Review by Combat Crustacean
"I wish I was a green guy with overwhelming holy powers. :["
Phantasy Star IV, despite the circumstances plaguing it, is an infallible classic on a system decidedly barren of the RPG genre. The game was released in limited quantities, with minimal advertisement, for an especially steep price -- a copy of this gem would cost the typical gamer 80 dollars at launch time. The rarity of the game ensured that it only got more expensive, and many people missed out on one of the most immersive and outright fun gaming experiences of all time.
This game arrived on the cusp of an era where gamers began to clamor for substance. The empty plots and hollow souls of role-playing titles of the past, such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, meant little to the jaded consumer. Final Fantasy II/IV made an earnest attempt at this, and despite its heavy-handed translation it genuinely succeeded. However, the mainstreaming of emotional resonance and character development in a video game had not yet stuck; for all Cecil, Rosa, Rydia and Kain meant to the audiences, it still didn't seem to click. And then, like a ray of light descending from the heavens, Phantasy Star IV answered the prayers of those so desperately craving a plot. Within the quick and informative very first seconds of the game, Phantasy Star IV had snagged us all, a captivated audience rendered dumbstruck by the amazing graphics and snappy dialogue. And it kept us there for nearly 40 hours of game time.
And here we have a game absolutely bubbling with charm, ready to share its witty dialogue and heart-wrenching plot twists with the world. This game, before all others, is an unforgettable one. For those fortunate enough to play around when this first came out, the memories of it will be etched irascibly in their minds. The lovable and spectacular cast of characters, locales like the Sandworm Ranch and Dezolis, and the most momentous plot climax of the generation all tallied up to create an experience which would not readily be dismissed.
As a reviewer, I have grown all too familiar with sentences like "This game starts out slowly/the plot doesn't quite pick up until..." Not so with Phantasy Star. There are maybe 2 minutes of idle time before we are thrust into something which clearly has great meaning to our characters. What starts out as a fairly innocuous monster-hunting task swiftly culminates into a terrifying monster-breeding conspiracy. Something is definitely up on the planet of Motavia, and it isn't pretty at all. A gripping tale of science and sorcery takes the reins, and we watch in awe as a plot unprecedented in quality folds out before us. The action even spans several worlds; before the player knows it, they're on a spaceship blasting off to whatever new planet awaits them. And to think this all started with the routine hunting of a few bulbous freaks!
And of course in this initial period we are introduced to our first three protagonists: Alys, Chaz and Hahn. Alys is a tough broad of indeterminate age with a razor tongue. She loves to criticize her understudy Chaz, a rather ordinary fellow who is frustrated by his constant inability to please his teacher. When they come across Hahn, a fretful scientist at the Parma Academy, Alys immediately sees a victim for some light-hearted con artistry. And thus, the legendary character development between our protagonists is born. When new characters are thrown into the mix, they assimilate super-smoothly and no one ever feels out of place (except maybe the robots, but that's just by virtue of being made of circuitry). Rune finds a punching bag and sadistic taunting pleasure in Chaz, while Rika, virginal to the outside world, reflects her lack of personal experience off the comparative worldliness of her traveling companions. My personal favorite, though, is Raja. I want to be his BEST BUD.
Regardless of the complex, enriching plot and the fully-realized characterization, the game manages to keep on the right track by actually being fun to play. Phantasy Star IV does not really feature any custom systems; the game is primarily locked in its moderately simple combat system. There are five allied characters and up to 4 foes on the screen at once, which makes the combat surprisingly busy for a turn-based input RPG. Each character has a set of combat abilities that are divided into two parts. Skills, unique tricks exclusive to any one fighter, have a set amount of uses per combat; they can do anything from paralyzing your enemy to setting off gigantic explosions of holy light. The second department is Techniques, the magic of Phantasy Star IV. A little more prosaic than the rich and varied Skills, they are best employed for healing your characters or boosting their stats. What sets these simple-sounding skill sets apart, however, is that characters can create Combo Attacks with their techniques. One Zan (Wind) spell and one Foi (Fire) will churn out a devastating Fire Storm; increase the level of one of this spells, such as Gizan or Nafoi, and the combination will concurrently increase in strength.
The ability system, however, does give way to a couple of problems. First, there's no way to tell what the hell the Techniques do. The effects of Skills are usually evident, since their names or at the very least their combat animations are self-explanatory. Techniques are far more obscure, at least for one use. How is anyone supposed to guess that Saner increases your Attack Power until you actually use it? (In which case you are greeted with a little message informing you that "ATK Pwr is UP!") And of course, there are spells like Rimpa, which don't seem to do anything at all unless you are so lucky to use it on a character who is coincidentally sleeping. Regardless of this, the gripes are usually over within five minutes of obtaining a spell -- and who the hell would waste their TP on Rimpa anyway?
Another problem is that combos are not easy to pull off. You are given no hints or suggestions on how to form a combination, which is certainly a strike against your combo-finding forays. Worse yet, the combo activation can be easily interrupted; if any enemies or allies take a turn in between the two characters who want to link their attacks, then the combo is thrown out. Lame! Unless you set up a predetermined turn order, or Macro, specifically for this combo, then don't expect to get away with many of them. When you are greeted with success, however, the results are quite often worth it...so keep at it!
Admittedly, these are the only real problems I have with Phantasy Star IV (except for some slightly tedious dungeon design, bereft of puzzles and environmental variation). Combat is incredibly fun, and most importantly it is challenging! The game is never cheap or frustrating, but is sure to give you a run for your money. Profound Darkness, your final adversary, will put up a hell of a fight, though it will never make you feel as if you cannot win or you have to go train for another 20 levels. Dungeons are difficult to scale through and bosses have a surprising arsenal of tricks up their sleeve, keeping the combat ever-fresh and the players on their toes. To be fair, there is one problem -- up until the very final combat, you never get to pick which characters form your party. The game does so for you by dint of plot-related excuses. Throughout most of Phantasy Star IV you will have Chaz, Rune and Rika as your three mainstays, with Wren joining the force somewhat later and a constantly-fluctuating fifth character filling out the ranks. If I had my way, Raja would be chillin' in my party 24/7, but it would probably make the game too easy anyway.
With gameplay out of the way, one can observe that the aesthetic elements of Phantasy Star IV are downright awesome. The graphics are extremely ahead of their time; the enemy designs are freaking badass, the sprites look great and the environments are richly detailed. Colors are vivid, character portraits are attractive and the game is littered with expressive anime cutscenes. The game's graphical look does it a great service, adding even more heaps of life to a universe already bursting with personality and forethought. The music is somewhat less impressive, with a good solid track here and there and nothing really outstanding. Sound effects are a little quirky, but this is kind of a trademark of the system; it feels like EVERY Sega Genesis game had weird sound effects, for some reason. Regardless, the game does a great job on its visual and aural presentation, yet another reason to invest in it.
Perhaps one might find Phantasy Star IV a little outdated by today's standards. The cinematics probably seem archaic, and the conventions of gameplay are old and worn-down. There are some things to a video game, however, that really let it stand the test of time. The way you feel about a character, or the way a scene sticks out in your mind and replays over and over, or the shiver crawling through your body as you watch a detested foe gloat: these are far more valuable sensations than any visual panache could hope to emulate. Phantasy Star IV is one of those venerable classics, a treasure of a game deserving many replays. Obsolete or not, this game is worth playing, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/10/05
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