Friday 27 May 2016

Mega Drive Review - Phantasy Star IV (Game 107)

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1995

There's a mistaken belief that to play a RPG in the nineties you had to own a Snes. 'Phantasy Star IV' proves there were incredible experiences to be had on a Sega console too. 

Many call the 16 bit era the golden age for Japanese role playing games. In Japan the 'Dragon Quest' series had become a national obsession, a fire fueled by Square's 'Final Fantasy' games. Their success inspired no shortage of copycats developers and at the genre's peak, Japan saw a couple of games a month - though most were of questionable quality. In America RPGs still had a niche audience but a smaller fan base didn't prevent the US getting the best the East had to offer; many of which continue to be considered  the greatest games of the era, if not of all time. 

The situation in Europe was a little different. Before 'Final Fantasy VII' the JRPG genre was practically non-existent. The other six 'Final Fantasy' games, ' Chrono Trigger', 'Earthbound', 'Dragon Quest' even accessible titles like 'Super Mario RPG' didn't get a European release. 'Secret of Mana / Evermore' and 'The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past' are the famous exceptions but these focus on action so many (quite rightly) don't acknowledge them as true JRPS. 

As a European gamer, I was under the impression that if I wanted to play a Japanese RPG I would have to pay a fortune to import it from the US. Consequently, it wasn't until later that I fell in love with the genre. However, there was an easier way to get a JRPG hit that I was totally ignorant of, mainly because Super Play never presented it as an option. While the Super Nintendo is now the goto console for pixelated JRPGs, the reality is, in Europe you could actually play just as many of these types of games on the Mega Drive. The 'Shining Force' games, 'Warriors of the Eternal Sun' and most famously the 'Phantasy Star' series all were exclusive to Sega's machine.

When it comes to naming the best JRPG on the Mega Drive one game seems to be mentioned far more than others. 'Phantasy Star IV' came out late the console's lives, landing in shops in the UK around December 1995 with a price tag almost double that of most other games. It was the "explosive finale" to a series that originally started on the Master System, largely in response to 'Dragon Quest'. The first game was considered ground breaking in 1987. It had visuals far beyond anything the NES was capable of and its first-person dungeons were comparable with the type of game seen on higher-spec home computers. A couple of years later 'Phantasy Star II' was undoubtedly one of the biggest showcase for the Mega Drive's power in the early years. Sega took the successful first game and essentially gave it a makeover. The greater emphasis on Sci Fi elements separated   the games more from their rivals, who at the time still were of the opinion that turn based battles and random encounters could only occur in fantasy worlds. "It’s a more free, unrestrained world. In most RPGs there’s only one world, right? In 'Phantasy Star' the story straddles three planets, and I think that kind of freewheeling sense of adventure is one of its main charms" Series designer Miki Morimoto once said.  "The fact that it’s a science fiction RPG also sets it apart, but since we mixed sword and sorcery into the science fiction, it’s a really open, wild world."

Though I don't claim to be that knowledgeable on the series I understand the third game was a misstep for the series. For many, 'Phantasy Star III' deviated too far from previous two games, replicating Square's 'Final Fantasy'series rather than building its own identity.
 It was rejected by fans explaining why the fourth and critically most acclaimed game, 'Phantasy Star IV' is much closer to the second rather than third game in the series. As such it doesn't feel as innovative but instead it refines and builds on the ground work, ultimately becoming the best in the series as a result. 

"Sega haven't released a proper RPG since, oh the end of WWII" wrote Mean Machines magazine when they saw the game. "'Phantasy Star [IV]' is pure, fulfilling adventure at its very best, if you like that sort of thing." It's game play that's instantly familiar to anyone used to seeing "Square" or "Enix" on a box. 

