Phantasy Star II

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Played on: Mega Drive Ultimate Collection

Over time, the Phantasy Star series has come to hold a special place in my heart. This is why the original Phantasy Star was one of my first blog reviews. Though looking back on it now, perhaps I should have waited a couple years before tackling these games.

Before the 'online' moniker was added, Phantasy Star II was perhaps the most famous title in this franchise. While the JRPG genre had already learned how to walk, it still had some difficulty standing on its own, particularly outside Japan. For reference, Final Fantasy II for the NES was launched just four months before Phantasy Star II hit the shelves. Oddly enough, Sega's RPG is more often than not compared to the fourth entry in Square's Final Fantasy saga despite it hitting store shelves two years prior to Cecil's journey. Moreover it's easy to forget this 16-bit RPG was launched in the west before any of the Final Fantasy games ever did. Yes, even the first one.

If one were to pinpoint the reason as to why Phantasy Star II was so highly praised I would have to say timing played a major part. Bridging the gap between 8 and 16 bit, it gave us a glimpse of what's to come. These days however, Phantasy Star II feels rudimentary and unforgiving with a few bright spots in between which could have shined brighter were the developers not limited by technological and time constraints. For one thing, it was touted as the first game to have been released on a 6-Mbit cartridge (750KB). As time went on, cartridge costs went down and as a result most 16-bit RPGs were shipped on 12, 16, 24 and even 32-Mbit cartridges. With that in mind, it's easy to see just how limited this showcase title really was when compared to later releases.

Phantasy Star II takes place a thousand years after its predecessor. Every planet in the Algo system is now ruled by Mother Brain, a super computer capable of managing every terraforming facility and whatever else is required to keep a stable population. 

It's here we're introduced to our main characters, whom I'd like to describe in greater detail, but the sad fact is, we barely get any information on them save for their profession. Thus, we've reached the first major problem with Phantasy Star II, there's very little story to it. While at certain points we'll see the occasional cutscene or character dialogue, these are few and far between, moreover, many of the interactions boil down to either exposition or the bare basics of what a plot should convey. Yet, Phantasy Star II had more story than most other JRPGs of its time. The original Final fantasy for example had virtually no plot save for a time loop plot twist thrown in a the last minute.

Combat is handled in a turn-based fashion and it's here we can see the major graphical jump we get from its 8-bit predecessor. For starters we get a behind the shoulder view of all our party members, all of which feature an impressive level of detail for the time. Even more astounding are the animations, as characters and monsters feature detailed idle and attack stances. The focus on Phantasy Star II's quality animations can not be overstated, surpassing even most JRPGs launched towards the twilight years of the 16-bit generation. The only real complaint I have on here is the lack of a background scenario. Rather than viewing forests, meadows and technologically advanced backdrops like its predecessor, Phantasy Star II's action combat screen is limited to a single, static tron-like screen.

Players who are familiar with turn-based JRPG combat will likely instantly grasp the basics of Phantasy Star's combat. It even features a useful auto-combat strategy. It may employ questionable strategic combat decisions, but it does provide a reprieve from the heavy grinding. The spells provided in the game all feature non-descriptive names such as "Foi", "Wat" or "Gires". For better or worse this encourages the player to experiment so as to learn their use

Another aspect where Phantasy Star II stood out from other JRPGs of its time was the ability to switch out party members. When in a town, you can catch a teleporter to the main character's home. There, the team is introduced to new warriors who wish to rally behind our cause and may switch out between them. Each character has certain set of skills, strength and weakness. The latter two are never explicitly told to you, rather it is up to the player to discover which party combination fits best for each dungeon.

Speaking of the dungeons, it is here we reach Phantasy Star II's biggest problem (though some would argue this is its biggest draw as well). The dungeons are absolutely labyrinthian in nature and feature an extremely high encounter rate. To put into into perspective, the early stages of the game are about as difficult as the end dungeon for most Final Fantasy titles. In the original Phantasy Star, dungeons were conveyed through a 3D-like perspective, providing both a difficult but fair challenge while still being graphically impressive. It forced players to map out their progress in graph paper thereby creating a more engaging experience. This however does not happen in the sequel. One of the main issues being the sheer size of these locations, some of which have upwards of 20 floors with dozens of paths leading to dead ends. The other setback is the change in perspective to a top-down 2D game. This makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to map out your progress, further exacerbated by the already mentioned high encounter rate.

Sega of America noticed the extreme difficulty of their dungeons and as a result shipped every copy of the game with a walkthrough which featured maps for every stage. However no such documentation exists for any subsequent release on other systems. As a result, new players will likely become frustrated early on as it forces them to memorize massive locations while constantly being interrupted for combat. I've seen some gamers proclaim Phantasy Star II is a more fun and engaging experience without any outside help. While I can see the validity in that claim I would argue it only applies to a very strict subset of its userbase.

Phantasy Star II is an absolutely massive experience. Even if we clear every dungeon at at reasonable time, there is simply so much to explore that it will likely keep gamers busy for quite some time. Unfortunately, the experience becomes repetitive rather quickly, as almost every town in the game looks the same as the last. The same criticism is also valid for the dungeons, as there's very little visual or even musical variation between them.

It's difficult to give Phantasy Star II a rating. It holds historical significance and broke a lot of new ground for the genre, but at the same time it feels very rough and archaic in the worst way possible. When reviewing a game like this one must always take into consideration the limitations and mindset of its time, but also analyze whether it's still a fun experience for a modern gamer. In the end I feel playing and finishing this game requires a certain mindset that is not advisable for everyone.

Those that trudge on through will see how quickly the genre evolved in just a few years, but also how a game as harsh and unforgiving like this can still provide an immersive experience. To this day I continue to look back on Phantasy Star II's characters with fondness, even if I barely got to know them. Together, we faced difficulties, hardships and frustrations, but we pulled through and for that, I'll always remember them fondly.

Trivia: Did you know Phantasy Star II launched a mere three months after Final Fantasy II for the Famicom? Despite this, it's most often compared to Final Fantasy IV for the SNES

Trivia 2: And did you know it was launched in the west before the first Final Fantasy title did?

- Strong historical value in gaming
- A unique sci-fi experience in a genre that up to this point delved mostly in fantasy
- Combat animations above and beyond almost every other RPG of its time
- Provides a long, extremely difficult journey that is as frustrating as it is immersive and endearing

- Extremely difficult and frustrating
- High encounter rate and labyrinthian mazes will scare most players away
- Very little plot or story is told in the game
- Generally feels very archaic

Final Grade: B-

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