While Phantasy Star 2 might be a fan favourite, I never got around to playing it despite how much I enjoyed the original one. It might have been on a more popular system, included a strategy guide and was even the first video game to use a 6 MB cartridge. However, I skipped this and got to the fourth entry instead at a local retro store, as many praised it to be the best in the series. I have always felt bad for this, as the second game was many Mega Drive/Genesis gamers’ first introduction to 16-bit RPG, and even the third one deserves at least a chance. Not to mention, with Yuji Naka being the producer this time, and taking with him most of the previous team-members along for the journey, an evolution should be present right? Well, sort of.
Simplistic characters in a complicated world
1000 years have passed since the events of the first game. A planet known as Mota of the Algol Solar-system, is now under the care of a giant computer called “Mother Brain”, who is so powerful, it can even control the ecosystem. Despite this technology creating life on an otherwise dead planet, threat is at hand, which of course you will have to overcome. This is all told through terrible exposition that feels as subtle as a brick to the face.
However, if you neglect this demo at the title-screen and just start the game, you get another introduction that is far better. Through the playable character Rolf (or whatever you choose to call him), you experience nightmares of a young girl fighting a demon, with you unable to help her. As soon as the dream gets dire, you wake up in your room, dimly lit by the early dawn. Your playable avatar (or Rolf) is filled with sadness and fear from the nightmare, but you decide you cannot let something so simple keep you in bed, and seizes the day as a soldier of Mota.
This was one area where I was both impressed and completely disappointed by Phantasy Star 2: it is completely uneven with its storytelling. At times, it knows how to set up an atmosphere with harsh events, such as nightmares haunting our character with a great description of his discomfort. Other times, it loves to force lore down your throat through awkward conversations, where people refer to themselves as in third person. At first, I considered if this was due to poor translation, but Phantasy Star 2 rushes with plenty of lore and trivias that while seemingly conceptually interesting, becomes forgettable due to how short lived they are. For example, one of the first interesting threats Rolf must deal with, is the increase in dangerous biomonsters. This is then pushed aside for a tragic side story that ends with a devastating conclusion, before being brushed off in order to remind you that you are actually on a mission.
It is a huge shame that Phantasy Star 2 does not know how to keep focus and actually tell a coherent story, because there are some fantastic moments here, especially for an old 16-bit RPG. There are tons of strong events that leave you wondering what is really going on, and who is behind this whole thing. Unfortunately the short, direct and unfinished dialogues accompanied by the uneven progression, ruins what is actually a great concept. This could have stood stronger if the world contained intriguing cultures or lore, or if the characters you had on your journey, actually conveyed some personality. If nothing else, it would provide reasons to get sidetracked or discover more about the universe you are in.
Sadly, this is not the case. Every town on the first planet looks the same and while the second planet has a different climate, no form of variety is presented within these worlds. This makes it all feel lacklustre and downright lazy in terms of creativity. The townsfolk at least react to the events that are unfolding, but that is about it. Your party is even worse. While Rolf and Nei shares a nice chemistry by caring for each other, these two are the only ones with some form of personality and backstory. Even then, it is only early on. The rest of the cast does not provide any sort of interesting personality apart for one quick introduction by knocking on your door. That is it. If you want any insight into these characters, you are going to have to partake in a separate text-game featuring these other six characters. That was only released in Japan.
While I cannot say Phantasy Star 2 has any form of personality or consistent quality writing, the events and concept it provides makes for an intriguing plot with interesting events that I simply wish were better told. I will definitely remember the moments fondly, but at the same time be puzzled on who saved the day, and really not even care if they succeeded or not. What a bizarre endnote.
Story Score: 4.5/10
A failed attempt at minimising the tedium
Unfortunately, this uneven quality does not stop with the game’s story. Phantasy Star 2 is definitely trying to break some boundaries as an RPG, but it adds in ideas that simply does not work due to inconsistent design that creates new issues. Before we get onto that, Phantasy Star 2 is a traditional J-RPG with turn-based combat, dungeons to explore to get further in the story, and towns to visit for some clues, similar to its predecessor.
To start off, the world is not intriguing to explore and the clues to gather are completely inconsistent. Either you are blatantly told where to go, or you will have to try every possible option before you get lucky. My favourite example was one event where I knew in which direction I had to go, as there was literally nowhere else to do so. However, my path was blocked by a wall that needed dynamite to proceed. I had already used the last one I found, and the second one was hidden in a previous dungeon that took a good 20 minutes to map out. Frustration and annoyance were had, and with how slow your party walks, there being no vehicle helping with traversing on land and the fact that you can only save in towns, you will hate every moment you are asked to backtrack.
This irritation will be constant, since the dungeons are inconsistent mazes that are dull to explore. With slow walking-speed, similar looking areas, plenty of dead ends, multiple floors and nothing interesting mechanically about them to keep you occupied, these are just terrible dungeon-designs. This is probably why the game originally came with a 110 pages “hint”-book. This could have alleviated some of the problems to make the game more accessible, but this is not a hint-book. This is a complete walkthrough of the game with maps, shopinglists, and all.