You play with party of warriors from all walks of life. You view them from above, guiding them around various worlds randomly encountering enemies whom you must fight on a separate battle screen. In true JRPG style these battles see you taking it in turns to perform attacks on each other. Lose and it's game over, win and you gain experience known as XP. The more XP the higher your characters level, the higher the level the more powerful they are and the larger the variety of attacks they can perform. Their ability in battle can also be raised by equipping each of the characters with various armour, weapons and items which can be bought in shops or found along your journey. There are sub quests to distract you in the form of "Hunters Guild" bounty missions, which mainly involve you killing a large foe or finding an individual. But ignoring those, the main adventure still sees your party venturing across worlds, fighting huge screen-filling adversaries as the complex and surprisingly emotive plot unfolds. 

All the 'Phantasy Star' games are set in the Algol star system, thousands of years in the future. Each represents the end of a particular era, so a millennium separates the event of the first game from the second, which is in turn set a thousand years before the fourth. Much like the 'Final Fantasy' games, enjoyment of each doesn't depend on knowledge of an earlier game. However, there a knowing nods and references for devoted fans to appreciate, such as heroes being called variations of Alys and the same locales appearing across the games. "I include them to thank the fans" designer Tohru Yoshida says. "My thinking was that those in the know would enjoy the references. This was fun to do but for the sake of new players I was careful not to overuse them".

'Phantasy Star IV' follows Alys and her inexperienced sidekick Chaz who are both hunters from Matvia, a planet that was included in the second title in the series. However, true to the post-apocalyptic style of this fourth game the lush world seen prior is gone and instead the pair works in a derelict desert world. It’s a world of unrest, where professors are involved in forbidden genetic testing and ecosystems are going haywire. Like most RPGs, the plot starts off small and grows from there. Your party will see space stations, explore planets and try to save the entire universe. Before the game's final credits there will be shocks, narrative twists and even major character deaths, but these are hardly surprising for anyone schooled in the genre. The story told in 'Phantasy Star IV' is a potent cocktail of tragedy and triumph. Punctuated by exhilarating moments, with a sense of jeopardy that isn't as acute in other similar games. 

For all its strengths, the second game's characters were undeveloped. "The older stories have a lot of holes" writer Akinori Nishiyama mournfully admits in 'The Phantasy Star Compendium'. "You don't know who these people are". Only two were given any meaningful back story or even anything meaningful to do in the plot. Playable characters never felt like the architect of the story, simply people going along for the ride. Things are very different in 'Phantasy Star IV' though. "Our aim was to create a cast of memorable characters and develop a narrative that connects them together" recalls visual designer Tohru Yoshida. 
Now we have protagonists and supporting individuals who all have their own agendas. They are no longer generic heroes who simply decide to follow each other one day. Instead, they are varied, rounded people, with each getting a significant moment in the story. Alongside protagonists Chaz and Alys are Rika a naive clawed biological experiment and Gryz a powerful, blue-furred, axe-wielding warrior. There are the staple magic users; Raja,  Kyra and Rune (whom seems somewhat popular with female players all told!) Also, with this being an JRPG with sci-fi undertones, we mustn't forget cyborgs Wren and Demi. They are by far the most interesting party additions simply because both play differently to the other characters. For example, neither can be healed by magic, instead both regenerate life by walking.  Its touches like this that makes the 'Phantasy Star IV' line up so great and there's even an option for the party members to talk amongst each other and discuss the current objective. It may not sound like much but its a treat for those who take breaks from playing. I can't tell you the number of times I've started a gaming session and forgotten what I was doing. Every RPG needs this feature.

According to Sega Magazine, the plot is 'Phantasy Star IV's greatest strength. They note that "the game succeeds by creating cinematic moments, introducing new characters and powers, and taking many weird and wonderful plot turns." But this successful story telling is only possible due to the manner in which it is presented.  
Manga-esque panels obviously gave the development team much greater scope to emphasise emotion, which traditionally is limited to at most static character portraits. Each of the games numerous plot twists are told through five of six still images, reminiscent of a modern visual novel to a certain extent. They are almost precursors to the cut-scenes that propel the stories of modern JRPGs and seemed revolutionary at the time. Other, now celebrated, games depend on the in-game graphics to advance the story . Though 'Chrono Trigger' had a wonderful cast of characters how the player saw them was influenced by box art, as the sprites were unable to present visual nuances. 'Phantasy star IV' though shows its characters in glorious close up detail in the story pictures and by the end of the game you feel like you have seen the protagonists from every conceivable angle.

