I haven’t been writing much lately – a number of things, including but not limited to the worst instances of insomnia that I’ve experienced in my life yet, have left me frequently feeling just kinda tired and demoralized. But these things have also given me a renewed appreciation for the dumb, mindless escapism of video games, so let’s talk about that.
Specifically, Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium.
A few months back I talked about my attempt to play the 1989 Sega Genesis JRPG Phantasy Star II. It had almost everything: a very satisfying dungeon crawler structure, a unique, soft sci-fi setting and story, some pleasant 80s anime visuals, catchy FM tunes. Except that playing the actual game isn’t actually fun. The dungeon design starts off obtuse and quickly skyrockets into unknown levels of bizarre sadism; the battles are slow and clunky, with annoying visuals and sound effects, and the interface is way too cumbersome.
Still, the thing gave me a hankering for things Phantasy Star. The original 1987 game is genuinely good, but being an 8-bit RPG features a difficulty curve that I haven’t quite found it in me to try and master yet; it’s currently more fun to watch people play and take apart than to actually crack open myself. Phantasy Star III has almost nothing to do with the other entries, being made by a completely different dev team, and is commonly regarded as the Star Trek V of the franchise.
Which brings me around to the final entry, Phantasy Star IV, a game which I tried to play over a decade ago, and gave up on. A big part of that had to do with my tastes and expectations: PSIV was released in 1994, which was around the same time as Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, and so I was expecting something something along the lines of a mid 90s Square RPG: a bombastic, plot-driven, game with visuals that represented the full flourishing of the 16 bit era; the sort that was already leaning towards the more cinematic 3D games that were just around the corner. That wasn’t what I got, and so I lost interest in it until, well, now.
PSIV, rather, is a game which iterates upon the dungeon crawler gameplay of PSI and (especially) PSII – a kind of style which Final Fantasy and other JRPGs increasingly moved away from, but one which I’m much more capable of appreciating nowadays.
Anyway, the Phantasy Star series takes place in the Algo star system, with IV starting on the planet Motavia. Said planet was a desert wasteland in I, but was terraformed by an AI system called Mother Brain, which went haywire in II. IV, taking place a millenium after II, finds Motavia once again degenerating back into a desert wasteland, with the environmental systems slowly breaking down (one of the neat things about this franchise is the continuity of setting across the three games). The story picks up with Alys and Chaz, partners who work for a Hunters Association specializing in monster extermination, getting hired under suspicious circumstances by a local university. Before long, they find themselves on the trail of this evil wizard dude.
The first couple of hours are kinda ok; pretty decent, but boilerplate JRPG stuff, with a kinda drab, unremarkable world. Then you suddenly stumble into a crazy, high-tech PSII style dungeon, and everything changes.
I could see what they were going for with PSII’s dungeon design: you had to think of them as a real, 3-dimensional piece of architecture, and not simply as a series of abstract corridors and rooms if you wanted to successfully navigate them. This is a really neat thing which a lot of JRPGs tend to shy away from. The trouble was that the visuals were way too samey and confusing to stick in your memory, and also the game iterated on this idea in the most obnoxious ways (there’s one dungeon which is only two storeys tall, but has like 60 elevators, for instance).
That central idea is still present in PSIV, but streamlined to the point where it’s actually fun. I mean, that’s pretty much what it boils down to: it feels like a fun version of II.
But to give a concrete example, the first environmental facility you enter introduces a simple idea: follow the glowing line to reach the control room. Other, similar areas start to iterate on it – the line is there, but the way is obstructed, so you have to go off course and find your way back. Or there’s more than one line, each leading to a different point of interest. The game gives you a visual reference to get a sense of where you’re going, and in a way that makes sense in universe.
The combat is satisfyingly crunchy. It isn’t particularly different from any other turn-based RPG out there (or even PSII, for that matter), but everything from the detailed sprite art to the sound effects and music, to the snappy pace have been finessed to give it that satisfying, intangible crunchiness. Among 16-bit RPGs, only Chrono Trigger strikes me as having a similar sort of crunch.
So the game quickly falls into a nice rhythm of giving you a minute or so of dialogue, a new dungeon and town, and then repeating. The dialogue is clunky, but the characters are vibrant and fun, and-
Actually, about the dialogue. As I’ve said before, I think one of the reasons the stories and characters of older RPGs are so easily charming comes from how the devs were working with extremely limited storage space, and so had to be economical about the writing, painting in broad strokes, and letting the game world, and your imagination fill in a lot of the details. There’s more room for the player to make an intimate connection with the characters. JRPGs have since have gotten far more garrulous. Frequently, it’s just bad writing, but even when the writing is technically good, it often detracts from the overall experience to just spend so much time with talking heads.
PSIV in particular does this thing where dialogue unfolds with these manga style panels popping up on the screen. Look at how fun that is. Think about how some artist worked to create sequential images that would give the scene an appropriate rhythm and tone. You can’t have that level of attention to detail if there’s 50 hours of dialogue to wade through. And isn’t this a more interesting way of conveying characterization than having characters repeatedly explain their psychological hang ups to you in excruciating detail….Persona 5?
I dunno; maybe I’m just too old to appreciate the radio drama approach to storytelling that a lot of JRPGs like, but I find that a lot of it winds up being both heavy-handed and kinda flat in execution). (Persona 5 is a bit of an unfair example, since that franchise takes a lot of inspiration from visual novels, which are an admittedly very static, text based genre. But I increasingly feel that in doing so, it unnecessarily imported a lot of that genre’s limitations.)
I’m getting distracted. The characters of PSIV are all cliche: Alys is your standard tough, badass lady, Chaz is the kid who’s trying to prove himself, Hahn is the dork who everyone picks on, Rika is the anime catgirl waifu, etc. But they’re all fun and have such great chemistry together, and I already care about them way more than those Persona 5 losers.
And, again, they all share that same quirky setting persisting throughout the series, which plays like some deranged mashup of Dungeons and Dragons and Isaac Asimov. It really is a unique series which burned brightly for a few years and died out (it later got an MMO reboot, but that’s an entirely different beast).
I still haven’t finished the thing, so I guess it’s entirely possible that things take a turn for the worse in the back half, but so far I’m sold on its greatness and it being a graceful end to Phantasy Star’s brief life.