2018-10-17: Phantasy Star II: The holy trinity of bad RPGs

I've been pretty sick this week. I was coming under the weather at the end of Might & Magic II, but it hit fully during the final stream. Unable to work or stream, I looked for something to play that I had no desire to stream, or I felt wouldn't work well as a stream. Phantasy Star II filled both niches. I'd played the original some time ago and remember it fondly, though it was guilty of some pretty ridiculous grind; I found this perfect for my illness and medication addled state, to be perfectly honest. The second installment though seems to be a deliberate attempt to check all the bad check boxes in RPG design.

Let's rewind a bit though: PS2 came out in 1989. At this point there wasn't a ton of prior art in the realm of console RPGs: You had Final Fantasy I, two Dragon Quests, and a couple of proto-RPGs. During PS2's development FF2 and DQ3 probably came out. PS2 had the honor of being one of the first console RPGs with actual character development and plot impacting your specific heroes. I guess what I'm getting at here is all the prior titles in the genre also specialized in some anti-patterns that took awhile to overcome, so PS2 isn't really at fault for engaging in things like forced grind and frustrating UI layout and bad dungeon design, but it definitely goes in on those far harder than any title I've ever seen!

PS2 is frustratingly slow. Menuing takes forever, especially menu healing. Every time you wish to use a tech on the map, you have to navigate five menus, and they all close after every tech usage. In battle you have to select "Strategy", then "Order", then select a hero, pick what you want them to do, if using a tech pick which tech, and a target. So six menus there. While you can navigate these menus as fast as you can input, a drawing delay prevents you from seeing what you're doing in each one. Only through memorizing where things are can you move through them quickly. Additionally, healing techs restore a specific amount of HP. While it'd be more economical to use the weakest tech 10 times instead of the best one once, the menuing is so frustrating, I rarely considered the economy to be worth it.

In addition, your map movement is glacial. This combined with the fact that you can only see about 4 tiles in the direction you are moving makes dungeon exploration a long, arduous affair. That's a real shame too because PS2 only has one trick in its dungeon design arsenal: teleporter mazes. Every single dungeon is a teleporter maze. Well more properly every single dungeon is a stair maze and once you learn that the "teleporters" are actually stairs that align with their twins on other floors things get slightly easier. Still though, the first dungeons are mild teleporter mazes with 6 to 10 pads, by the end you can expect every dungeon to have 50-70 teleporters and winding corridors between them. It's literally the only form of dungeon design this game knows.

It's obvious that the developers intended for you to take hours slogging through each dungeon, because the difficulty increases in leaps and bounds, in very arbitrary manners. The first real dungeon for example straddles a line between two monster spawn zones. Leading up to the dungeon you fight one color of insect that is quite manageable. Take a few steps past the dungeon and don't go in, you fight a recolor of the same insect, except it's capable of cutting off half your max health in one shot. So if you know the dungeons already and just blow through them, you're stuck grinding after every major plot point anyway. I will admit when I hit the dungeon with 50 teleporters, I resorted to maps, and very quickly began to feel the level curve run away from me. At worst, I think I was level 20 at a section various guides recommended I be 28-30 for. I made it a point to grind until I could buy gear at each town, and even that was an hour or two, about six times in the playthrough, and that still wasn't sufficient. I'd wager 75% of an "informed" playthrough would be grind.

The grind is simultaneously eased and made more frustrating by PS2's strange battle design choices. By default, auto-battle is how PS2 works. When you begin a battle you only have two choices: start the fight or give orders. By default your characters will target random monsters with physical attacks (you can't choose a target even if you give orders) but you can override individual characters and have them use items, use tech, and the like. Offensive techs will be used every turn until you rescind the order, healing and buffing techs will be used once and the character reverted to physical attacks. In short, most battles you can hit the button to start the fight, and put the controller down (or in my case, utilize emulator turbo). This let me blow through a ton of fights in short order, but also took away even the illusion of agency in my battles. If I was holding a confirmation button to keep sending my party at the enemy, at least I'd be doing something. By the end of the game I was just turboing through every fight, interrupting battle to give healing orders if I noticed HP values starting to dip. That's it. I never used offensive techs; they took too long to set up.

For all the strange and bad decisions, PS2 has some good points. The art is cute and the enemies (the few there are) are well drawn. The real shame of it is the number of palette swaps present in the game; you can start seeing your first ones 30 minutes in. They at least did a good job keeping the flow of new sprites up through the entire game, but at the end I was still fighting the same insects I saw in the first dungeon. PS2 is also one of the first games with any appreciable plot revealed in-game. Yeah Final Fantasy 2 beat it by a few months, but PS2 makes a strong showing-- even if some of the plot points are hamfisted and overdone (spoiler: Like the death of your female protagonist that the game tries too hard to make endearing with its limited storytelling power). In particular I feel the ending tries too hard to drive home a moral (also spoiler: your entire party ends up implied dead in cutscene, which makes for a great ending after 30+ hours of grind-and-slog...).

As a minor quibble, I also feel like the music choices the game makes are just senseless. The entire soundtrack is happy and upbeat. Battle music sounds like the kind of beats you'd hear upon introducing a hero. The boss music (which is heard I think exactly four times in the entire game-- not many boss fights) sounds almost lovey and romantic, not at all what you expect to hear while fighting for your life against a superior foe. It's not game-ruining, but it does ding some of the emotional investment in certain game events.

All in all I think I spent about 35-40 hours with the game, and that's using maps through the more mazey dungeons. That does include one big forced grind at the end so I could take Dark Force. I needed approximately ten levels before I really stood a chance, though I mostly blame that on the fact that my visits into the final dungeons were straight shots to the objectives, with no meandering. If I didn't have maps I probably would have been right on par when I was ready to go to Dark Force.

Still, not a good title; maybe the weakest in the initial series. I have to play PS3 to know for sure.

tags: phantasy_star, rpg, game_writeup