A Deeper Shade of Inky Black – Sega Genesis – Phantasy Star II – 1990

Phantasy Star II Title

Phantasy Star II
Sega Genesis
Sega
Genre: Sci-Fi Role Playing
1990

Having recently played through the original Phantasy Star recently, I can say that it took a lot of steps to revolutionize role-playing games and was quite ambitious for the time.  You can see my impressions on that game here.  At the time, the market wasn’t as saturated as it is now, and while the premier role-playing games of the time can be difficult to go back to for a number of reasons, they tend to conjure up feelings of nostalgia and warm feelings of falling in love with a genre that was really beginning to flourish in the West.

Phantasy Star II has a few things going for it over the original from the beginning- Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy came out around the time so the market was starting to come into its own.  Not to mention the fact that its predecessor had been well reviewed by critics and the public alike.

Having had a couple of years to perfect and enhance the experience for their fans, how does the second entry to the series fare not only against the test of time but against the previous entry?

As a note, I’m going to try to delineate certain discussion points for future reviews to keep them segmented and outline where spoilers might be.  It may be expected, but given that this is a sequel related to the original, there may be spoilers throughout.


Plot Synopsis 

Phantasy_Star_II_(UE)_(REV02)_[!]014

Each character gets an introduction- and oddly asks you to change their name for some reason.

This second installment of the Phantasy Star series takes place 1000 years after the original and opens in the city of Paseo which has developed from the tiny Motavian town to a bustling center for travel and business.  An agent by the name of Rolf is having nightmares about a woman fighting off dark forces who needs help.  In the midst of these nightmares, he and his partner, Nei- one of the only Numans in the world- work to keep the peace in the Algol System, which has been flourishing since the fall of the evil plaguing the system a millenia ago.  Under the guidance and rule of the great computer, Mother Brain, everything seems to be running smoothly.

Unfortunately, Rolf receives word shortly after one of his nightmares that there are biomonsters starting to create problems due to increasing numbers.  This sets Rolf and Nei on the start of an adventure that will eventually concern the entire Algol System.  Throughout their travels, they are joined by a number of others who seek out Rolf to help him.  Traveling across Motavia (‘Mota’ in this iteration), he and his group of able bodied companions find that there may be more to Mother Brain than meets the eye and they work to figure out the mysteries of her nature and influence to try to bring their planets peace once more.

Phantasy Star II 2

The environments of Dezolis is enhanced by foreground atmosphere.

Phantasy Star II, at its heart, centers around Rolf and Nei.  The other characters join up intermittently (usually once you’ve reached another hub city and return to Rolf’s apartment) but beyond their introductions and the ending, they have no effect on the plot.  Their concepts are still much more interesting than the basic outlines of the party from the original, and it wasn’t a foreign concept early on to focus on the main plot and a couple of main characters rather than integrate the entire cast into the narrative.  

Of course, the setting is reminiscent of the original game in most respects, towing the line between science-fiction and fantasy.  This episode of the Phantasy Star saga feels distinctly more in the science-fiction category, though, mostly due to the designs of the dungeons which veer away from the first-person view of the first game to the classic overhead view that most RPGs adhere to.  With the dungeons clad in metal, pipes, and teleporters, it’s much easier to define Phantasy Star II as a futuristic game.

Mechanics

Phantasy Star II 1

Fights have a very futuristic feel and are far more graphically detailed.

So far as gameplay is concerned, the game plays near identically to the original.  You travel from place to place as the plot dictates, gaining experience and leveling up to overcome increasingly difficult enemies.  Rather than using the same party of four characters throughout, though, you can choose from a total of eight characters with their own special abilities.  They all fit into some kind of useful niche, though some have more permanence than others.  There is a distinct healer, fighter, support character- and very little customization beyond equipment.  Thankfully, decking your characters out has come a little more open.  If you choose to equip your healer with two Fire Staves, she can attack just as well as some other members of your party.  Throw two shields on your mage to make him a stalwart-rather-than-glass cannon.

Battle, the other major mechanical component of the game, stays largely the same.  You choose all of the actions for your party and the entire round plays out.  In Phantasy Star II, however, the rounds persist until the player interrupts with a button press.  While certain actions will persist across rounds- mostly offensive like attacking or harmful spells- they will continue to drain TP until there is not enough to cast or perform the ability again.  This does mean that there is a level of attention that needs to be paid while also making it easy to grind- which we’ll obviously get to given the nature of this series.

