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Review – Phantasy Star 2

posted on April 3rd, 2008 by chris
The layer of pipes obscures your vision in dungeons. At least it looks stupid.

A little over a year ago, I attempted to play through the original Phantasy Star. It was a trying experience, considering there is little in the way of direction or newbie-friendliness in the game. In the end, cuddlier JRPGs prevailed and I lost interest shortly after recruiting Noah.

Last month, I finished a play-through of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door and was looking for something else to play. I checked the Wii Shop, expecting once again to find an update with two, maybe three bland-looking clones of games already on VC. “Hmm”, I thought. “Phantasy Star 2…” a quick check around had me somewhat concerned. Most of my friends who enjoyed the Phantasy Star series told me not to even try. I shrugged and figured that if nothing else, my 800 Wii Points (which are no doubt all the more valuable due to the declining dollar and the burgeoning economy of Wiiville) will have gone to support classic RPGs.

A couple of hours later, when I told Jay I had started playing, his first words were “I’m sorry”. I could see his point. Much like Phantasy Star 1, it took an hour or two to get to the point where entering a dungeon is a realistic proposition. There are no critical hits, but even early enemies have special attacks that target the whole party or do a considerable amount of damage.

Menu hell.

Make no mistake; this game is not forgiving. A dead end in a friendlier game would reward you with a treasure chest or a save point. A dead end in this game gets you anywhere between two and ten more random encounters to wear down your party. But herein lies the very thing that made this game so satisfying to play. In other games, dungeons are often just a means to an end. You want to advance the plot, so you beat the four Towers of the Elements (or the four colored dams, or the four sets of ancient ruins). Fine. Phantasy Star 2 does this too. But each dungeon in Phantasy Star 2 feels like a milestone to overcome in a marathon. Even as you enter them, each one seems almost to tell you that there’s no way you can make it, that you’re not prepared enough or patient enough. But you have a chance to prove it wrong, to overcome the hurdles the game throws at you one by one. With some planning, this doesn’t even take much longer than in a normal RPG.

My first piece of advice to anyone who wants to play the game would be to use maps the second time you enter dungeons. Each time I did this, the game actually became a lot more enjoyable. The first time, I would go in well-prepared and explore a bit while grinding. This served three purposes: First, I got all-important EXP and Meseta while scouting out the monsters. Second, I got the satisfaction of trying to explore the dungeon on my own. Third, between the first and second I realized how hopeless it was to try to beat it without a map.

The first four Phantasy Star games all share plot elements and even reference other game’s characters.

But I digress. The plot is good despite being told one short paragraph at a time. The characters have widely varying abilities so they actually feel pretty different from each other; given that each has about three sentences of dialogue in the whole game, that’s a pretty impressive feat. If you want believable characters participating in the plot along with the hero, though, you’d be better off with another game. In fact, the characters show up at your doorstep, announce a brief reason for joining your party, and then say pretty much nothing all game.

The atmosphere is very well done. It’s clear that something is rotten in the system of Algo; Mota feels like a doomed planet filled with people who have no idea what they’ve gotten into. Insectoid bio-monsters roam the countryside, killing any who stray too far from their domed cities. Mota’s denizens huddle in fear, feeling a false sense of security because of their all-providing AI, the Mother Brain. This super-advanced technology avails them not when it goes haywire – which is, of course, where you fit in. As you would expect, your character will either be ordered or will volunteer to save everything that needs saving, especially his game. He is likely to uncover incredible secrets about Mota and the Algo system on his way. To any RPG veteran, the plot sounds cheesy and cliched.

Phantasy Star 2, though, was a change of pace for me. It was refreshing to play a game where characters don’t ominously announce a plot revelation in a horribly inappropriate voice as lightning rakes the sky and your party gasps in horror. While plot revelations certainly do happen, they occur in such a simple way – animated scenes at the most, but more often merely a block of text with a portrait – that there is a laid-back feel to the game. Phantasy Star 2 merely presents the plot; take it or leave it. No scene is longer than 2 minutes, but I was still impressed with the finale.

The future won’t be so bad if our biggest fear is being stung by giant mosquitoes.

In this there is probably some bias from nostalgia. This was my first playthrough of the game, but many of my favorite classics are told in this fashion; it’s a practiced reaction for my imagination to fill in the details. It could be a knee-jerk reaction, making me effectively an old codger yelling at 3D models, voice acting, and novel-sized plots to get off my damn lawn. But I’d like to think there’s still a lasting appeal to a game that tells its plot simply and with little detail. Many of the main plot points may have been done better later, but this in no way diminishes PS2’s plot. My feelings about simplicity adding to the game, of course, are dampened somewhat by the fact that I’d still love to see the Playstation 2 remake cross the Pacific, since it contains a lot more background information and characterization.

Another question came to mind while thinking about Phantasy Star 2. Is it a JRPG? At first, I thought, there’s no question, since it’s among the founders of the genre – but the modern JRPG is a far different creature from its roots. Now, JRPGs are largely character-driven, filled with sidequests and effeminate crazy men who want to take over the world. Few are as much of challenge as PS2. In fact, PS2 is linear, has very little characterization and a vague, far-off villain up until the end. But then, none of these means it can’t be an enjoyable game. It’s a classic in the hearts of many, and I found it fun, though a little rough around the edges.

