Phantasy Star IV
When people discuss the great RPGs of the 16-bit era, the resultant threads involve a lot of wistful sighs and superlatives bandied about, generally including phrases like “best RPG ever”. Of course, these discussions almost always center on the Super Nintendo and dwell on Square’s undeniable, classic gems, Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. But as wonderful as these games are, they’re hardly alone atop the mountain of great RPGs of that era, and neither of them handle storytelling as well as Phantasy Star IV, the unsung third member at the top of the 16-bit RPG heap.
Narrative in 8- and 16-bit RPGs was always a difficult venture, because of text restrictions and technological limitations and the inability of the sprite-based characters to provide much in the way of emotion outside of grossly exaggerated icons. Final Fantasy’s solution was to use elaborate setpieces to help the player envision the scene in their mind and extrapolate emotions and reactions. Phantasy Star decided to borrow from the visual novel adventure game instead, using elaborate manga-style images to tell the story; the varied timing and pacing of the panels set the mood of each scene.
It helped that the story Phantasy Star IV was trying to tell really was good, too. From the surface, it’s simply another generic RPG -- a young man gets caught up in huge events that threaten the universe, and so forth. What sets this tale apart is its character depth. Each major character that our hero Chaz interacts with has a backstory integral to the plot and shares a web of connections to every other character, all presented through beautiful artwork. And when a major character dies about a third of the way into the story, it’s a genuinely emotional moment. The game spends a lot of time building up her relation as a mentor to the main character, and a striking force in her own right. No delicate Aerispansy here.
Mechanically, the game was an interesting play on the standard RPG tropes of the time. Techniques and spells could be combined to form combo attacks of varying effects and powers, much as in Chrono Trigger. However, they required characters to use the powers in certain specific orders, which could be tricky given differences in character agility. As a solution, Phantasy Star IV allowed players to create macros for specific setups to ensure special powers and combos could be used reliably and ease the pain of tedious grinding battles. One macro set to everyone attacking, and a player can coast through random encounters much faster than assigning each individual action. The system added a layer of depth and complexity that made boss battles as much about tactical thinking as brute force.
Story and system are but two-thirds of what makes a good RPG; the final leg is the overall sense of scale. PSIV follows in the vein of great fantasy literature by creating that rarest of beasts, the standalone spiral of story. Yes, it’s a sequel, but the game can be enjoyed in full without having played any of its predecessors. Everything a player needs to know is artfully interjected over the course of the game through flavor text and Easter eggs, and as a result, a newcomer can feel as invested in the story as someone who had followed the series from its Sega Master System debut.
The quest eventually spans three planets, an asteroid, a space station, and a chasm into the ultimate darkness, and it manages to do so without overwhelming the player. In the style of great epic fantasies, the story starts out on small scale and spirals outwards, adding fluff and color along the way so that by the end the player has become completely versed in the nature of the game world in an organic manner. Consider the opposite, a game like Final Fantasy XIII, which floods the player with intense amounts of setting data without ever firmly grounding them in the world, leading to disorientation and a general unease with the story. Phantasy Star’s story pacing allows the player to truly immerse themselves in the setting at their own pace.
Ultimately, the story is as linear as in any console RPG from that era, but Phantasy Star IV masks its nature through a series of optional sidequests. These excursion serve no function but to provide better items, cash, and character development. And indeed, it is these treks that really make the setting come alive. Each planet actually feels like a unique culture, with their own color and nature, and their own takes on post apocalyptic visions. Motavia, the starting world, is a desert planet whose computer-controlled biological systems have gone haywire. Dezolis is a frozen world where the weather systems that allow life to survive have been corrupted. And the world that the original Phantasy Star took place on is now an asteroid belt, having been destroyed in the interim. Altogether, the game possesses incredible atmosphere that few games of the era can come close to.
From a linguistics and localization view, the game’s translators did a fantastic job of giving the sense that the setting had evolved from the first game -- planet names change, from Mota to Motavia, Dezo to Dezolis and so forth; names change from Alis to Alys; and features of the world are similar yet subtly different, in a way that makes one consider how language might change over the course of a thousand years after a technological breakdown of society. Sure, the 16-bit tech allowing for more space for names had something to do with this, but Sega put quite a bit of thought into the process nonetheless.
Phantasy Star IV easily deserves a space in the pantheon of great RPGs, and it still holds up to playthroughs today, helped by the vivid colors and manga panel storytelling. The characters are vibrant, the mythology is rich, and the game system itself is fast-paced and easily grasped. The only real shame here is that there will almost certainly never be a Phantasy Star V. That said, with copies of the game available on the Virtual Console and numerous Sega compilations, the world will never lack the opportunity to experience one of the greatest RPGs of the 16-bit generation.