It is kind of interesting how appropriate this title is, as Phantasy Star 4 is the last Phantasy Star to be a numbered sequel and within the traditional J-RPG setup. After this, the series would be on hiatus until the Online-series, with other sidegames taking on the action RPG genre with focus on multiplayer. As for Phantasy Star 4, it was again developed by a new team, but with a couple of familiar faces brought on board. The artist Rieko Kodama worked as a director this time, alongside two other content-creators, and while Akinori Nishiyama returned as a writer, Toru Yoshida stood for the original plot, with Nishiyama focusing on the world-building. With a team of old and new, are we ending this series with a bang? Actually, we are ending it on a solar-eclipse so bright, you might not believe it.
Like a perfect star-sign
1000 years after the story of the second Phantasy Star took place, disasters are at hand is better. To not give away spoilers, an incident known as the Great Collapse took place where 90% of the population died and the once rich planet known as Motovia was reduced to a desert. However, the planet and the solar system known as Algo has taken a turn away from these desperate times, due to its inhabitants having rediscovered old knowledge in the hopes for an easier life. This is also helped by soldiers known as “hunters”, who keep the creatures roaming this world under control, for peaceful coexistence. This includes our protagonists, Chaz and Alys, who starts questioning these outbreaks of bio-monsters, as they have gone so far to happen in a university of all places.
There are so many fantastic elements about this story, that I will try my best to talk about each one categorically and thoroughly to provide you with the best overview. Without spoiling anything, let us start with the plot. The overarching story is excellent by always giving you clues on what might be the cause of these disturbances, making you create theories of might be going on. Through this, the story expands exponentially with either clever twists, strengthening those conclusions you might have figured out, or provide with even more insightful lore that leads to more questions. All of these theories are tied into the world-building, which is further expanded by how the lore is tied to the earlier Phantasy Star-titles lovely, giving the world a rich history. These lores go so far to give insight to how elements like bio-monsters and echo-system works, or rather: should work, without feeling like unnecessary filler, since they are tied to the overarching plot.
Despite the game containing tons of lore and trivia, everything is explained just enough for newcomers to always be up to speed, but avoiding the exposition dump. It always provides just enough information to be engaging, but not too much in order to keep you guessing. The pacing is also beautifully done, with this entry always showcasing that it knows when to be slow and atmospheric, quick and filled with action, or when to crack a joke. All are accompanied by transitions that are never sudden, just perfect by feeling natural. One great example is after a huge fight where tension was high, and as soon the characters are safe, they take time to mourn the loss of someone close to them without a single word being uttered. Only cutscenes and calm melody to accompany it, and the shift happens perfectly.
Actually, while this will also go for the presentation aspect of this review, these cutscenes are strong with high level of details and depicts events with clear motions or tone, despite the lack of animations, just like a comic-book panel should do. Each panel comes forth whenever the events happen, and are constant enough to feel like an essential part of the game, but only used for important story-events, making them feel significant and strong.
This is also helped by the wonderful cast of characters that you will meet where each comes with strong backstories and personalities, giving them more to get attached to than just their usefulness in combat. For example, Alys comes forth as a strong-headed soldier who is so sly to the point that she even pesters a student to pay her for protection. However, you also learn that she has a hidden backstory with another playable character, and even is a good cook who made an old lady some food, which is only seen in an optional dialogue. Similar attention to the rest of the cast’s backgrounds and personalities are constant and they even get some strong character-development. Because of this, it is always engaging to know more about every party-member, be they optional or a part of the main-plot.
Supporting this, is the strong writing, giving characters humoristic tones, commentaries on environment with the appropriate lines the characters would say, and reacting believably to each other, events or people they meet. This makes every aspect of the game’s story believable and even relatable. Lastly, we have the worlds, which makes me understand why Phantasy Star would eventually become an MMORPG. Every NPC has something worthwhile to say, be it uncertainty of the events going on, telling about their daily lives or giving you more insights into their culture or the characters you meet. My favorite early example is when a professor tells you about the history of this world, just because he thought you were a student who missed a class.
Then there are the different planets and areas, which have different climates, landscapes, inhabitant creatures and of course the intriguing problems or characteristics each have. To give some examples, one town contain a controversial religion, another has a sand-worm farm as an attraction, while one nearby is dedicated to the hunters with clear economical blossom. This adds to how expansive, personal and huge this world feels, making me enthralled by exploring every nook and cranny.
I could go on with wonderful details, such as how Alys starts out being higher levels than the rest of the cast due to her experience, but that would take up too much time. Everything Phantasy Star 4 offers, makes the story engaging and intriguing, the characters memorable and lovable, and provides a world that is easy to get lost in with so much to witness and learn. With fantastic dialogue, always experiencing meaningful progress and no event or aspect of this story goes overboard or feels too short, I honestly wanted to just replay through this title again. It says something when this makes playing through Phantasy Star 2 and 3, feel worth it.
Story Score: 10/10
More than just an evolution
The Phantasy Star-series has had a hard time finding its correct footing on the 16-bit console, but Phantasy Star 4 is the one that goes the extra mile to strike a perfect blend of familiar ideas, and innovations that means something. This is yet another turn-based RPG with overworlds and dungeons to explore, but probably one of the finest not just on the Genesis/Mega Drive (which is not hard to accomplish), but ever.
First of all, the exploration is wonderful. You are always given clear hints by both NPCs and the environment on what your next step should be, and where to look. There are no maps in this title, but areas are laid out to make each location memorable, and you will early on get both items and spells to make it possible to warp between towns and out of dungeons or similar structured areas, such as castles. Should you be completely lost, you have a talk-option so you can listen to the characters’ conversation on where you should look and in which direction your destination lies.
I honestly never missed having a map because of this function and similarly, the dungeons were always easy to remember by their layout, and whether it be there or in the overworld, you are always rewarded for exploration. Because of this, exploration in general and trying to map out the correct routes in every part of this world, was engaging as it makes you think on what your next cause of action should be and always feel rewarded for your curiosity. You can also save anywhere in the overworld, and while you cannot do so in dungeons, they are short enough to never become overbearing. The world is, however, dangerous due to the random encounters that can yield fierce enemies you will have to fight against, so proceed with caution.
This leads to the combat, and while Phantasy Star 4 provides unique ideas here, it is rather the execution that is extraordinary. First off, every character has their own characteristics, thanks to both weapons and armors they can equip, and of course abilities they can acquire. They are all diverse, making it easy to find a use for every character you come across, for different reasons. However, the game will always provide you with a maximum of 5 companions for the journey, despite that there are 10 party-members to encounter altogether. This is always tied to the story, so it never feels random or sudden when you gain or lose a party-member, and this is a smart way to not be overblown with micromanagement or what character to use. Instead, it helps to change up the playstyle and makes use of every type of strategy and party-member, be they brutes or magic-users.