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Playing catch up – Phantasy Star IV

posted on February 17th, 2009 by chris

I was a Nintendo kid growing up (until that stopped being cool, when I defected to Sony). I got a Genesis very late in the game, so I’m still playing catch-up on the Phantasy Star games. A couple months ago, the final game worth mentioning in the series was released on Virtual Console. I played through Phantasy Star 2 several months ago, so I figured I’d give its better-regarded descendant a go now that current-gen RPG releases have calmed down a bit.

Phantasy Star 4 deserves all of the acclaim it gets. If its fans are not heard as loudly as those of other, better-known series, they should be. Is it the Second Coming? Perhaps not. But it has all the requirements for a good RPG (aside from only one of two established religions being evil – I’ll overlook that). It has a fun and no-nonsense battle system, entertaining characters if a bit lacking in depth, some good dramatic scenes (but not too many!) and good music. Overall, it feels like a futuristic Lunar game. Nothing too complicated in the plot, just a bunch of cool situations in rapid succession and a bunch of bad guys to beat up. There are a couple touching scenes to round the story out – particularly well done is a scene that does something a Playstation RPG was made more famous for, but which to avoid spoiling I must shroud in vagaries – and all cutscenes are shown in an interesting way that’s reminiscent of a comic strip.

The battle system hearkens back to the old days of oddly named spells that have no descriptions. You’re left wondering what Nafoi does until you try it or figure out the naming scheme. Skills are similarly uninformative – for example, the main character’s “Earth” skill seems to put enemies to sleep occasionally. The skill “Crash” kills enemies, while “Shock” kills only robots. Although it takes a while to get a hang of, the skill system makes each character unique – in particular, it allows the robot characters to stand out by being unhealable yet able to repair themselves.

Somewhat more important than its fun combat system, Phantasy Star 4 pointed out to me what modern games are missing. What we need are some good standard science fiction RPGs. Star Oceans focus mostly on future people stranded on medieval planets, so they’re boring. Rogue Galaxy promised sci-fi and delivered one robot factory and 20 million ancient ruins. Xenogears is good, but Xenosaga is… well, Xenosaga. What we need are ideas like those in the Phantasy Stars – planets with terraforming systems going haywire and destroying cities, civilization-guiding AIs gone insane, and ancient robotic stewards of space stations working alongside the standard rag-tag teenage party to defeat evil. The Phantasy Star games have fantasy elements, but feel like science fiction compared to what’s out there. It’s a shame that there isn’t a good new series to take its place. Sega is, of course, giving us Phantasy Star Zero soon, but it will probably be another crappy spinoff of a good series.

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