Telling the story through cut-scenes style images though was somewhat essential, if the plot was ever going to drive the player.
The in-games character sprites are minuscule and could hardly convey emotion. After years of looking at Square protagonists with lovingly detailed in-game avatars, 'Phantasy Star IV's in-game assets look out dated and basic. The miles-above-overhead view resembles the original 'Phantasy Star' on the Master System, albeit with a bit more colour. Characters are so small they are hard to differentiate between and walking consists of two frames of animation. At least the backs of heads seen during battle scenes are larger with some detail, but were it not for the cut-scene stills you would be forgiven for having no idea what the main characters look like. Edge magazine were equally unimpressed. In a review they said that 'Phantasy Star IV' "while still a good game, is years behind." They were of the opinion that other RPGs were evolving the genre in both graphics and game play but 'Phantasy Star IV' "still fundamentally looked and played the same as 'Phantasy Star II' from five years before [...] with nothing that goes above or beyond the previous titles". EGM Magazine's reviewer agreed. "I must admit, from first glance this game just didn't look too great" he said. "I thought the graphics should have been cleaner and less dithered [there's a] lack of graphic detail". People now praise the visuals in 'Phantasy Star IV' but were it not for the images used to tell the story, the very idea of calling this game "beautiful" or "stunning" would be laughable. 

The music of the game however fares much better when compared to similar Snes games at the time, even if 'Phantasy Star IV's score lacks the majesty of 'Final Fantasy III' or the originality of 'Secret of Mana'.  However, the town themes are beautiful the character themes are strident and 'Phantasy Star IV' has a battle theme that remains bare-able even after hours of hearing it almost constantly. Composer Tokuhiko Uwabo believers project cohesion is the secret to a successful game. "We all shared the same room: game designers, programmers, and sound. That meant everyone could peek in on everyone else’s work" he says in "The Phantasy Star Chronicle". "I could check out where the game designers were at, and the designers could look over and see how the sound was going. It made for a very different atmosphere from what you see today in game development. " 

Perhaps it was this committee development that led to the creation of some incredibly fast battle mechanics. This is in no small part down to macros which play very similarly to "auto fight" modes shoehorned into modern mobile versions of 16 bit JRPGs. Before entering battle you can create a list of actions that characters will do in order, once the macro is activated. In practice this means you can win a battle against weak enemies simply by selecting the macro and watching as each character performs their pre-selected action. As a result, some fights can be won by just pressing two buttons and a rapid pace was always the goal of programmer Daisuke Yamamoto. "I intended to create a speedy game and I think we did a great job from that aspect, compared to other sluggish games. It turned out very well. It was never drudgery"

The quick battles make grinding far more bearable, which is fortunate as the random encounter rate is higher than many would like. It’s not as bad as 'Breath of Fire' but expect to be dragged into an unwanted fight far more than you would be in 'Final Fantasy VI' or 'Chrono Trigger'. But unlike these two games, you're never as scared that your untimely death can come from being foist into a battle before you're ready. Health restoring inns are always close by, they can even be quickly teleported to relatively early in the game. 'Phantasy Star IV' is an exceptionally well balanced game and provided you take half an hour out to grind before each new section of the game, you'll always feel at an advantage over most enemies. If anything this game is too easy for most. Dungeons feel linear, puzzles and mazes few and far between and there’s countless ways to heal. 

