Phantasy Star III is often viewed as the black sheep of the series, and it’s a fair standpoint. In terms of world setting, gameplay and characterisation there’s a definite disconnect from the other titles in the series and many of the further-reaching or impactful elements are tied in retrospectively by the games successor instead of directly in the game at hand. Still, does that necessarily make it a bad game?
Developed by a completely different team to the first two (and last) installments in the Phantasy Star series, there are some interestingly handled ideas of a Mega Drive generation RPG on display in this title, however the game does struggle to create a strong identity of its own. It’s generational gimmick is similar to that of ‘Dragon Quest V’ (which released 2 years later) and the more recent ‘Agarest’ series, and adds a very distinct feel to the over-arching game.
Graphically, there is a sense of emptiness to Phantasy Star III. This is personified in both a literal and inspirational sense through a mixture of bland designs that ape (mostly) a typical brown hue medieval fantasy setting and in the general lack of furniture, NPCs and interesting content. Rooms are empty of all but the most Spartan objects, with shops having counters but no wares, and come houses having no furniture bar a single chair in the middle of a room. Monsters are also uninspired and fall sharply into the basic tropes of the genre, with an early monster resembling a Chocobo chick. It’s hardly pushing out the boat for interesting design and it leaves the impression that the game was half-heartedly illustrated. The menus are well formatted, and clear to read, relying on a card-based theme and opening on their own screen rather than over the action as is usual for the series. It’s largely an uninteresting and bland visual package.
Conversely, in terms of audio design there’s a very inventive system in place here that alters the depth and elements of the background music to match the amount of characters in the party at any time. This means that as the game progressed the music become deeper and more intricate, building on the existing tunes in interesting ways. It’s a clever system that rewards those who play longer and keeps things interesting, although it can make some of the initial periods of single-character play a little dull to listen to.
The premise of Phantasy Star III is initially simple and a little cliché. Players take on the role of Rhys, Crown Prince of Orakian on the eve of his wedding to Maia, a mysterious amnesiac who washed up on the shores of Landen a few months prior and to whom you have become attached. As the proceedings begin however a demon (identifying as a ‘Layan’) swoops in and whisks Maia away, escalating an ancient conflict between the two kingdoms. Rhys initially attempts to field the royal army and wage war, but his father heads off this conflict by imprisoning him until his temper has settled and ensuring that no rash actions are made that would be regretted later. Rhys escapes with the help of a serving girl however, and sets about rescuing his bride to be. The game starts out extremely rote and with little by way of flavour text to flesh out the world and characters, but slowly crafts a tale of mutual aggression, cultural prejudice and the unexpected nature of this ‘fantasy’ realm. The game does have a couple of late twists to call upon in order to keep things moving (one of which ties it better into the series but we won’t spoil it here) and the quest eventually exceeds Rhys’ generation and into that of his son’s and beyond. It’s the definition of a slow burn story, which at times feels at odds with the lightning fast nature of past instalments for bouncing between plot beats.
Gameplay sees the player controlling in classical JRPG style, with a dedicated button for confirmation, cancelling and summoning the menu. The overhead perspective here is closer to the action than it has been previously, allowing for more details and larger sprites, but the movement speed is so very slow that exploration quickly becomes about finding the quickest routes through a location rather than mapping every corner. There are also a few glitches in the game that can trip up players on the original cart, such as inns failing to always heal the player but charging the money. Battles are strictly traditional turn based affairs in every sense, with an icon based interface and a reduced emphasis on flashy techniques. It does however add a handy auto-battle button for grinding. The defining trait for the game is in its generational system, split across three generations, where marrying and producing the next playable character in line affects the gameplay and their abilities based on who you choose to marry. Working like an inverted pyramid on paper (starting with a pre-set choice of character and doubling every generation), options open up for potential character mixes as you play deeper into the game. The final character chosen will greatly affect the final act of the game, encouraging replay value. Unfortunately it’s not a wonderfully balanced title, and grinding can quickly become reloading the last save file as early monsters deal more damage than they give experience or money.
Overall, the title is worth playing as a part of the greater whole for the Phantasy Star series, and does manage to include some great ideas and plot twists for its time of release, but there is a distinct change of flavour for this game that is felt throughout. It’s a slow and grindy experience that is unrewarding in the opening hours and can at times feel padded throughout, with a sparse world to explore in terms of visual design. Rhys in particular feels like a cardboard cut-out of a hero, but as you play deeper into title the options to make your own and inject personality through your choices do increase. As Mega Drive RPGs go it’s a lower point than players would expect from a premium series (not ‘Sword of Vermillion’ low, but certainly not in the same league as Shining Force or other Phantasy Star games) but it’s not as horrible as its reputation would have you believe.