness that someone who entered into this not having played through the other two games wouldn’t be able to experience. Things that would otherwise play out as tired RPG tropes take on another significance when put into the context of a 2000 year struggle. There’s a certain dramatic irony to the dilemma Chaz and Co. face, because we, the players, know that what’s happened before is happening again. The game was obviously engineered to be an orgasm of fan-service, a last hurrah for all the die-hard Phantasy Star fans, crammed to the gills with references, callbacks to previous titles and special surprise guest appearances by old friends and foes. Never before had the development team capitalized so much on the fact that each game was taking place in the same continuity, the same WORLDS.
The scope of the story almost reminded me of the ill-fated Xenogears franchise. Designed as a six-episode saga spanning 10,000 years, Xenogears limped out of the gate containing the story for Episode V, but bristling with odds and ends that would tantalize gamers about what Episodes I-IV could’ve been like. Phantasy Star is almost like a successful attempt at such large-scale storytelling, although I can’t pretend Rieko Kodama had such insanely high ambitions as the poor, deluded Tetsuya Takahashi. At the end of the story of Phantasy Star IV, you feel like something grand has come to an end, the eons-old struggle put to rest. It’s not just the end for an RPG, but for an entire universe that the successive “Phantasy Star” games have yet to return to.
It’s probably for the best that the story ends at the ending and that Sonic Team or whoever Sega has chained to computers coding “Phantasy Star” games these days hasn’t been able to push out a Phantasy Star V. But while I worry that the deliciously tight story of Phantasy Star might get an unnecessary addendum in the future, I quite frankly also yearn for the return. I want a real, honest-to-god try from Sega to return to the turn-based traditional single-player RPG roots of the franchise. None of this MMO running around smacking the enemy with foam bats. No aping Monster Hunter. I want Rieko Kodama back designing the RPG series that made her successful. Skies of Arcadia is proof enough that she still has what it takes to make another blockbuster RPG, and it feels like the team behind Valkyria Chronicles at Sega is developing that series in her mold. Unfortunately, Phantasy Star Online was probably many times more popular and profitable for Sega than any of the traditional Phantasy Star titles, so all the moaning from the hardcore about a proper return to form for the series falls upon deaf ears.
But maybe… One day…?
Tags: Phantasy Star