Each character has a set of abilities that is unlocked as they hit specific levels or storyline moments; these are broken down into two categories: Techniques and Skills. Techniques are essentially magic attacks that your characters can use by spending their Technique Points, whereas skills have a fixed number of uses that only resets when your party rests. The problem is that there is no way in-game to read what each skill and technique does and with the western character limit it is never clear from the name. The only way to know for sure is to test them in battle, but doing so carries the risk that they may actually be the "escape from dungeon" technique, resetting any progress you've made up till that point.  Some techniques can combine to create devastating attacks. There are 14 of these "combo attacks" in the game and they were praised by many as being an exciting new addition to 'Phantasy Star IV'. However, I am of the opinion they actually harm it. Again, within game, there's no way to tell which techniques work together leading to a huge amount of trial and error which can only really be done in battle. Once found, they are so overpowered that it makes most battles feel one sided; at least until your Tech Points have been exhausted. Should this happen, (until very late in the game) there’s only one way to restore them - resting in inns. Obviously this can't be done mid battle though. With TP limited and essential to combos, ultimately even using the combined attack you've spent ages figuring out could prove fatal: Sometimes performing one means your TP is consumed but little damage is done to your foe. This is the result of either a particular enemy not being weak to the specific combo or because the two characters were interrupted while performing the attack. You're not warned of either being a possibility before executing the command. Through no fault of your own, and seemingly with no warning, you could be left trapped in a battle with no TP remaining, no way to restore it with no way to win as your physical attacks aren't effective enough. It’s not the only frustration that can sour the experience though. Certain sections require you to use vehicles to navigate over the world maps.
However, the vehicles you use do not increase in strength as you level up your characters. The end result is godlike characters being killed by mid-strength enemies simply because the option to escape from battles isn't always available when in the Sand Rover or Ice Cruiser. Seeing a game over screen because you haven't grinded is par for the course in a JRPG, but having one foist on you is downright insulting.

Perhaps because of the sped up battles 'Phantasy Star IV' only takes around 20 hours to finish on a first play through. It certainly doesn't feel as epic or sprawling as equivalent games on the Snes. The games brevity was a reason why game critic Chris Slate was less than complimentary when reviewing the game for Games Players back in 1995. "How can Sega hope to compete in the RPG world with the top Snes RPGs like 'Final Fantasy III' and The 'Secret of Mana' if 'Phantasy Star' doesn't evolve?" he asked readers.  For him cut seems and streamlined battle mechanics were not enough to make up for weak outdated in-game visuals, even though these additions are actually now genre mainstays. His criticism was not isolated though and Yoshida was surprised when games historian Keith Stuart told him 'Phantasy Star IV' was considered "A classic". "Is it?" he asked, "it isn't thought like that in Japan".  It's a game that has seemingly been forgotten by Japanese audiences, maybe because the series vanished totally for six years. When it returned as 'Phantasy Star Online' on the Sega Dreamcast, turn based battles were gone and hack and slash fighting took centre stage; the 'Phantasy Star' series was a JRPG no longer. 

You have to wonder if 'Phantasy Star IV' would have been so fondly remembered by the West if it had been released on the Snes. Is it loved as it proved JRPGs existed on a 16bit Sega machine? Is it cherished simply because it was one of the few games from the genre to actually be sold in Europe? Side by side, it's clearly not a masterpiece compared to any of Square's finest 16bit adventures, but failure to measure up to some of the greatest games of all time clearly doesn't mean 'Phantasy Star IV' is bad. It offers a genuinely engaging and surprisingly moving story. It shows the early stages of many mechanics we have come to expect from the genre and it's a shame it was the finale of a series that started in such a promising manner.

I wish I knew of its existence back in my youth. Had I been aware of 'Phantasy Star IV' I have no doubt that it would have been my first JRPG and (given my envy for US Snes players, with their translated imports) the game may have even convinced me to buy a Mega Drive. 

Where did I get this game from?
When I revealed to a friend that I was going to embrace the dark side and actually buy some Mega Drive games she sent me 'Phantasy Star II' and 'IV'. I must confess the former didn't engage me, but it was certainly interesting from a historical viewpoint. The latter though became a game that hooked me for a week at the exclusion of many modern titles. I can't pretend it changes my "favourite JRPG games of all time" list, but I can certainly understand why she loves it so. 

1 comment:

  1. "Side by side, it's clearly not a masterpiece compared to any of Square's finest 16bit adventures,"
    Blasphemy. PSII >>>>>>>> FFII, PSIV >> FFVI. For the former especially, it's not even close.


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