Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millenium
Genre: Sci-Fi Role Playing
For a long while, especially due to the success of games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior/Quest, role playing games for consoles rarely strayed from the path of fantasy and borderline steampunk settings. Every so often, a reference would sneak in about an ‘ancient race’ that had technology beyond that of the world’s setting, but for the most part, it was a case of not breaking what didn’t need to be fixed.
Sega, however, created a small monster in the Phantasy Star series, integrating a sci-fi setting with fantasy elements into a role playing experience. The highly regarded Phantasy Star IV had its work cut out for it, especially given its competition of the time. Not only was it a deviation from the norm, but it had plenty of ground to cover from the super giant of role playing games at the time, the Super Nintendo. Still, it managed to carve out a large fan base and remains a nostalgic part of many gamers’ experience with the Sega Genesis. Is it all nostalgia holding up this game, though, or does it really stand its ground against today’s standards?
The game places you in the shoes of Chaz Ashley, a hunter who, along with his mentor, Alys Brangwin, finds himself on a routine job to an academy to work out some strange goings on. As with most games of this kind, the strange happenings only serve as the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and they find themselves wrapped up in an adventure that won’t only take them across the planet, but across the entire Algol Solar System.
While the description is brief, there is one thing to know about this game that will explain that: it is a true sequel. There are many references to past Phantasy Star games- especially the first- that help make this plot tie tightly into the other three games as a cohesive whole. You’ll see characters come and go throughout the adventure, all with their own stories and personalities, and you’ll cater your strategies on the fly when they decide to up and leave for various reasons. Some of these characters even have loose ties to the connections to other games. The player will not lose out on much if they haven’t played the other three games in the initial series, but the game is far more satisfying if you have any experience with the past games.
Some fun mechanics in this game come through in the battle system. One that I found interesting but did not use very often was that you can set battle ‘Macros’. Not only does this make auto battling through dungeons easier (as I found out late in the game), but it also ensures that your characters, should you choose it, will attack in a certain order. If certain abilities are used in sequence, they will result in a combination attack that can quickly turn a battle’s tide. Of course, finding these combination attacks can be tricky. Having played this game a few times in passing, I didn’t even realize there were combination attacks until playing through for this review.
Another thing about the unique characters in battle is that they each earn their own ‘Skills’ which they can use a set number of times before they have to rest at an inn. On the one hand, this serves to separate the characters in a fun way, and the attacks can be devastating. On the other hand, this does render some characters virtually useless compared to others. Why use a character that can up their own attack with a skill when you can use a character that can fully heal one of your party members with a single turn or replenish TP (Technique Points, which are the games version of Magic Points) to the entire party, which is something that you can’t do through normal means?
The game manages to do quite a few things right in its execution. For one, where modern games would supply cut scenes for information or storytelling purposes, the game uses manga style comic panels with accompanying text to propel the story a bit, and it’s a very effective way to do things. I enjoyed the times where I could sit back and watch a scene of my party interacting or finishing off a battle. It immerses the player more, even by today’s standards.
Before this entry, the Phantasy Star series was known as a serious grind-fest. Before each dungeon in past entries, you had to make sure you advanced your characters enough by fighting enemies for a while and making sure that you were not going to get decimated as soon as you walked into the next area. The difficulty curve in this game can still be challenging in a couple of spots, but this is easily the most evenly challenging game in the series. Given some of the strange difficulty curves in modern games, this game has a leg up in this department.
This game also has a “Hunter’s Guild” in one town, where Chaz and Alys work out of, that you can take missions on at to earn more Meseta (the in game currency). There are not a ton of these missions, and they do open up at very specific times in certain cases, but they make sure that you are not wanting for money at all times. I also just thought it was a fun mechanic to have ‘side missions’. On the topic of side missions, there are also dungeons that, unless you go out of your way to enter them, you will not get to go into through story progression. Some of these have tough enemies, but lots of great optional equipment and supplies to find. Exploration can garner great results in this game, which is a refreshing
concept given how linear the game seems on the outside.
While there are plenty of great concepts in the game, though, there are some archaic mechanics being utilized that indicate the game’s age. For instance, while shopping for supplies, there is no way to buy a bunch at a time. You have to buy them one by one, which makes shopping an irritating ordeal to go through. The fact that the translation is somewhat of a mess, too, makes the game seem a little broken, even going so far as to mistranslate locations that are mentioned throughout the game (one of the planets’ names flips between ‘Palma’ and ‘Parma’, for instance). Most of the script, for what it’s worth, is streamlined and fine, though as an added note, if you try to compare some of the names and places to past games in the series, you’re in for one heck of a headache.
My other issue, like many in past reviews, might be more of a personal issue for me than it would be for others. I love when games are creative and make their world immersive and fleshed out. There are various ways to do this, and one of those ways is to make up terms for your skills and spells. The problem comes when you don’t describe these things. There is no in-game explanation for any of the items or spells, so the best you can do is experiment to find out the difference between a ‘Star Dew’, ‘Sol Dew’ and a ‘Moon Dew’ or between ‘Rimpa’ and ‘Nawat’. Again, it’s more of an inconvenience than anything, but every time a character learned something new, I had to devise a way to figure out what it did or just experiment until I figured it out. Sadly, this interface does not hold up to time’s tests.
The game is fantastic on the front end. The graphics are great, and while they are not nearly as detailed as some other games of the time, the aesthetic really works. The real ‘art’ of the game comes from the cut scene panels, which are almost all just as good as any Japanese animation of that time (or today, to be honest). The battle view works well, and seeing your characters appear to actually attack is a well executed visual treat. The game is colorful and crisp in its presentation. The only problem I really had was in The Edge, which is the last dungeon. The tie dye apocalypse in the background really disorients the player and, for me, not in a good way.
The music was also enjoyable. I tend to judge the music on my own, but if I need another judge, I see if my better half can stand listening to the music in the game while I play. This time, he actually requested that I let the music play loudly while I experienced the game. There were plenty of tracks that stood out, like the town music for Tonoe or Piata, but some of the music did blend into itself. There are a lot of ‘electronic’ background tracks that sound perfect for the game but don’t stand out. In the end, the soundtrack is pleasant, but it probably won’t stay in your head for too long after the initial playthrough. No aurally offensive sound effects or anything of the sort to report on either.
In the end, Phantasy Star IV is a fantastic game, even today. While it has its wrinkles from age, it is a very pleasant retro RPG to play through, and fans of the genre will find themselves engaged for the entire twenty or so hours it takes to play through. The characters are enjoyable, the world feels expansive, and it definitely earns it place as a classic in the vein of Final Fantasy VI and others of the period. The game comes up short in a few areas, but given how easy it is to obtain today, I would be mistaken to say it doesn’t hold up. You can now purchase the game on Steam, WiiWare, and in a collection of Sega games for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. For how affordable it is, it only seems natural to recommend that fans of the genre try it out.