The Good, The Bad and…

First and foremost, Phantasy Star II feels like a step up rather than sideways.  Even setting aside the improvements in exploration, the game does a better job of making large places feel large and small places feels small.  All in all, the design of the world and universe in general feels much more navigable.  Of course, Sega didn’t seem to have learned from some of the omissions from their first trek through the Algol System.

Phantasy Star II 3

“Talk to NPCs”, they said, “You’ll learn things.”

Despite how easily navigable the overworld is, dungeons are a confusing mess for the most part.  A majority of them rely on teleporters that bring you between floors, and it feels like they are a substitute for actual design.  Given that there is still no mapping system- for the overworld or any of the dungeons- this leads to a necessity of going through a multitude of dead ends and trying to find the right teleporters out of three, four, or even a whole wall lined with them.  This works the same way with pits that you can fall into to descend to lower floors to proceed.  All in all, the trial and error can be arduous.  It’s easier to cope with than before, though.

The trial and error may be a way to facilitate the returning requirement to grind for long amounts of time to make progress.  Constantly admitting new characters to your retinue that need to be trained to match up with your party and mildly more affordable equipment compared to Phantasy Star, the grinding feels more effective.  It still takes a lot of it to get to where you need to get to but it’s definitely more palatable.

In a mixed review of an element, the translation is better for the most part.  There are typos here and there, but all in all, it is more precise and attempts to rectify some of the mistranslations that were set up in the original.  In references to the original, ‘Noah’ has become ‘Lutz’, for instance, and the abilities and items have been changed to more of the terms that would be used throughout the rest of the series- curatives like ‘Burger’ and ‘Cola’ (which were kind of odd to begin with) are replaced with mainstays like ‘Monomate’ and ‘Dimate’ in this version.  The one inconsistency that stood out was the change in planet names, which have either been shortened or differently spelled.  Returning areas like Paseo have retained their original nomenclature, though, so it isn’t as jarring as it could be.  Given how notoriously the American continuity of the Phantasy Star series differs from the Japanese in certain respects, this seems like it may just be the tip of the iceberg to make note of differing planetary naming.

Plot- and Therefore Spoilers

If you’re looking for solid sci-fi pulp, you’ll be more than happy with what Phantasy Star II has to offer.  Biomonsters, robotic adversaries, and a supercomputer by the name of Mother Brain ensure that you are seeing plenty of science fiction tropes that we’ve seen in plenty of movies- but maybe not in video games.  You really get this in what backstory you get on Nei, your Numan companion.  She stands as an anomaly- there don’t appear to be any other Numans that you run across throughout your adventure, and all of your other party members are pretty distinctly Human.  There isn’t a ton of exposition regarding Nei’s race and origins, at least in this work.  Given that there are a ton of supplemental works that weren’t released in the US for this game, there may be plenty of exploration regarding this somewhere else.  What we do get, however, is a lead up to an incredibly powerful moment that capitalizes well on Nei and her mysterious origins and is honestly on par with some of the more powerful moments in other games that appeared later on in the genre.

I do, however, want to take a moment to discuss the ending- and this will probably be the most spoiler laden part of this piece.

Your final battles that you actually fight aboard the Spaceship Noah- in what I assume is a throwback to Lutz’ original name- are as you would expect.  You run across Dark Force (correctly named this time) and your final skirmish with Mother Brain is both inevitable and conflicting.  The catch you are given is that if Mother Brain is destroyed, the Algol System is going to fall to ruin since she has been helping sustain the now flourishing Motavia.  Despite knowing that your choice of Yes or No to fight Mother Brain at the end is going to have to be a resounding ‘yes’, it doesn’t change that the weight of your actions feels palpable.  When this battle is over, however, there is one more obstacle to overcome.  Your entire party is brought together to put an end to the driving force behind Mother Brain and the issues plaguing the Algol System.  There is no battle to be had.  You see your party that you have been traveling with for thirty to forty hours at this point leap to action to save their world- even if it costs them their lives.  Do they win and come back as victorious heroes?  Do they meet their end against insurmountable odds?

The screen fades to a far shot of the universe.  Stars twinkle, unaware of the conflict waging.  Anticipation builds as words superimpose onto the scene:

“I wonder what the people will see in the final days?”

