2018-10-18: Phantasy Star III: Better, somewhat

I've really been putting the games away eh? Three major RPGs down in five days. Well okay, one of those was running two weeks prior. But I've basically chomped through PS2 and 3 in half a week. PS3 is quite short, mainly because of its generation system; more on that later though. I can say for sure it's a head and shoulders better title than PS2, but it's still not great.

So Phantasy Star III starts 1,000 years after the end of PS2, in a seemingly completely unrelated world. Starting out, it seems like a complete medieval fantasy though cracks in that facade begin to show when you find cyborgs and technology-laden tunnels between continents. Further talking to NPCs reveals stories of being the descendants of a lost civilization, but this is all you get for 90% of the game. What you do get, instead, is a lot of meandering and unrelated plot points.

To jump on some of my complaints from the prior chapter though: battle is somewhat fixed. You still need to navigate three menus to use techs in battle, and PS3 still uses the "Auto-battle is the default, everything else takes effort" system, but they've streamlined the "everything else" to the point that I actually felt like using offensive techs from time to time. The few times you want to order everyone in your team to do something (frankly I only did this in the final battle), it's hell though. The dungeons are no longer teleporter mazes; in fact the dungeons have been over simplified to near irrelevance. The UI has graduated from terrible to borderline usable. Finally the horrible difficulty scaling and grind wall are completely gone. By just following the plot and exploring dungeons, I was able to stay right on the level curve in such a way that I felt completely overpowered the whole game, and had a little trouble with the finale without grinding.

I'd say the biggest problem with PS3 is it's so wide, it had to be made very shallow to compensate. PS3 is actually 3 stories back to back to back. After a few hours of gameplay, you reach a point where you choose a wife, time rolls forward, and you continue as your son whose abilities, name, and appearance are determined by the wife you chose. Then this happens a second time closer to the end. Thing is, these generational stories are also completely different based on who you play: you go to different dungeons, you engage in different plots, and the endings are different, but they all occur in the same game world. As a result, PS3 has to keep track of and balance for seven chapters that all run within the same physical space. This means no real location has any particular depth, care, or uniqueness applied to it. While you may only visit a dungeon once, for reason X, your would-be other self may visit it for a completely different reason, at a completely different level. As a result no one location ever feels stand-out or purpose-built. It's all so generic. It also results in the frustration of scouring a dungeon only to find it's full of crap from three gear tiers ago, because in another hero's story, he goes there much sooner than you did.

Actually come to think of it, there's no real reason to scour dungeons at all. Everything you can find in dungeons can be bought in shops, and can usually be bought before you find it in chests. I can't recall any cases of finding gear that I actually wanted to use. Well, plot-related items are an exception I guess.

The level of shallowness is pretty painful: every dungeon but one is a single floor. Rather than resort to teleporter mazes, PS3 resorts to mazes consisting of lattices of catwalks with breaks in the mesh that force you to route around. Starting out, it's pretty kind and you can just walk straight to the end. Near the end of the game, there's exactly one circuitous, meandering path through the maze, and it's pretty difficult to find. Every dungeon uses one of two tilesets: Cave or "Techy", though the former has a few color choices I guess.

As for the layout of the world, there's seven small overworlds joined by techy tunnels, and you'll get to know these tunnels well. I probably had to traverse them about three dozen times through the game. Then each overworld is a giant sparse field with one to three towns, one to three miscellaneous points of interest, and a few nodes for a quick travel system that you don't access until the final two hours of the game: deep in the third generation. So in short: prepare to wander the overworld(s) and the tunnels a ton for no real reason except for "it adds play time". The quick travel system consists of warp points and the ability to fly, however it's close to useless. The warp points are 1 to 1 between various worlds, basically allowing you to skip the tunnels and nothing more. The flight system requires an airstrip at both your departure and destination locations, however each world has maybe two airstrips and you can't fly between worlds. One world has one, so flight is useless there. Need to go somewhere not near a warp or airstrip? Another walk across the world.

On the plus side, the game is pretty kind in letting you learn one world before forcing you to the next. In generation 1 you access three worlds, 5 in generation 2, and all 7 finally in generation 3. By the time you're sent to new worlds, you've seen the old ones enough to know them by heart, and frankly be sick of them.

In the third generation you finally get your link to the prior Phantasy Star games: this cluster of seven completely different biomes only conjoined by tunnels is actually an arcology flying in space. It's the last surviving ship launched from the evaculation of Palm, which was destroyed in Phantasy Star II. Aside from that, and the existence of the iconic Dark Force, PS3 has no real links to PS2 or 1. I suppose there's the Nei gear, though it's not the Nei gear from PS2. It's gear powered up by cryogenically frozen survivors of the Palm indicent, who presumably never intereacted with the party of PS2 so how would they know about Nei to begin with? I don't know; kind of a dangling thread.

One odd quibble though about PS3: the techs are... jacked up. Shifta and Deband exist, but they're enemy debuffs, not ally buffs. Anti and Reverser can fail and have no effect. You offset this by speccing into them at the Tech Distribution NPC, which lets you increase some tech powers at the expense of others. As a result of this, the Gi- and Na-/Ra- techs don't exist really. What would be Gifoie and Rafoie are instead Foie with a lot of points in them. Gires exists, but it's just a full party Res. Though honestly, whoever makes sure every area of the game has at least one monster who can poison, and then makes Anti able to fail is a sadistic arse.

To get the whole PS3 experience, I suppose you're supposed to play through every generation combination: that's seven playthroughs. I... feel no urge to do that. I looked up a walkthrough to see how the stories differ and they are practically entirely different games. After generation 1, who you pick completely changes the story up until the very end. I'm definitely aware I missed some important plot points in my playthrough that would be filled in via other playthroughs (like more about Lune: Sean's arc does almost nothing with him). Still, PS3 is too much of a slog to really justify seven plays.

In short I guess I'd say about PS3: "So broad it had to be painfully shallow" and "All the drudgery of PS2's grind replaced with a lot of drudgery walking through barren fields". Better but still not great. I've been told PS4 is actually solid, so I guess I'll try that next.

Maybe not in one 24hr marathon though.

tags: phantasy_star, rpg, game_writeup