Gameplay, Story and Value:
In Phantasy Star IV you take on the role of Chaz, a newly appointed Hunter in the Hunter’s Guild. Along with your mentor Alys, you set out taking on jobs for the guild helping people with various problems in exchange for pay. On your first job as an official Hunter, you and Alys stumble across information that could spell the end for your entire world! Naturally, you take it upon yourselves and variably sized group of companions to save the world from imminent destruction!
Sure, the story’s not terribly original, but it doesn’t really need to be. The formula is tried and true and it works well here, especially when you throw in a health dose of Sci-Fi. The dialogue is pretty cheese-ball, invoking more than a few memories of anime like Crest of the Stars, and it can be a little hard to take seriously at first. Unlike the aforementioned anime, however, it didn’t take long before I eventually warmed up to it, even finding it endearing.
The story itself provides some surprising twists and interesting turns, and there are enough sidequests and option content to keep you pretty busy.
It is unfortunately, then, that the gameplay itself seems hellbent on preventing me from enjoying the story it’s trying to tell. For every thing Phantasy Star IV does right, it seems to also find something to infuriate me! There are minor issues, like the controls. Button configuration is completely customizable which is fantastic, but then the character movement is slippery and walking into object, even ones that can be interacted with, causes your character to turn and move off to the side. Minor, but it’s there. Also fun is the return of the feature that makes it so when you press the action button when nothing’s in front of you, the game will take the time to stop and inform you that there’s nothing in front of you…
A more prominent issue lies in the game’s naming conventions concerning abilities and items. Nearly everything that can be cast or used is named some semi-obscure gibberish. This would be fine except that abilities come with no descriptions whatsoever, and while items do have descriptions they don’t display in combat and the descriptions themselves are often very vague. Star Dew, an item that revives and restores your entire party (even KO’d members) is described as “Dew with a sweet scent”. Needing to keep a cheat sheet with me at all times to remember what all my characters’ abilities do ends up making combat feel extremely cumbersome, and I often try to just get away with attacking as often as possible, losing a fair deal of depth in the process.
Now let’s talk about the combat system itself… It’s great! Combat is fairly fast and fun to watch, and when you have a translator on hand it can be pretty involved with the bevy of skills at your disposal. Characters have access to TP consuming “Tech” abilities as well as limited use but generally more powerful “Skill” abilities. Combat is front-view and turn based and you get to see your characters engage the enemies when they act. All of this is mostly par for the course save for the Macro function, which is absolutely fantastic. From the field menu you can create a series of macros, assigned to letters, where you can issue any available command to your entire party. You can then execute these macros in combat. The easiest one is having all your characters attack, but it’s having subtle variations between macros where the system shines. I had one where all but one character attack where the healer casts a healing spell. Another where two casters will heal the party, another having casters use offensive abilities, one for attacking enemy groups, etc. All macros are issued with a single command, and the feature turned what could have been a slow and boring combat system into one that’s fast, efficient, and fun.
Once again, however, I find reason to complain. While the combat system is great, the difficulty and frequency of said combat are somewhat less awesome. Phantasy Star IV is a very grindy game, and I feel the grind to story ratio is not great, as you’ll need to grind after just about every single plot point if you want to progress. This wouldn’t be so bad, except experience comes very slow, and combat is on the difficult side. Most dungeons will leave you completely depleted by the time you’re out of them.
The difficulty aspect is magnified when random encounters seem to occur every few steps, even every couple on occasion. Dungeons typically have some very good treasure in them, but also several dead ends, and when you can’t go down a hallway and back without experiencing five or six battles it can really dissuade exploration.
Presentation, Music and Sound:
I don’t find Phantasy Star IV particularly appealing in the visuals department. Many games of (and prior to) the time available for both the Genesis and SNES featured much better sprite work and animation. What saves this game is its fantastic way of telling its story through manga style cutscenes, like the one above. In doing this, characters can be seen portraying ranges of emotion that didn’t always come across in even its significantly more acclaimed contemporaries.
These scenes were easily the highlight of the game for me, and without them I feel Phantasy Star IV would have fallen firmly into the bland end of the visual spectrum. Environments were fine, animated battle backgrounds were a nice touch and combat visuals in general were pretty good, but all in all I found the presentation (outside of cutscenes) to be very generic.
The stacking menu systems could get a bit… intense, but for the most part they were just fine. One major complaint comes from using items, where every time you use an item the cursor is sent back to the beginning of the item list. With no way to sort your inventory this can make using multiple restorative items a real headache. There’s also the bizarre item and ability names, as mentioned in the last section. Battle commands were selected via icons for attack, defend, tech, skill and item, and while I could complain about how labels would have been nice, it really only took one or two encounters before I knew what did what.
Sound effects are typical RPG fare with nothing particular special, nor anything detrimental. Music, while not bad for the most part, is sorely lacking for variety. None of the tracks stick out and all the music is reused throughout the game. You have same music playing for each cave, each factory, each town and, to disastrous effect, each shop.
Add Phantasy Star IV to the growing list of games I was really looking forward to enjoying but didn’t. Every day went pretty much the same way, with me just not being into playing it, then the story doing something interesting enough that I wanted to press on! Sadly, my final play session ended pretty unfairly, enough so that I was compelled to call it.
This is definitely one that I’ll revisit someday, but right now I just find it more frustrating than enjoyable. On top of that, I feel like it demonstrates an overarching issue I have with the Genesis as a whole when it comes to game quality compared to its competitors, which I’ll talk about in the console retrospective.