Friday, September 29, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star II

I'll start off with praise for the mighty Game Genie, because without his "No Random Encounters" and "Instant Level 50" codes I'd probably still be EXP-gorging in Paseo. Thank you, Genie; Barbara Eden's got nothing on you. :)

"Phantasy Star II" represents a major leap forward from its predecessor, largely due to the move from the Sega Master System to Genesis. Graphically, musically, in story and gameplay, it's... different. Some areas have improved substantially, some not so much.

Let's start with visual style. I overlooked this in my review of the first game, but the "Phantasy Star" series offers something I haven't seen in your typical RPGs: it's situated firmly and directly in the science-fiction genre. It's not that other games don't make use of futuristic settings - "Final Fantasy VII" comes to mind - but there's usually some kind of religious/mystical undertone woven throughout the storyline (in FF7's case, the Jenova/Cetra/Lifestream subplot). "Phantasy Star", conversely, is pure sci-fi: everything that happens is rooted in technology and space travel. There are no gods, no demons, nothing otherworldly at all except for the Dark Force, which has yet to be explained. Visually, this is apparent in the design of the characters and the towns/worlds: sleek, metallic, a little cold and inhuman... and as we later find out, this isn't just because of the genre, but because of something that's actually going on in the game. Battle sequences are improved, though, as we can now see the participants on both sides facing off and delivering blows.

This game has one very notable flaw on the technical level: lack of variety. Dungeons are back to 2D overhead point of view (the first game had switched to first-person view during these segments), so you're basically stuck with the same perspective throughout the game. Most of the towns look the same, there's very little variation in how battles unfold thanks to the tweaked combat system (which allows you to automate a fight after issuing commands to your party members), and the music... well, even the boss fights don't have unique tracks, it's the same melody over and over again. A bit more work in that area would've kept ennui from setting in - as it was, I ended up fast-forwarding through most of the dungeons. You do get to build your own team out of a roster of eight, each with unique skills and attributes, but by mid-game the strongest and most useful characters become painfully obvious.

The story takes place a thousand years after Alis Landale defeated King Lassic and the Dark Force, becoming Queen of the Algol system. It's been an eventful millenium, and "Phantasy Star II" makes good use of continuity not by preserving the past, but by presenting familiar elements in a completely new context. Motavia, the desert world, has become a lush, green paradise, and whereas the bulk of the first game's actions took place on capital planet Palma, Motavia is at the heart of the story this time around. We begin the game with an introduction to Rolf, an agent of the Motavian government who dreams of Alis' final battle with Dark Force. With him is his... I'm not sure what Nei is to him, but she's there when he's assigned to check out apparent malfunctions in Mother Brain, the omnipotent computer network that regulates and controls virtually all aspects of life in Algol (Samus Aran would pitch a fit, I'm sure). Soon Rolf, Nei and their allies are drawn into an interplanetary conspiracy, with disastrous consequences.

So far so good... but pace becomes a major problem for this game after a while. For some reason, we get a string of random, minor events (reuniting a thief with his kidnapped daughter, learning to play the piano, investigating the source of the monsters plaguing the world), then the death of a main character. It's sudden, and a bit of a surprise, but there's no emotional depth because like their predecessors, the cast of "Phantasy Star II" have minimal personalities. It's just hard, if not impossible, to care about the fate of a complete cipher. This character is never spoken of again, for reasons that aren't very clear to me (especially since the character's name emerges towards the end of the game, but in a completely unrelated context, and nobody bats an eye). Anyway, after that things start getting awkward: having received minimal exposition so far, the team sets out to Dezolis, which is pretty much the same as it was a millenium ago, and receive a massive infodump from Lutz, nee Noah from the first game. Any pleasant surprise I might have felt at seeing him got utterly lost in the torrent of information that he blurts out: "Hey, Rolf, guess what! You're descended from Alis Landale! That dream you keep having? Really happened! And we've met before, remember that time when you were ten and your parents died on a space shuttle? Yeah, I'm the one that saved you. Oh, and there's an enormous space station on the edge of our solar system that's been watching us for a while. And I think the Dark Force is back and messing with Mother Brain. Okay, bye now."

See the problem? There's no build-up prior to this - you could try and hazard a guess that Rolf is descended from Alis, but we don't know anything about his life before the game starts, let alone why his orphaned status is so important (because the death of Rolf's parents wasn't an accident). And the bitch of it is, there's no time to digest this information, because you're catapulted forward towards the end of the game, and there's a brilliant plot twist where the true masterminds are revealed... it would've been great, but at that point you're so saturated with exposition that any dramatic impact is lost. The story ultimately achieves an ambiguous climax that would've been amazing, had we been given time to appreciate it. Thematically, the game goes all-out at this point: we see how dependence on technology leads to complacency and weakness, and Rolf's ultimate decision is wonderfully ambivalent in the sense that you're wondering whether he knows the ultimate consequences of his actions, and accepts them because the alternative is unthinkable. Lots of clever ideas, hampered by the fact that they're not set up properly.

Side note: continuing a nice tradition from the first game, the toughest fighter and the most efficient healer in "Phantasy Star II" are both women (Anna Zirski and Amy Sage, respectively). Still with minimal personalities, but again, it's enough that they're front and center. And, of course, this is one of the few games I'm familiar with where the final boss is a woman.

An above-average game, though I imagine my opinion of it would be much lower if I'd actually had to fight my way through random battles every five steps. But it gets the job done, and that's what counts.