Friday, 21 March 2014

Review: Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium

Phantasy Star IV – The End of the Millennium
Platform: PS3 / Xbox 360 / PC / PS2 / PSP / Mega Drive
Price: £13.69 (360)1 / £14.93 (PS3)1 / £1.99 (PC)2
Release Date:   Out Now

Every war has its generals, lieutenants, colonels and other members of the elite, prominent figures either at the forefront of battle or operating from behind the lines (either friendly or hostile). This is true even for metaphorical wars, wars of words, etc, and is no less true for the console wars of yore. Back in the sixteen bit era, it was Nintendo and Sony who were the main heavy hitters, and each had their officers: Herr Mario and Comrade Sonic respectively. Platformers weren’t the only front however, and where Nintendo had Final Fantasy (until Squaresoft’s hopping of the Berlin Video Game Wall to Sony’s nascent Playstation console), Sega had Phantasy Star.

Phantasy Star IV is a classic JRPG, but its setting remains fairly unique for its time. Whereas Final Fantasy was a series of unrelated tales set in fantasy worlds a la Lord of the Rings (with a steampunk edge for Final Fantasy VI), the Phantasy Star series has always been sci-fi themed, being set in the Algol star system and focusing on the cycle of death and destruction that repeats every one thousand years for its inhabitants. As Phantasy Star IV’s subtitle is “The End of the Millennium”, it should come as no surprise to you that this next round of bad mojo is about to come about and it’s up to our dorky protagonist Chaz and the usual band of misfits you might expect to save the day.

I mentioned that Phantasy Star IV is set in outer space and features a lot of sci-fi tropes, but what I find unique about this particular game is that it mixes a sci-fi setting with a decidedly low-tech aesthetic. The events of Phantasy Star II (there was a Phantasy Star III but we don’t talk about that) have left the main planet of the Algol System, Motavia, as a barren desert wasteland, and most of the towns are no more advanced or large as what the towns and cities of say, Egypt circa 1930, were. But moreover, the story and setting seamlessly transitions from this low tech world filled with monsters to automated computer centres filled with hostile droids, sometimes even in the same dungeon. This technological and organic synthesis seems a lot like Doom and Doom II at times, which is very much a good thing. And most importantly, you’ll be pleased to know that if you’re a Frank Herbert fan like me, yes, you can fight Shai-Hulud himself.

Rating the graphical prowess of a sixteen bit game is sort of like trying to score the sharpness and quality of a VHS reel: there’s only so much you can do with it. But what makes Phantasy Star IV stand out is its use of almost anime like cutscenes, laid out in panels like in a comic book. These are all fantastically well drawn even within the sixteen bit limits of the Mega Drive and sell the charm, wit and tone of the game very well. The ingame fights and overworld are also bright and detailed, although the various machine centre and regular dungeons beyond the Garubek Tower are rather bland in design, featuring linear rooms with no real distinguishing features until their end points. Perhaps this was due to the limitations of the 16 bit era but it would’ve been nice to see the Weapons Plant filled with conveyor belts loaded with rifles and droid parts, or the Ladea Tower featuring more relics from the history of the Algol system and the battles with Dark Force. But while the background of the game might be somewhat bland, the foreground, that is the characters, the towns, the battles and the cutscenes, more than compensate.

Chaz might be our protagonist, but every RPG needs its party members, and boy do we get them. From Alys Branwin, Chaz’s mentor and seasoned monster hunter (as in the profession, not the game) to Rune Walsh, aka space Gandalf, every party member you encounter is a unique presence and while they aren’t nowhere near as developed as the characters in modern role playing games, they nonetheless all have their own flair and personality, and this even extends to their fighting styles. Only a select few characters such as Gryz purely focus on one aspect such as damage output while others have more variation. For example, Rika serves as both a physical attacker, a healer and a buffer, and Rune may have access to spells other characters have, but he also has a selection of pure magic skills that nearly every other character doesn’t possess. Unlike a lot of other JRPGs however party selection is limited to only one instance in the game and is otherwise determined for you at every point, but this flows organically from the story and never becomes bothersome. The core four characters you possess through much of the game cover all of your bases as far as party make up goes so you never need to worry about being deficient in certain areas, and the uniqueness of the characters makes each new addition a welcome treat to the flow of the game.

