Fighting For Utopia: Revisiting Classic ’90s RPG Phantasy Star IV

Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium is an ambitious JRPG that is the perfect end to the series, taking the best elements of each of the previous games and weaving together a “phantastic” journey. It easily goes toe to toe with its more famous Square contemporaries like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. Coming after the radical departure from the series Phantasy Star III was with its medieval setting and art style, PSIV (1993 JP, 1995 US) was a welcome return by Director Rieko Kodama and her Sega team to its science fiction roots. It also exemplifies how to do a sequel, as PSIV doesn’t shy away from its ties to the previous games the way III did, but instead, embraces them.

 

Returning Evil

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1,000 years have passed since the events of Phantasy Star II. Mota has reverted to its pre-Mother Brain state following the “Great Collapse” so that it is again a desert planet complete with enormous sand worms. Unfortunately, Dark Force is back for another haunting as well and the perennial battle against evil as the Hegelian representation of “contradiction” is pushed to the extreme; Dark Force seeks nothing less than the negation of all life in the Algol Star System.

Fortunately, good is back too, embodied by another Alys (whose name is almost identical to the heroine of Phantasy Star I, Alis), as well as the latest reincarnation of the series favorite, Lutz. The main protagonist is a young bounty hunter named Chaz who’s been taken under the wing of the more experienced Alys (Chaz shares a similar breastplate to Rudo from PSII in a visual connection that binds them). The two begin investigating the burgeoning presence of monsters throughout the world in a nod to the plot of Phantasy Star II. But unlike the last time, when the problems initially seem the result of a computer error, evil has a face.

The black magician, Zio, is a charlatan who has faced much adversity throughout his life. In desperation, he turned to Dark Force who granted him great magical strength as well as the gift of immortality. Emboldened by his new powers, Zio establishes a church worshipping the embodiment of all things evil. His followers are a group of religious zealots who believe in cleansing the world of the impure and are strongly anti-academic. There’s one moment where a disciple mentions the name of Zio and faints because he’s so in awe. Another citizen has a seizure caused by his own religious fervor for the evil wizard.

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The sight of humans fighting so passionately to bring about their own destruction is one that seems absurdly ridiculous on the surface, but oddly reminiscent of the news I’ve been watching of late. What should have come across as an overly evil set of tropes in this replay didn’t seem so alien or foreign, and the capacity of Zio’s followers to delude themselves was uncannily familiar. By coincidence, I’d been reading a William Shirer book about the Third Reich where this particular quote resonated: “Over the years as I listened to scores of Hitler’s major speeches I would pause in my own mind to exclaim, ‘What utter rubbish! What brazen lies!’ Then I would look around at the audience. His listeners were lapping up every word as the utter truth.”

Zio and his army are wreaking havoc everywhere they go. One of the cities that falls under their tyrannical rule is Molcum, which they lay completely to waste. The irony of the religious movement is lost on many of its members, ignorant of the fact that the planet once was a utopia, destroyed by the actions of humans. A thousand years ago, life was pretty awesome, due in large part to the advanced technology and egalitarian social structure. This religious cult intends to destroy any trace of that, and it’s into this situation that you’re thrown into the fray.

 

Utopia No More

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While I feel the worldbuilding in Phantasy Star II was my favorite in the series, PSIV has the most compelling characters. Each has motivations I cared about, whether it’s Hahn, the curious scientist who has to give away his wedding fund to finance the investigations into Birth Valley, or an aggrieved Gryz who seeks vengeance against Zio for his parent’s death in Molcum. The cutscenes are gorgeously drawn in comic book style panels, splashing on top of each other to create a dynamic vibrancy. The closeup facial expression make each team member feel distinct and alive.

I still remember when one of your companions Rei (who is a genetically engineered Numan), emerges from the bio-plant where she’s been her whole life and sees the sun for the first time. She is in awe, gawking openly at the azure skies. The simple joy of that moment, tied together with the memory of her PSII predecessor, Nei, has always moved me.

It’s also hilarious the way Alys tempers her desire to do good with greed, demanding to get paid for every new mission, though doing it with charm. Chaz and Rune jibe each other constantly and provide much of the comic relief. They seem generally hostile, but in a moment of tragedy, Rune actually provides a deeper understanding to the situation that brings comfort to the young bounty hunter. As for Chaz himself, we learn he’s a foreigner with a dark past and it was only through Alys’s help that he was able to find himself.

It’s the overall interactions of the characters that make this game so compelling. There’s a “talk” option where characters can communicate with each other on the field. Often, it’ll act as a hint guide, telling you where you should be heading. But banter abounds as the characters will express personal convictions or rib each other over previous events. Even if aspects of the narrative follows JRPG tropes, that’s not a bad thing when it’s executed in such an entertaining way. The pacing is superb and there’s an immediacy to the sense of action heightened by comic book cutscenes and the musical cues that help the speed, such as the abrupt transition of the battle victory theme.

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Your party is always on the move. In Zema, you find all the townspeople have been turned into stone by Zio. You have to make a long trek to Tonoe to find the cure, Alshline. On the path there, you visit multiple towns, defeat swarms of monsters, recruit and lose team members, and after retrieving the cure, are finally rewarded with a cutscene in which you save all the people. The allegorical nature of the petrification takes on more meaning when you realize they were excavating Birth Valley to uncover the scientific secrets behind the spurt in monsters, but were impeded by Zio. It’s technology versus magic, though the ancient technology has failed due to the corruption of Dark Force. What’s interesting is that Zio knows the truth, and doesn’t care. He will do whatever it takes to maintain power, even if it means denying them the advances that could help humanity achieve the utopia they seek.