10 Comments

  1. christian said on April 3, 2008:

    Phantasy Star 2 also makes Aeris’ death in FF7 a whole lot less groundbreaking. For that I will always praise it.

  2. jay said on April 3, 2008:

    I think it’s a very good game but is a let down after the original. The first game came out in a time when gamers were willing to put up with huge amounts of difficulty and frustration so it seems like crap now, but had it been a bigger hit (and the following games followed in its footsteps) we could have been swimming in more open ended JRPGs today. Instead, DQ set down the mold and FF and PS2 onward followed it.

    The different enemies based on what environment you’re in, the backgrounds during fights, first person dungeons and other stuff makes PS1 a better game in my opinion.

    I do have to give 2 credit for its oppressive, lonely, and sterile atmosphere, but the original has a lot of that. The First two games, 1 in particular, are unusual in that I always felt like I was in danger. Towns were far apart, it was easy to get lost and I was often low on funds. These are very stressful games, but classics.

  3. christian said on April 3, 2008:

    2 just has to be respected for such a ballsy story. Beyond that, not sure if 1 necessarily had more unique enemies. PS2 has a lot of palette swaps, but so did 1 if I recall correctly.

    Also, I’ve always felt that PS2 followed in the mold of its predecessor more than it did Dragon Quest. Aside from the dungeon perspective they both had the same feeling of being lost and lonely both on the overworld and in the dungeons.

  4. TrueTallus said on April 13, 2008:

    Hmmm. You talked about how difficult battles and dungeons could be, Chris, but is it in a potentially avoidable way (enough strategic versatility to let people who know what they are doing get the upper hand) or in a cruel “this game is cheep and hates you” kind of way? The dangerous, empty world atmosphere you and Jay are describing combined with brutal dungeon crawling makes PS2 sound a bit like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, a game I really enjoyed. From what pictures I can find elsewhere on line and in this review, it looks as if both games also share a similar devotion to presenting a unique visual aesthetic- having actually played PS2, would you say that’s the case?

  5. chris said on April 14, 2008:

    Generally I’d say it’s about half-and-half. If you prepare for dungeons properly (fill inventory with healing stuff, get most of the new weapons and armor) the first 2/3 of the game won’t give you any problem. Some of the later areas give off the “this game hates you” vibe for sure – if there’s an ambush by certain enemies and they focus fire on your characters, you’re dead (that said, like a hama/mudo on the main character in Nocturne, it didn’t happen to me).

    There’s not nearly the strategic diversity found in Nocturne. Most of the time you’re going to be attacking with everyone or using maybe one spell.

    I tried Nocturne myself a couple months ago and found it often gave me a headache – encounters were plentiful and could be unforgiving. More so than I found in PS2. But I did like Nocturne’s environments and story (what I saw of it, at least)… PS2 has some of the same flavor in the sense that the game doesn’t coddle you at all.

    When it comes to atmosphere I think Nocturne wins. PS2 has its moments, but only a few dungeons or areas were particularly memorable. It is unique for its time for sure, though.

    PS2 is again great for its time visual-wise, but it’s hard to compare it to something like SMT:N. The dungeons, monsters, and character animations are neat but there is only so much variety (lots of palette-swaps, some cloned dungeon designs, etc).

  6. jay said on April 14, 2008:

    To defend PS2, it is 14 years older than Nocturne. Also, I disagree with Chris’ assessment of the game’s difficulty. I found it to be harder and noticed that leveling your characters does very little to make the game easier. Then there’s the maps – if you play PS2 without help you’ll quickly realize it hates you.

  7. chris said on April 14, 2008:

    I’ll expand a bit on my feelings about difficulty here. When playing PS2, you have a low chance of losing time. If you have the right items (an escapipe and telepipe) you can immediately escape+warp to the nearest town no matter where you are or who’s left in your party. A complete party wipe (which is a game over) occurs only rarely in the last couple of dungeons (whereas in SMT:N and even the friendlier Persona 3 you lose if your main character gets hit with the wrong spell at the wrong time).

    Also, after a certain point it’s easy (though non-intuitive) to get an item that allows you to save anywhere.

    Even with the randomness factor, no dungeon took me more than two tries (I admit to map use, generally the second try).

  8. TrueTallus said on April 15, 2008:

    All right, thanks to both of you for all the clarification. I’m still curious about what you mean when you mention maps. Are they an item you can buy in game, or are you suggesting I actually use my hands for recording hallways on graph paper like the good old days?

  9. chris said on April 15, 2008:

    You could write them out by hand, but I didn’t have the patience and found the following site useful:

    http://www.phantasy-star.net/psii/psii.html

    The original game came with a guidebook including some maps, so I didn’t feel too badly about using the ones there.

  10. jay said on April 15, 2008:

    Any idea if the Japanese release had the guide? Either way, I played a good portion of the game without it (at at least up to Climacontrol, where it becomes impossible without it) so that may be part of why I think it’s harder than you (Chris). I can’t define it clearly, but just dying isn’t my whole criteria for difficulty. Hell, I died in Shining Force and that game isn’t hard.

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