Combat is about as classic and traditional as you can get with old school JRPGs, being turn based with characters and enemies going one after the other based on particular stats and buffs. However, Phantasy Star IV has a neat trick up its sleeve in that combining certain character’s attacks in turn can produce devastatingly powerful combination attacks that are also superb sixteen bit eye candy. Linking these attacks together can be accomplished with the ridiculously useful Macro function which allows you to pre-set groups of actions and turn orders for your party, which makes early fight buffing no longer a chore in repetition and also allows these beastly combo attacks to be linked together easily, at the cost of flexibility and responsiveness to enemy attacks. I haven’t seen a turn based game since offer this option which is frankly astounding as it’s such a convenient time saver.

What isn’t convenient though is everything else. In what will probably be one of the few negative parts of this review where Phantasy Star IV’s rigid adherence to old school JRPG formula causes it to stumble is in two areas: obscure ability names and a few instances of everyone’s favourite exercise in tedium: grinding. Some of the names of various spells and abilities with a bit of logical leapfrogging do explain their purpose (Foi is your basic fireball spell for example) but the game makes no effort to explain its elemental properties behind spells or some of the more archaic names such as Deban being your party’s defense buff or Zan being a multi hitting wind attack. Some sort of system to explain this would’ve been nice. And as for the grinding, well, expect on some occasions (I’m looking at you Air Castle…) to run in circles battling monsters until you’re of a high enough level to bop the final boss of that particular dungeon. I personally can’t stand grinding to overcome an arbitrary level or money barrier within the main game, but your mileage may vary on this front, and that’ll determine if the Air Castle is a joyous crusade through endless screens of monsters or (in my opinion) where the game gets saddled with boat anchors and ironically grinds to a halt for a while.

Phantasy Star IV also offers a decent challenge, and you can expect to fight battles to the limit of your resources especially against the tougher bosses. It requires you to play smart and the death of one party member in battle often results in a snowball effect. This never actually becomes bothersome, and it seems to strike just the right note of challenge versus frustration, where your second attempt on a boss is not tempered with the feeling of how much of a crock the game is, but rather how you can do better next time.

Returning to the story, without spoiling I can say that Phantasy Star IV is not a complex yarn. It is told in broad strokes and doesn’t deal in complex character development or issues, but while it isn’t a smart tale it is a smartly told one. I’ve long professed my preference for complex and rich fiction but at the same time I can equally enjoy movies, games and books that are just well made, raw entertainment, and that is where Phantasy Star IV falls. It even has a few stand out moments that don’t overstay their welcome but show the presence of brains and heart in the story, such as Chaz’s discussion on fate and the supposed “benevolence” of a god that leaves its people to suffer, and in particular a moment early in the game that, well, let’s just say I hope you saved the tissues you used when bad shit happened to Aeris in Final Fantasy VII as you’re going to need them here too.

There are even the great little touches and side parts of the game that are worth mentioning. Vehicle fights that are brief but add a nice bit of flavour to traversing the various landscapes; a side quest system that puts to shame the quests of modern RPGs with the creativity and scripting involved in how they play out, not to mention the game’s phenomenal soundtrack (I have no shame in admitting that Machine Center was my ringtone for a while), all of which are noteworthy. The game might not be complex in its story, characters or combat relative to some modern games, but even disregarding the limitations of the sixteen bit age I cannot deny the fact that Phantasy Star IV is simply well executed and supremely entertaining from start to finish.

It’s odd, actually. After Phantasy Star IV the series petered out with Phantasy Star Online but otherwise has not seen another single player incarnation since. The console wars between Nintendo and Sega that were the background to Phantasy Star IV’s release have faded into memory, and our present state of affairs seems to suggest there weren’t any real winners. Nintendo’s Wii U is not exactly faring well and Sega have long since left the console market entirely. Even Final Fantasy, which for me peaked at Final Fantasy VII and arguably has seen better days, is not exempt. But Phantasy Star IV’s conclusion as the “finale” of the series has given it a kind of timelessness, unsullied by relatively weak sequels unlike Final Fantasy and with Sega releasing it as part of various collections still very much available to a mass audience. The fact that it is available on Steam for the price of a fish and chip supper is all the more incentive why you should pick it up, and if you’re a console owner I can assure you the Mega Drive collections are very worthwhile as well. Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium, might have suggested by its title a sense of finality, but it very much lives on, and your own time could scarcely be better spent for the cost.

1 – Prices for the SEGA Mega Drive collections which feature Phantasy Star IV may vary between retailers.

2 – The price listed here is for the standalone Steam version of Phantasy Star IV. There are numerous compilation packs which include it that you may find of interest.

-       - Shadon1010 once tried going into space man, I always wanted you to go into space, man.

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