Because of this, you will be tempted to use it as such, instead of it giving you subtle insights on your next objectives. While you could try to neglect the bundled book, you are going to need it, as there is little hinting at what items and equipment you should purchase in-game. The only thing you get, are shocked shopkeepers who will let you know if an equipment is not usable by a party-member, not if it is useful or not. This is sadly just a terrible design-choice overall, that tries to fix a problem by creating another one. Instead of hinting the player on what to do and give good descriptions on items, they are instead presented a guide-book with every answer. Kinda like cheating on an exam and boasting about their accomplishment: it just does not feel good.
Despite having two planets to visit, Phantasy Star 2 is honestly not a long game and can clock in at 11 hours, less if you have the hint-book. What might keep you in the most, is the combat. While things aren’t much better here, fights are at least interesting for what they tried to upgrade from the last game. All characters are shown on the bottom part of the screen, and this time, you will fight multiple different enemies, instead of packs of one type.
However, since you cannot choose who to attack selectively within a group, it feels pointless to have this feature. What is a neat idea, is that whenever a fight or a turn starts, you can select characters’ actions throughout the fights and have them do it continually until you push one of the buttons. I suppose this was done to negate spamming A for just killing off normal enemies quickly. However, due to how slow the animations are, as well as the process of changing tactics by selecting multiple options in order to give a new command, these makes fights much longer than the average RPG. Picture this, in order to select an action, you must first scroll down to choose it, then choose which of the characters to alter, what they should do, and whom their action should affect. This makes the fast-forward button for the Sega Genesis Classics a God-send, otherwise the game could have been twice the length.
Enemies are not diverse enough to be memorable and rather an annoyance due to how time-consuming fights are. There are some fiends with minor concepts, but it does not alter the battles and you will rather remember the enemies for their stats and nothing else. This had me puzzled though due to the amount of work to get your party ready. With 8 party-members with varied setups and different equipment to choose between for each, all this diversity and possible strategies are completely wasted on uninteresting and poorly designed enemies. This lack of creative fights can also be seen the few boss fights, with all being able to be counted on one hand and are rather damage-sucking fiends than interesting fights to test your skills.
As you might have guessed, this is a mess that has not aged well. Long mazes with nothing in them, a huge amount of arsenal and too many party members with dull enemies to fight against, terrible directions with a hint-book being too much of a guide, Phantasy Star 2 has some intriguing ideas on how to fix problems, but fails and instead creates new ones.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
Why better technology can be meaningless
We are definitely transitioning to a new new console-generation, but interestingly, it is more of a visual change than an upgrade. Phantasy Star 2 contains more portraits for depicting characters, similar to a comic-book panel, and includes some highly detailed cutscenes with minor animations, which is quite nice to look at. Unfortunately, that is really the best praise I can give the game. While it is colourful, it lacks creativity. The two planets are dull with spring and winter being the only change reflected in the climate, and contain uninteresting towns that have nothing to stand out from each other. I also hate the dungeons as they are just pipes with simple machines that are reused too often. When you finally see a water-cave mid-game and that is all you remember in this 10 hour-game, that is not a good sign.
Then there are the characters, and I am reminded of how anime can be downright stupid visually. The style is something out of a creepy fanfic or cash grab mobile-game, with huge hair-styles, silly designed armour and weapons, and an overall generic look that I cannot remember after the game is turned off. Yes, you might argue that these are not humans, but then they are as uninteresting as humanoid aliens can get. The grid-background for fights definitely tries to add some sci-fi vibes, but are uninspired and never changes, making the fights unengaging.
That is, for two major exceptions. The enemies are diverse with intriguing creatures like futuristic slimes, enormous insects and bizarre machineries. All comes with smooth animations, and this also goes for the party-member’s attacks, such as how melee-weapons are used up close or how flashy the use of magic is. I do wish their artstyle blended better, as there is a strange mix of cartoony characters with clear outlines, and more realistic creatures with smoother shades, but at least this variety makes the world seem more diverse.
The sound effects are nothing intriguing and have a high-pitch Genesis-twang for most attacks, and some that sounds like a bulge-weapon or compressed gas being let out. It is a shame, but I believe they could have done far better with the Genesis’ technology. As for the soundtrack, it is upbeat and goes for more techno as the main genre to create a lighthearted atmosphere. The songs are long and repeated everywhere, but are nice tunes that have enough variety within themselves to be good listens. It is odd to know we have the same duo from the last game creating this title, and not create something imaginative or comparable to their previous work.
Presentation Score: 5/10
There is a clear feeling of disappointment with this title after the joy of the first Phantasy Star. It is far from a worthwhile RPG on the console and certainly not for its generation. It is hard for me to hate completely in on Phantasy Star 2, as I do enjoy parts of it, such as the idea behind the combat, the story’s setup and some of the creative decisions in its presentation. However, all the new ideas come with their own issues, making for what could have been decent improvements, wasted opportunities. It is rather a clunky sidestep, that trips and falls down. Hopefully, something can be done with the next instalment. As for this title, Phantasy Star 2 is a lackluster J-RPG and reminds me how much I can hate this style and genre, similar to what Dragon Age Origin does for me when it comes to W-RPG.