RELEASE DATE: 03/21/1989 – (JP), 01/1990 – (US), 02/1991 – (EU)
Phantasy Star was a bold RPG that proved Sega could make games outside of their comfort zone. Up until this point, Sega’s forte was the arcade: racing games, shooting games, all made with the latest technology, all as in-your-face and body-rocking as possible. The Master System couldn’t bring the arcade experience home (though Sega tried their darndest), so Sega had to expand their limited repertoire. Thanks to Dragon Quest, RPGs were becoming popular on home consoles in Japan, so it made sense for Sega to try their hand at one. Nobody expected how great Phantasy Star would actually be. The melding of fantasy characters with sci-fi worlds, the landmark cutscenes, traveling from planet to planet. The original Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were landmark titles, but their scope feels small compared to Phantasy Star.
Phantasy Star II fans claim that it’s just as groundbreaking as the original, but I’m not sure I buy that. At least not yet. By all indication, I’m not even halfway through the game, despite playing a rock solid twenty hours or so. Here’s a look at my playthrough thus far: walk a few steps to the next area, grind a lot on the way, get a new character who starts at level 1, grind so the character will stay alive for future fights, grind for money for new items, grind so I don’t die at the next dungeon that’s literally right around the corner (yet is much harder than anything I’ve experienced thus far). Phantasy Star was grindy, no question, but when forced to take a couple hours to level up my party, I was rewarded with a rocket ride to another planet or the destruction of a super huge dungeon. The only reward given for gratuitous grinding in Phantasy Star II is knowing that I might survive the next portion before being forced to grind for hours again.
The story takes place a thousand years after the original Phantasy Star, with protagonist Rolf taking over for Alis. As the game opens, Rolf is having recurring nightmares of a strange woman (that resembles Alis) battling a dark entity. Right before the entity kills her, Rolf awakens. He’s then summoned to a government building and asked to investigate the mysterious increase in biomonsters all around the planet Mota. From there, your adventure begins.
Initially, Rolf is joined only by his half-human, half bio-hazard girlfriend Nei. With each new town you enter, however, a new character will appear at Rolf’s house in Paseo. There are eight characters total, including Rolf and Nei, though you can only have four in your party at a time. Each of the characters is useful in their own way. Rolf is a handsome government agent tasked with solving the world’s problems. Nei is his strong, sensitive girlfriend, loyal ’til the end. Rudo is a biomonster hunter who’s “good with a gun.” Amy is the important doctor/healer of the group. Hugh is a biologist who knows a lot about biomonsters. Anna is a guardian, out to kill evil hunters with her dual blades. Kain is a pro at dismantling robots. Finally, Shir is a thief who tags along with you for fun.
They’re a neat group of characters, but even after twenty hours of grueling toil, I know very little about any of their personalities. If anything, I look at them as chores. For example, Kain starts off at level 1 when the rest of your characters are about level 12. To get Kain up to snuff, he needs to fight high ranking monsters and get enough meseta to buy higher-level armor, so he can stay alive to fight more monsters. Do I need Kain when he first shows up to Rolf’s house? Not right away. But the more I grind to get him to a reasonable level, the less grinding I’ll have to do later when his presence in my party is imperative.
In RPGs that provide a plethora of characters, it’s usually not necessary to build up everyone. Phantasy Star II is not like other RPGs. You’re given these eight characters for a reason: to make your life easier. Sure, you could beef up your four favorite weirdos and try to tackle every dungeon in the game. But at some point – at some crucial turning point – you’re gonna need Shir to steal an item for you. Or Kain to put the hurt on some high-level robot. Or Hugh to do… whatever Hugh does. I personally haven’t reached these points yet, but I know they’re coming.
In the first Phantasy Star, the dungeons were claustrophobic caverns that held both treasure and danger in abundance, and the first-person viewpoint helped you feel like you were part of the action. Phantasy Star II removes the first-person view entirely. Whether you’re deep in creature doo-doo in a dungeon or exploring Mota at large, your party is always seen from a top-down perspective. I have an idea why Sega shifted: first-person was mostly seen in CRPGs, while the burgeoning JRPG (Dragon Quest and its many imitators) kept first-person limited to battles. That being said, I miss first-person in the dungeon. While the top-down viewpoint allows you to see how vast the dungeons are, the intimacy is lost. The dungeon design isn’t as inviting in Phantasy Star II, either. The ones I’ve explored thus far are (mostly) dull, complicated webs of machinery designed to frustrate the hell out of the player. Unless you have the old hint book that came with the game upon release or an FAQ, may Mother Brain have mercy on your embattled souls.
Sega’s tweaks to the battle system were for the best. While the turn-based combat remains the same as in the original, your party is now viewed from a third-person perspective as opposed to a first-person view. When each character attacks, you see them slice or shoot the enemies in front of them. It’s a neat graphical flourish that’s only possible with advanced Mega Drive hardware. The battle menu has also been streamlined for maximum efficiency. You have two options, Fight and Strategy. Fight lets you attack without customization, while Strategy allows you to either focus attacks on a specific creature, use Offensive or Defensive Techniques, defend without attacking, or use items. The simplified menu layout keeps battles moving smoothly and quickly, and was the perfect design choice for a game this battle-heavy.
The greatest challenge for me in Phantasy Star II so far has been to maintain an interest in the game. I’m using an FAQ to (in theory) move forward at a brisk pace, and I’m following my guide’s advice almost down to the letter. I’m grinding like mad to strengthen my characters and get mesetas to buy expensive crap that will only be good until the next town, a couple blocks over. Even though this is beyond tedious, it’s totally necessary. Even with the best equipment, you still take deadly hits and your party requires constant upkeep. Despite performing this cycle for twenty hours, I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere. By this point in Phantasy Star, I had explored all of Palma and the desert planet, Motavia. I know Phantasy Star II is a larger game than its predecessor, but like expansive open-world games that require you to perform thousands of mundane tasks in lieu of plot, larger doesn’t always mean more enjoyable.
Before I get lots of angry comments, please keep in mind that this is only the first part of a two-part review. For all I know, Phantasy Star II will become the enthralling blockbuster followup that I want it to be. The worst part is, I typically enjoy grinding. I love the original Phantasy Star, which had plenty of grinding. I gave all four Dragon Warrior games high marks, and the first two games in that series are all but unplayable today. Phantasy Star II is not like the aforementioned games. You will grind to hell and back. My eyes are dry. My butt is numb. The music, which I initially liked, has become a gruel of synths clogging up my ear canals. And what do I get in return for hours of servitude? Harder enemies, shinier swords, and a sense that I’m wasting my life. Phantasy Star II hasn’t bested me yet, but the struggle to continue is real.