2018-10-19: Phantasy Star IV: By Alis, they got it right!
I've been trying to compose this post for a bit. The write-ups for PS2 and PS3 were long meandering rants on bad mechanics and design decisions, but I want to make my breakdown of Phantasy Star IV to make the point as succinctly and directly as possible, because I feel so strongly about this game that I want to condense those feelings into a tight simple package. So here goes:
Phantasy Star IV is the perfect era 16-bit RPG.
No really, they hammered it. Everything. The whole package. The vibrant graphics, the gross biological enemy sprites, the cold faceless robots, the dungeon tilesets, the manga style "cutscenes". The catchy dungeon and battle themes, the horrifying antagonist theme, the pulse pounding final battle theme. The amazing writing, the emotional plot twist, pulling off "Zeromusing" the player twice and making it work, somehow tying together the entire Phantasy Star core-series into one plot thread and denouement. Quality of life improvements like being able to save from the menu instead of only in inns, system improvements, refinements galore.
There's two major components of the game, from a gameplay perspective, that are the most stand-out for me:
The music: I'm not a Genesis audio fan but PS4 managed to take the limitations and features of the Genesis SPU and just went to town with them in a way even I could appreciate, creating this pseudo-metal, industrial sci-fi soundtrack that punctuates every moment of the game perfectly. Dungeon themes are driving bassy thrums guiding you through caves or technological blippy jams in sync with blinking lights in lost high tech fortresses. Of particular note are the battle themes of the first main antagonist and the final form of the final boss. The former may be a tie with "World Revolution" for my favorite boss theme from ... practically any game. After the questionable track selection of PS2 and the ear-grating of PS3, PS4's OST was a joy to listen to.
The battle system: They finally got it right. Even PS1's system was pretty clumsy and painful, but PS4 finally streamlined for formula. Gone is the "the default is auto-battle and everything else is pain" system of PS2 and PS3. In its place is an amazingly well thought out macro system that allows you to define about a dozen pre-defined actions for your party and execute them in one menu. If you want to auto-battle, you select which macro you want your team to use that turn. Yeah, it's one additional input per round of auto-battle, but it gives you so much control! If you choose not to use this system, the battle system is basically identical to that of Final Fantasy or Breath of Fire now. So not only did PS4 fix the system woes of prior games, but did something completely unheard of in the genre, and did it well.
Then of course the plot itself is just a roller coaster. Probably the best I've seen in quite some time.
Criticisms? Not many. I guess the biggest one is there's an unused button on the gamepad in battle. B cancels and C confirms, but A gets no use. It'd have been pretty stellar if A just automatically used macro A. One press, done. Having to make two inputs to auto-battle was a little vexing, but not overly so; this would have fixed it. The second criticism is actually a bug: under certain conditions, quickly inputting down and C would cause a second down press to be registered. This would turn quickly selecting "Macro" into selecting "Run", which was obviously quite bad. It also showed up in menu healing more than a few times. Very annoying. I mostly got around it by slowing down how fast I input down and C. A minor third is the translation is great, but not perfect. In particular I feel something was lost in translation for all of Raja's dialogue; I imagine in the original release he was a pun-master, but his wordplay just didn't translate well.
That is really it. Everything else was just dreamy. The UI is fluid and fast, the difficulty curve is mostly perfect, the writing is very clear and keeps you on track quite easily without bouts of "Talk to everyone to figure out what's next" (in fact if you forget, there's a very robust system for having your party talk to each other, and they will give you very explicit detail on the story so far), characters are memorable and charming (except maybe Chaz). I could go on and on about all the amazing good points.
I think the biggest takeaway from it all is a sense of surprise that they tied the entire core series up in a neat bow. You actually kill Dark Force at about the three-quarter mark, and the game lets you think it's over... for about a minute. The final quarter of the game then reveals the single thread that joins together all four Phantasy Star games, explains the 1,000 year cycle, and involves Alis and Nei (albeit very indirectly) in putting a stop to the cycle for good (or at least until PSO?). It's all a very perfect ending to a series that I've binged on hard enough to remember explicit detail of the prior chapters at the point that I experienced all of this.
Just an amazing end to a series that was otherwise groundbreaking, but didn't hold up so well against the passage of time. A must-play. Nothing more I can say really.
Oh and tongue-in-cheek micro complaint number 4: what the heck was with the graphics in the final area? My eyes... At least it was only five screens.