Flash several years back to 1994, I was an avid RPGer, but unlike the majority of the audience that visits this site, I was not a console gamer. For several years I had been exploring the worlds that Richard Garriot’s Ultima series, and TSR’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games had to offer. I had seen glimpses of Dragon Warrior when I was younger, and even the NES versions of a few Ultima games, but they seemed lacking to me since they excelled in graphics even though some gameplay elements were weaker and the music didn’t excite me. I owned a Sega Genesis since Christmas of ’93 and had been exposed to Mortal Kombat and other big-name Genesis titles. Yet it wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of Phantasy Star IV mentioned in an issue of EGM, that I became interested in console RPGs.
The first thing that caught my eye upon staring at screenshots in the magazine, were the graphics, and this is concurrent with what you see on your television screen. The Genesis may be a terrible piece of hardware, but the developers made full use of the system’s abilities, choosing very bright and lively colors, making a beautiful, vibrant world. The presentation is almost unparalleled among the RPGs released for the 16-bit systems of the past. Amidst the typical 2D fare of graphics, are the comic book style cut scenes, giving you a visual idea of what’s going on while characters interact with each other. I don’t agree with the concept that graphics aren’t important, your imagination only goes so far, as I had played blocky RPGs and used my imagination for 7 years prior to this RPG experience.
Towns in the game are exceptionally detailed. Each house has bookshelves, carpets, flower pots, kitchens, and other basic essentials that any house would have (minus a bathroom). All towns also have their own unique layout, though building style is for the most part, identical throughout. Probably my favorite town was Aiedo, the town of the hunters, a large city with a huge marketplace, the Hunter’s Guild, a jail, and smoothly flowing water throughout, visually appealing to the eyes.
The overworld maps are very detailed, with your typical layout of trees, mountains, grass, water, and a few other things. Upon walking on the overworld, you of course run into battles and, depending upon what terrain you are standing, the battle screen’s environment will change accordingly (such as your standing on sand will result in a battle screen with a background featuring the environment in a sandy area). This goes for the dungeons in the game as well, and some battle backgrounds have animation, the animation being very nice as well.
The mention of the environments and battles leads me to a quirk with the game, that being the encounter rate. At times the encounter rate seems low, and you can walk a very long distance, and then out of nowhere, you run into the “walk 3 steps and fight” syndrome that is prevalent in some games. Though you do walk more than 3 steps before you run immediately into the next battle, the encounter rate can prove to be frustrating for some. I like exploring everything in a dungeon, and more than once did I get irritated from walking only a few steps, only to run into another set of monsters.
The animations for the battle graphics are really exceptional, though I cannot ignore the fact that there were less than a handful of monsters whose animation was a bit choppy, but this is really minor considering most RPGs of that era had worse animation. The monsters all have interesting designs and concepts, very colorful, very detailed. Your own party’s characters are also given as much attention as the monsters, as they too are given nice attack animations and detail.
Special skills and techniques are yet one of the other things that caught my interest. Skills are earned through gaining levels through fighting, and each character is able to use a skill a set number of times, until your party rests at an inn. Techniques are pretty much what any other RPG would refer to as magic, as they run on the standard system of points, these being technique points rather than magic points. They too, are earned through gaining levels through fighting.
The graphical presentation of the skills and techniques is the same as the rest of the graphics… visually pleasing. One of my favorite techniques was Nazan, featuring a large whirlwind taking up a good portion of the screen, and hurting your unfortunate enemies.
A great feature, making further use of skills and techniques, are the combination attacks. By combining two or more skills/techniques, combination attacks are achieved, if the involved characters’ turns come directly after each other in the correct order (if required). A sample would be combining Wren’s Burstroc skill (fires rockets) with either Rune or Kyra’s Foi techniques (fire), which results in one of the game’s best looking attacks, Shooting Star.
To make certain that combination attacks are pulled off every time without fail, it is possible to set up macros in your menu system, in which you can pre-plan your order of attacks and magic. However, the rules for agility still are in effect, for if you have your fastest character pulling off a technique at the beginning of the macro, and a monster proves to be faster than your second character, your combination will be interrupted. Resolving such a problem is easy of course, by putting your slower character first in the macro, but naturally, monsters are prone to get the first strike.
As I mentioned, the menu system is one aspect of the game that yet again, is exceptional. The menu systems are very well organized, easy to read, easy to use. The important information is always where you need it, and performing various functions are all done with simple button pushes.
By making use of combination attacks, most battles are won without too much difficulty, though at some stages of the game leveling up your characters is required, as some bosses prove to be very dangerous. Though the amount of leveling up required is nowhere near that of many other games I have played, it may prove to some to be annoying nonetheless.
Dungeons are fairly long and well thought out. I had been used to the convoluted dungeons of many other RPGs, where you could be walking through twists and turns for half an hour, only to find a dead end. Through there are purposely placed dead ends in the dungeons within this game, they do not lead endlessly to the point of frustration where you have to walk a long distance back to take an alternate route.
Musically, the game was light years beyond what I had heard from the RPGs I had been exposed to prior to this game. As I have played through many other RPGs now, and have heard various types of compositions, Phantasy Star IV’s score is not the greatest, but it is certainly great. The techno beats from ‘Behind The Circuit’ and the sad-mood-inspiring theme ‘Her Last Breath’ forever stuck in my head, and I’m glad as they all are truly something special.
Sound effects for various skills and spell attacks are fitting, never annoying. When a game gives you a headache from annoying sounds, as is the case with a few games I’ve played in the past, you know that isn’t good; this is not the case with this game. By far, my favorite sound effect was the explosion sound during key events in the game, it almost sounded like it was recorded. Excellent use of the limited sound chip.
The story… my, has this game’s story been debated. Many Phantasy Star fans have argued that Phantasy Star IV’s story was the weakest in the series. In some respects, I have to agree, the game’s story is weak compared to the other titles’. However, the presentation of a story is important too, and that is where this game blows the others out of the water, not just graphically, but with all the text. The characters are also much more developed. As a stand-alone title, the game is still strong in the story department though. The previous titles don’t even come close to the amount of content presented.
Some have found Chaz to be an annoying hero, since many of his traits make him seem unheroic at times, but that is what made him such an interesting character. He was still a kid at heart, and being burdened with a lot of responsibility, who wouldn’t feel a lot of pressure? He’s just one of the memorable characters from the cast that you can’t forget after playing. Rika, Hahn, Rune, Wren…. all of them each having their own unique personality, resulting in you choosing favorites among them, not for their looks… but for their personality. That is something that it seems some RPGs still cannot accomplish successfully.
Phantasy Star IV was supposedly the last Phantasy Star title to be made, as the box clearly states, “The Explosive Finale”, and it brought closure to many questions that were lying around regarding the previous titles. Upon reaching the end after approximately 30 hours of play, the ending satisfied me quite well, and I found the not-so-secret sound test to be a great reward for winning. Though it is, at the time of this writing, six years old, Phantasy Star IV remains one of the best RPGs ever made, still looking colorful and great, even to this date, an example of a well designed game, one that doesn’t ever need a remake. I recommend this title to any, and all RPG players.