Sunday, October 15, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star IV

A word of warning: I believe my overwhelmingly positive response to this game may be influenced by the nostalgia it invokes (which affects me as someone who'd played through the series to that point) and by what I call the Manna Effect - after two "okay" games and an abysmally awkward third, anything more than halfway competent is bound to look like a Godsend by comparison. Objectively speaking, though, I have no doubt that "Phantasy Star IV" is a substantial improvement over its predecessors, and is certainly the best of the four.

Don't let the title fool you; this is actually a sequel to the second game, not the third. In fact, looking back on "Phantasy Star" as a whole, PS3 really comes off as the "Freddy's Revenge" of the series - the black sheep that could be erased from the canon altogether without making any difference. But in any event, we're back in the Algol star system, a thousand years after Rolf Landale and his friends destroyed Mother Brain. In the interrim, civilization has collapsed and everything has changed. It's the same trick PS2 used to distance itself from the first game while maintaining basic continuity: since we don't get to witness the changes as they occur, we're thrust into unfamiliar territory once more even though it's the same world.

Chronologically, we've reached the early '90s here (1993 to be exact), and this is when RPGs took a turn for the better on the creative level. PS4 uses a number of interesting narrative techniques, such as a telescoping plot and a false protagonist, and it features a cast of distinct characters with individualized personalities. Sure, none of them are particularly complex, but they don't need to be - it's enough that we can see them as people rather than stick figures, and watch them interact with each other and the world around them. Diversity is also another big plus: at various points, your party will include a Dezolian priest, a Motavian axe-warrior, a Numan, two Espers (a male sorcerer and a female warrior) and a pair of androids. Easily the most varied bunch ever seen in a "Phantasy Star" game, leaning more towards the "band of misfits" archetype than homogenous adventurers.

The story begins with renowned huntress Alys Brangwin and her 16-year-old protege Chaz Ashley. On a routine assignment, the two accidentally stumble upon an impending planetary crisis; as their journey progresses and they gather up allies, the cause of Motavia's troubles seems to be Zio, a psychotic warlock out to destroy the world. But Zio is only the puppet of a darker power, concealed behind many masks and guises. The party must ultimately face a cosmic entity and end the cycle of violence and destruction that has plagued Algol for so long.

It's the very definition of the telescopic plot - starting small and local, and growing in scale with every plot twist until it ends on a global/galactic level. The key to success is having us get invested in each stage of the unfolding tale, and "Phantasy Star IV" achieves this largely through the likeable characters and their subplots. I think what makes them so compelling, despite a seeming lack of complexity, is the fact that most of them reflect basic human concerns: Gryz wants revenge but finds no reason to continue with the team once he gets it, Raja just wants to have fun, Kyra's out to prove herself to her peers, Rika's determined to test her lab-learned knowledge against life experience... and, of course, Chaz is forced to grow up and stand on his own. In fact, Chaz really surprises me towards the end of the game: when he's told of the cosmic battle between Light and Darkness, and is tasked to destroy the Darkness, Chaz refuses - not out of fear or an ulterior motive, but because following the commands of a disinterested metaphysical entity doesn't make him any different from Zio and Dark Force. It's a surprisingly profound point, worthy of the most sophisticated modern RPG.

While we're on the topic of characters, I have to give one last round of cookies to Sega; whatever problems I may have had with the "Phantasy Star" games, there's no question that I appreciate their concentrated contribution of strong female protagonists to the RPG genre. The fact that Alys Brangwin is a well-rounded, interesting figure in her own right is even more commendable.

The graphics are spectacular by "Phantasy Star" standards, showing full animations for spells and physical attacks while using illustrated manga-esque panels to enhance cutscenes. Everything is so much more dynamic here; this is the only game in the series where I didn't feel the need to disable random encounters, because they were genuinely fun to watch. Fun to play as well, which is another important note: after three wildly erratic games, "Phantasy Star IV" finally achieves the perfect balance of encounter frequency and difficulty. With the added incentive of macros (allowing the characters to execute pre-programmed attack sequences) and combination-attacks (where two or more party members combine their abilities to create more devastating techniques), you'll probably spend most of the game wanting to get into fights. The Hunters' Guild side-quests are also worth mentioning: during certain lulls in the quest, you can undertake some optional missions for Alys' and Chaz's guild, running the gamut from rescuing a dog to halting an invasion of cyborgs. Most of them are pretty fun, and you can get plenty of EXP and money per mission; again, it's the sort of level-building side-quest that's typical of modern RPGs, and "Phantasy Star IV" does it just as well as its contemporaries.

Nostalgia is a big part of PS4's emotional payload - and it's the little things that have the most power. Stepping into the Bio-Plant and being greeted by PS1's Tower theme; Rika being the perfected version of Nei; the wreckage of the worldship; Lashiec and Daughter representing the villains of the past; meeting Myau and Lutz; the statue of Alis in Termi (which provides the last frame of the finale); and, of course, the Elsydeon scene, where Chaz meets the heroes who came before him. There are also things the game doesn't explicitly spell out: for example, towards the end of the game you're sent to find the Aeroprism, which Lutz concealed in the Soldiers' Temple. Except he'd given it to Rolf before the Noah mission, which means someone made it back alive from the end of PS2 after all.

Of course, most of this won't mean anything to players who haven't gone through the first two games at the very least, which suggests to me that PS4 was primarily targeted at the pre-existing fanbase, offering as much closure and continuity as possible. It's a nice gesture, and one that serves to wrap up the "Phantasy Star" series at its peak.

On an unrelated note: this was my last review for the next few months, as "Sententia" goes on hiatus while I get married and make some life changes. I'll probably be incommunicado until March, but comments are welcome as always. :)