A Look Back
My history with the Phantasy Star series has been a really rocky one. I first encountered it back during the GBA era where I was browsing through a store and came upon a game cartridge that boasted three games in one! And as someone who really loved all kinds of RPGs I just had to buy it wiht my pocket money. So I booted up the first game in anticipation and was quite surprised at how old-fashioned it felt at that time. However, it was still playable and enjoyable. Or at least that's why I though at the beginning. After a while the game really bared its fangs with its old-school level of difficulty. Back then I really tried to beat all of my games since I didn't have that many, so I fought my way through all of these difficult dungeons and encounters. That is until I ended up in the last dungeon that I simply could not finish. It felt like an uphill battle and no matter how hard and often I tried, I never seemed to make any real progress and was left feeling really defeated and eventually somewhat resenting the game. Initially, I though about maybe just skipping to the second game and giving that one a go, but it just didn't feel right starting with the second game in a series when I couldn't even finish the first one. So this collection ended up in my drawers and eventually among a bunch of games that I unfortunately sold to buy newer stuff.
Fast forward more than a decade later. I started to really explore the Genesis/Mega Drive library for the first time and wanted to tackle the Phantasy Star series since I've heard great things about it and especially the sequels. That was when I played and also finished Phantasy Star II and III before burning out on turn-based RPGs for a while. I also don't remember this time too fondly since they ended up being rather disappointing for me, even though I initially liked PS II. But it quickly turned into intense grinding session where I would literally spend hours leveling my heroes and earning Mesetas. It didn't help that new characters joined on level 1 and that the inventory system was extremely slow and tedious. Thus changing up your party became more of a hassle than something that I would want to do, like when trying out new characters and figuring out what they were good for.
On top of that the dungeons were some of the most challenging I've ever experienced in a JRPG. For some this might be exciting, but I quickly felt exhausted end eventually resorted to online maps to make it through the later dungeons. What's sad about this is that there are definitely some good qualities in this game that were overshadowed for me by the negative aspects. Among the positive aspects would be the music and the occasional bits and pieces of a grand story. It definitely has its own flair and identity compared to most other games of its time which is why it upset me so much that I had to spend countless hours venturing through samey looking and insanely huge dungeons with very similar looking enemies and an encounter rate from hell.
Phantasy Star III promised to be a new and interesting experience which turned out to be quite a bit easier and less confusing than its immediate predecessor. Combat seemed fine too and the idea of a generation-spanning adventure was quite cool, too. But while this game avoided some of my personal gripes about PS II, it also introduced new issues: from the weird and sometimes absolutely bafflingly bad enemy designs to the music which was absolutely ear-grating. Somehow this game also felt much more repetitive than both of its predecessors as most of the areas looked nearly indistinguishable from each other. The towns may have had names, but I could not remember even a single one as they all looked the same to me. It didn't help either that the game was constantly sending you back and forth through its mostly boring environments. So while this game didn't irk me as much as PS II did, it also didn't have the same positive qualities. As such I got burned out on the series and left it for many untouched with a constant sour taste in my mouth. This would change with the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive challenge on this site.
Third times the charme
The challenge gave me the push I needed to finally play this game. While I didn't really like the previous games, this one managed to pleasently surprise me. First of all, the presentation is the best within the series. And it's not just the more detailed backgrounds, the decent animations of the heroes as well as the enemies, but also how cutscenes play out with a variety of images that show the characters. This wasn't just an efficient way of elegantly delivering information to the players, but it also helped to flesh out the characters so much more than any of the previous games could. For the first time in the series it really felt like I was playing fully fleshed-out characters who talk to one another, bicker and banter and so on. In previous games the characters usually just had their introduction and maybe a few sentences to say, but other than that they felt hardly more than just an amalgamation of stats and spells to me. PS IV on the other hand really delivered on the characters and the game benefitted from that. Even the story felt more fleshed out than with the previous games. They also included a bunch of callbacks to the earlier games which is great for anyone who had stuck with this series throughout the years. The long, long story of the Algol star system is also brought to a satisfying conclusion, wrapping up the quadrilogy quite nicely.
As for the gameplay PS IV delivers as well. The battles are nice and snappy and overall quite fun. You can even sort of program macros that will tell every character what they should be do within a given round of a battle. This reminded me of an earlier and simpler version of the gambit system in FFXII. But it works just fine and can make the battles a little less cumbersome if you don't want to input the same comands every time. On top of that they have added combination attacks, alittle bit similar to Chrono Trigger. However, in PS IV you don't just conveniently select them from a menu and then they will be carried out with absolute certainty. Instead you have to use specific spells or skills and then hope that the characers using them attack immediately after one another. On the one hand this creates a lot of tactical opportunities, on the other hand it can be a bit of a nuisance to figure out these combination attacks and then try to pull them off.
This game also provides you with a bunch of sidequests that are new to this series. As you're playing a professional (monster) hunter, you can take on tasks to help people. This lightens up the game a little bit and offers more insights into the world and its characters. You also have quite a bit of freedom in tackling these sidequests, which is really player-friendly in my book. Overall I would say that this game in general is much more friendly o the player and provides a very polished experience from start to finish. This doesn't mean however, that the game is easy. It still offers a solid challenge without ever coming close to the extremely high difficulty from PS II. Personally, I really appreciated this and it contributed to the game being a very pleasant experience. I think that PS IV still feels fresh and is good to play to this day thanks to its polish and the various QoL improvements over the previous games.
If I had to nitpick anything, then it would be a few minor issues:
1) The vehicular battles weren't fun to me and I wished that could have skipped them. Occasionally you can ride some kind of vehicle and it's actually necessary at times to progress through the game. However, you still had to fight random battles that I could have done without.
2) Have you seen in games or shows this trope of the heroes beating the bad guy only to reveal that there is an even bigger and badder evil guy? Well, this game loves to pull that trick a bit too often to the point where it had me rolling my eyes. I also didn't really like the villains. They were serviceable, but neither as imposing as Lavos or memorable as Kefka. They fulfilled their purpose and nothing more.
Anyway, these were my only real gripes with the game. Overall it was just really good and I had a great time with it. It also showed me how polished the Phantasy Star series could be to the point where I was a bit disappointed that they didn't continue making games in this style. They didn't even have to take place in the same solar system or universe. Just another game in this style would have been great since they obviously found their groove with this one and had their formula refined to a great degree. The only real consolation in that regard is, that the series ended on a high note leaving a good aftertaste in my mouth.