Phantasy Star II is the second entry into the acclaimed Phantasy Star series from Sega, but it chooses to do a lot of things quite differently from its predecessor. Today it’s largly remembered for being the series’ first entry onto the Mega Drive and for its convoluted dungeon designs, but how does it hold up in this modern era?
Last year we reviewed series highlight Phantasy Star IV for JRPG July, and it only felt right to continue the trend by tucking into Phantasy Star II this year, especially in light of Sega’s new ‘Sega Forever’ foray into bringing classic titles back to mobile. Originally the game was designed around the capabilities of the Master System before being revamped into a Mega Drive launch title at short notice, and this does show in some respects, but the size and scope of Sega’s first sequel can’t be denied.
Graphically, the most startling change is the shift in dungeons from the first person perspective to an overhead third-person view of the team. Whilst the original Phantasy Star game did employ these viewpoint when exploring outside of dungeons, it is now the sole view that the game uses, and whilst lacking in flourish it does work in the games favour by allowing for larger, more expansive areas. A manga-style is used throughout to portray the characters, with illustrated cutscenes at the game’s opening, closing and peppered throughout to good dramatic effect. Unlike any of the games contemporary RPGs however, sprites are largely proportionate and effort has been made to take the science-fiction setting semi-seriously. Whilst not employing the full potential of the Mega Drive, the game clearly benefits from the added console’s power for attack animations and enemy sprites in battle, though the lack of battle backgrounds does feel like a misstep on the part of the designers.
In terms of music, there are a number of quality pieces that are used. The title screen employs a slower than average opening theme that sets a serious tone, though this does later give way to upbeat fair more usually associated with games of the period. It’s a solid soundtrack that has memorable elements but does rely heavily on synth drum beats and can grate as some of the more pacey tracks emerge. Sound effects sadly have not aged well, sounding very synthetic as a series of beeps and tones that can seem extremely odd when coming from organic enemies. Elements of the menu system sound appropriate however, and the battle theme serves to drive the pace of the battles forward.
Taking place considerably after the events of the original Phantasy Star (1000 years in fact), we open with our hero, Rolf experiencing a vivid dream in which the climatic final battle of that game plays out. Waking, we are introduced to the Algol Star System and the world of Mota. Here the eco system is controlled by a sentient AI known as the ‘Mother Brain’ and life is idyllic, though a recent increase in monsters prompts the government to assign you to investigate. Accompanied by synthetic humanoid woman, Nei, you set out to uncover the truth. The game sets up these ideas in quick order and proceeds to drive the plot quite quickly from there on out, escalating events accordingly as you proceed. It’s not badly written, though there are sizable gaps in the story that the player must work around (and which were later filled by text-adventure titles), especially when dealing with character motivations for the party outside of the initial pair. This said the game does manage to produce a good mid-point twist to the story and an ending that arguably left the strongest impression of its era, not being truly resolved until the release of Phantasy Star IV years later. With most rival RPGs at the time featuring mild or almost non-existant story elements in comparison this was a very big deal and showcases how the series helped break genre molds.
Gameplay sees standard JRPG exploration from the third-person, top-down perspective. The game uses a streamlined style that makes for very fast play, especially in battles, but this is counter balanced by some exceedingly long dungeons that show a hap-hazard approach to design (legend tells of how a green member of the office designed them and the team included them all to spare his feelings) and a tight focus on having to grind to continue. It’s not game breaking, and those who enjoy exploration without a guide will find much to dig out of these locations, but it can be tedious and works against the overall streamlined RPG design. Menus are effective but cumbersome to navigate at first, and the names for special attacks will take some getting to know before you can use them reliably. The battle system is turn based and well managed, with player characters falling into distinct roles within the group that forces the player to switch up his/her tactics to get the most out of any grouping.
Overall, this is a title well worth your time to seek out and play. Sega has made it exceedingly easy to get your hands on over the last few years, with a PS2 remake and inclusion of the original on almost every platform as part of every compilation they have produced since. Currently the newest release if for mobile as part of the Sega Forever line, replacing the somewhat shoddy emulated version originally available on the platform but bringing with it its own set of problems. Luckily those who purchased the first time can unlock the game free of charge, otherwise it requires constant online presence and throws up regular adverts (though is free to play). The best experience is found on consoles, with a controller. If you’re unable to track this one down for the Mega Drive, we advise the PlayStation 3 edition included in their Mega Drive bundle (which conveniently comes with the rest of the original series too). It’s a game that every RPG loving gamer should play to see where our staples of the genre came from.