Roll credits.  There is no closure, at least in the American translation.  You are left to wonder about the fates of your company.  As the credits close, a final flash implies that someone or something has been teleported off into space.  Is it Rolf?  The entire party?  The enemy?  There are a lot of questions due to both the translation and the events that unfold.  My personal opinion is that I enjoy the idea, dismal as it is, that this party gave their lives for the safety of the universe.  They have fought hard for their existence and for the sake of those that exist with them.  In the sense of escalation, how much further can you push the theme of sacrifice for the people beyond the sacrifice of self; of life?

Notably, it seems after reading up online that a compendium on Phantasy Star only released in Japan does solidify that the party triumphs over their adversaries, though it isn’t clear about what happened after.  This still leaves things pretty open-ended but it does clear up one mystery: Rolf and his friends won.  Even if they didn’t make it back from Noah, their sacrifice was not in vain.  Based on the final words to the party, they are stuck on the spaceship.  There is no return trip.  It’s not ‘do or die’ anymore; it has become ‘do and die’.

Maybe a future entry will shed some light on this, so I’ll have to see in my future playthroughs.

Presentation

Phantasy Star II 4

There are far more cutscenes to flesh out the story this time around.

Both the visuals and music face a major upgrade from the original game.  The music feels like it takes advantage of the telltale synthesized bass and percussion that permeates the Sega Genesis library.  Were there any standout tracks?  Not to me, necessarily, but all of it was enjoyable.  The game’s sound effects also thankfully don’t fall into the usual issue with early sci-fi games, where they can be jarring or intrusive.  This was an issue that came up in brief spots in Phantasy Star, but whether by the nature of the Genesis sound chips or by improvement over the original aural work, everything feels like it gels together in a more succinct manner.

Looking at this game from the opening cutscenes, it is easy to see the evolution graphically.  Character models are more detailed and you actually get to see character animations in battle this time around.  While roaming through dungeons, you get a feeling of depth from the perspective given, as it appears that characters are walking under pipes that scroll at a different rate than your party travels.  This makes it feel like you’re looking through an actual industrial ceiling to guide your adventurers.  My one misgiving may be that rather than the battle backgrounds reflecting the environment that the party is fighting in, it is a static ‘virtual reality’ grid.  It’s a small quibble, though, since this reinforces the futuristic vibe that the game is leaning on and honestly, the effort put into every other visual aspect of the game is such a leap from the original that it’s hard to stress over that detail.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Phantasy Star II is still a hard sell to modern audiences but it is far more appealing in a mechanical sense than the original.  It isn’t hard to see, though, how this game became a classic and was acclaimed as a success in its time.  The plot twists and general feel of the game were unique and set it apart from the other RPGs being released.  If you’re a fan of grinding and don’t mind frustrating dungeon design, this game is well worth the time and effort.  The tone is grounded and has emotional depth unlike many other works that it released alongside; a huge plus to folks who like the RPGs of the Super Nintendo golden era or the early Playstation titles.  Much like the first Phantasy Star, you can find this game in a variety of iterations such as the Phantasy Star Collection on Game Boy Advance or on one of the number of Sega Genesis collections released on more modern consoles.

Phantasy Star II still may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is definitely taking the series in a positive direction and has earned its place as a revered piece of video game history, despite some miniscule flaws.

Information from the Phantasy Star Compendium derived from http://www.ripplinger.us/camineet/theories/ps2end.asp

5 thoughts on “A Deeper Shade of Inky Black – Sega Genesis – Phantasy Star II – 1990

  1. Considering how easy it is to get lost in the dungeons in the original Phantasy Star, it’s pretty impressive that they’re even more convoluted in Phantasy Star II. It was a great game for its time, and I think it’s one of the earliest JRPGs where a main character dies (I’m not counting Final Fantasy II’s propensity to kill off guest party members); I can imagine such a thing was quite shocking back then. Not to mention the fact that one of the things that happens in the game is the destruction of Palma. I doubt many people saw that coming. That said, even from what little I played of it, I could tell it was very much an early-nineties JRPG through and through.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, thankfully, the weird dungeon design only happens in about half of them. The rest are fairly easy to navigate by comparison. Between the death of (insert name here) and the destruction of Palma- which even shocked me after the events of PS1 and the events leading to it happening in PS2 -this game had went to dark places pretty frequently.

      Even though I’ve technically played through the rest of the series on Genesis, I’m looking forward to replaying them now that I know how things went down in the first two games.

      Liked by 1 person

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