 

Five Characters Please

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I hate that so many JRPGs give you a huge cast of characters, then only let you take three of them into battle. Thankfully, Phantasy Star IV lets you bring five members into fights. The battle animations are fantastic and I love the SF/Fantasy combination of weapons that includes laconian swords, titanium slashers (essentially boomerangs that hurt all your foes), and plasma launchers.

While JRPGs as a whole have come a long way towards making gameplay more friendly for gamers, it’s the subtle things that can make or break a battle system, vital considering you spend a good chunk of most JRPGs in them. Phantasy Star IV took great strides in making battles a lot more user-friendly for players.

This is the first time in the series you can see your characters fight the enemies and the background environments at the same time (PSII left out environments in favor of Tron like grids, while PSIII had environments, but no character animations). Also, there isn’t a single weak member among your characters (well, maybe Hahn). Everyone has their advantages, which helps you connect with the party members. Seriously, why do some JRPGs give you characters that are lame and worthless?

On the control side, there’s a macro system that lets you program automated battles. This means you don’t need to repeat the same combos over and over. Also, the battle system memorizes whatever technique, skill, or item you selected last to minimize any unnecessary scrolling. To add to the strategic element of macros, there are powerful combination attacks your team members can trigger when they use a list of techniques or skills. Utilizing the macro system is the best way to ensure their activation.

There is a bit of grinding, but nowhere near the level of the other games in the series. The difficulty is well balanced and though the random encounter rate is high, on par with many of its JRPGs contemporaries, it never gets overwhelming. Unlike most games, combat in vehicles is a different beast from regular fights. You actually use the weapons you have aboard the craft you’re in. It’s a nice touch that adds to the sense of immersion. While these new vehicles aren’t as nifty as Wren transforming into an aerojet or aquaswimmer from PSIII, they’re still a great addition in helping you feel like you’re part of the world.

The most important thing is that you feel the care the team at Sega took to make the experience as seamless as possible. Rieko Kodama is one of the most brilliant directors in gaming (her gameography includes Phantasy Star II, Skies of Arcadia, and Deep Fear) and it shows in that PSIV has one of the smoothest battle systems of the 16-bit era.

 

Phantasy Threads

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I love the way Phantasy Star IV ties up many of the loose ends from the series and rewards players who have followed the series. There’s a connection with Phantasy Star III that is a treat for fans, especially as it’s part of a completely optional mission. You discover it in the ruins of a wrecked spaceship that reveals the fate of the Parmanians who escaped the destruction and the computer logs describe their distant travels aboard the massive colony starships. While my feelings toward the dark sheep in the series is mixed, my favorite part of the game, the cyborgs, are back. Wren is as badass and stoic as before (even though it’s actually a different model) and is still a cyborg of mass destruction.

There’s also multiple references to the first Phantasy Star throughout the game. In the town of Termi, you actually find statues of the original heroine, Alis, along with her feline companion, Myau. A more significant connection is the return of the final boss in the original game, Lashiec. You re-enter the old Air Castle to defeat Lashiec once again and discover two thousand years have only made him angrier. It’s a sad ending to a once wise and benevolent ruler, corrupted by Dark Force.

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Even the fate of the space pirate, Tyler, who rescued you from the satellite of Gaira (aka Gaila) in Phantasy Star II, is revealed as he eventually landed on Dezolis with the other Palmanian refugees and founded a town on the cold surface. It felt good to learn that they’d not only survived, but were able to start a new life. You use his old spaceship, the Landale, to navigate the stars after your own ship is sabotaged.

At one pivotal point late in the game, Chaz discovers the sacred sword, Elsydeon. That’s when he’s stricken by a vision of all the heroes from the past Phantasy Star games. I choked up seeing Nei as well as the heroes of II whose fate post-game we were never actually told. What moved me though was that it wasn’t just a nod back to the PS games, rather, a nostalgic reminiscence on all the hours I’d spent exploring the rich worlds within JRPGs. I thought of the way they’d shaped many of the important narratives of my childhood and Chaz’s flashback felt like a re-tread through my gaming past.

This is why I play sequels, not just to discover new worlds, but to revisit old ones and find out how things have changed. IV strikes that perfect balance of old and new.

 

Star Systems

Phantasy Star IV was one of the most expensive games of the time, and I unfortunately couldn’t afford it when I was a kid. So I rented it at Blockbuster and spent every day during that summer break week to beat it. The game is huge and I loved every moment of it. It was as though they crammed the best parts of I, II, and III in to make the perfect mix. I remember thinking multiple times that I’d beaten the game, only to find out there was another villain, and another. I was so happy to finally get my own copy thanks to the wonders of eBay, and I’m glad to report that in this new playthrough, the game not only lived up to expectations, but actually went beyond them. There are no caveats in recommending the game the way I had for Phantasy Star II (thanks in large part to all the grinding you needed to do for II) and it really stands the test of time. The millennium, and the original saga, ended in truly epic fashion.

Peter Tieryas is the author of United States of Japan and has worked for game companies like LucasArts and EA. He likes tweeting about games at @TieryasXu.

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