The end of the original single-player Phantasy Star series was a landmark title for Sega, shipping on a specially made cart and selling for $100, an amazingly high price for a Mega Drive title at the time. Phantasy Star 4 was very much the epitome of what Sega stood for at the time. Sleek, fast and in many ways ground breaking, despite garnering mixed reviews.
As a linking tapestry and final instalment in the original (pre-online) Phantasy Star saga, End of the Millennium is a masterpiece. Plot threads and elements of 1 and 2 are interwoven into the story whilst even the highly divisive third entry into the series was referenced and given greater meaning. As a standalone title the game also manages to impress, explaining itself at every step and being a stepping on point for those who want to retrospectively embark on a journey through the series back to its Master System roots. Released a year before ‘Final Fantasy VI’, it’s a simpler game, but shows innovation in its design and use of the Mega Drive’s limited abilities in ways that play to its strengths whilst embracing its weaknesses.
Graphically the game has to occasionally battle the limited colour palette of the 16bit system that bore it, whilst also managing to include a sound sense of design. Playing the title today on a HD television through re-releases such as the ‘Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection’ on PlayStation 3 serves to highlight the immense amount of detail that has gone into creating textures and tile sets for the game whilst also demonstrating the lack of animations for characters. Characters appear on-screen as small, proportioned sprites that march or stand still but fail to emote. This is considerably less of a problem than one would expect however due to the use of illustrations (in a manga-style) that add visual flourish to most dialogue sequences and everything key to the narrative. These hold up extremely well, as do the monster designs, though these fall into repeated use through palette swaps. Monsters have animations of their own in battle, which trumps many RPGs of the time, and backgrounds always contain small moving elements or parallax scrolling to add flourish. Text is easily legible and menus easy to operate.
Sound and music are sadly not as great and time has certainly lessened their impact. Whilst the music doesn’t harm the ears, it is repetitive and not particularly memorable. This often leads to extended sessions being muted and when compared to the offerings on display through the SNES at the time in the ‘Final Fantasy’ series, feels especially-lacking. The Mega Drive was certainly an inferior machine in terms of sound, however titles such as ‘Streets of Rage’ had demonstrated that those with a talent for design could compose exceptional music through its hardware. Phantasy Star IV isn’t a blight on the ears, but it does nothing to live up to its price-tag. Sound effects are clear, though similarly unimpressive and repetitive.
The narrative in Phantasy Star IV follows Chaz, a young mercenary partnered with the powerful and somewhat adventurous Alys, who has quite the reputation for getting jobs done. The game opens with the pair of them sent to a university which has recently been suffering from an unexpected outbreak of wild monsters emanating from the cellars, tasked with eliminating them and finding a cause for the epidemic. Joined on this expedition by medical student Haun, what follows leads to a world-spanning series of events that sees Chaz clash with the religious figurehead Zio and takes on both fantasy and science fiction concepts. Unlike many games of the ear, which started with a slower introduction, this title throws the player straight into the fray and doesn’t let up until the end-credits roll, moving the story along at a fast pace that somehow also manages to have deep and complex events and characterisation. Chaz is joined by a variety of Human, alien and android companions who each stand out as wonderfully colourful in their own right, even if they don’t get a great deal of additional narrative once their motivations have been outlined and they join the party. Alys in particular is a strong example of a female lead that never serves as a damsel in distress and manages to drive the story forward in its early stages through sheer likability, making Chaz (who is largely a player stand-in) more interesting just by being his partner. There may not be any long, and drawn out dialogue sequences in the style of ‘Final Fantasy VII’s’ massive flashback sequence, but Phantasy Star IV has the strength to have a narrative conversation at a dungeons conclusion instead of an epic boss battle, and not leave the player feeling cheated.
Gameplay is fast. Very, very fast. Your party walks around the map at a good speed and in a similar manner to ‘Shining Force II’, shuffles around obstacles and walls in places to continue walking rather than stopping dead. Menus open quickly and are easy to peel through, even if pages of inventory quickly begin to stack up, and saving the game in one of three vacant slots (on in-cart memory) is shockingly fast, especially for those used to saving on newer consoles. Combat is quick too, with the transition to the battle screen happening almost immediately and player actions set in order before rattling off each round at speed. Each character has a basic attack, expanding lists of magic and personal skills as well as the option to use items, run and defend. Grinding takes a little longer than in most RPGs of the time, but due to the nature of battles and Alys’ ability to hit multiple targets at once, the period spent levelling feels lighter than time spent on other games of the period. Spells have limited and sometimes confusing screen names (Res is the name of your basic heal spell) and may demand some trial and error to learn what each new ability does, but lists are easy to find online. Each character levels in a manner that feels true to their personal narratives, and helps them fall into class-like roles, though they are never thrust upon you. Once you receive the Land Rover the travel speed on the map doubles, making the initial world map go from feeling huge to surprisingly small. The rover has its own combat, which is similarly quick but feels satisfyingly like using a piece of heavy machinery. Narrative sequences are well written and full of character, with illustrations to highlight all of the key moments and these too load fast and feel fresh. The game is the essence of playing quickly whilst also encouraging exploration and rewarding players who double back on themselves to learn more. Some areas have mini-quests given to you by the guild and capable of paying out large rewards, others contain sprawling paths that always end in treasure. Hunting Sand Worms (a nod to scifi classic Dune) is an end-game treat, even though its accessible from early in the story due to their massive HP and damage capability. The best thing that the game has to offer is its Macro system however. Taking a little time out to set Macos in the menu allows for quick-select move sets for the whole party, pre-arranging their actions and making ‘everyone attack’ a single button press. Better yet, mixing together the right special moves can trigger larger, combination strikes that rival Summons in terms of damage. Again, this all adds to the sense of streamlining and speed that permeates a surprisingly fun and deep gameplay experience.
Overall, Phantasy Star IV is an amazing title. It’s not as heavily plot driven as the best of ‘Final Fantasy’, but it’s got a deep series of systems, optional content, huge worlds to explore and a sense of fun to it that’s almost impossible to match. The science fiction setting still feels fresh after all this time and it’s a fitting climax to a series that pushed Sega’s boundaries in a time when all they were really famous for was a blue hedgehog. Original carts will run a fair price these days, but the game has been ported to the GBA, PS3, Xbox360 and Steam among others. It’s cheap and easy to get hold of, even if it looks like it won’t be appearing on the mobile scene any time soon. We strongly recommend that you play this game immediately!