Sunday, April 26, 2009

Phantasy Star (1988) (Sega Master System)

I’ve decided to play a retro science fiction-fantasy game in contrast to the somewhat newer games I have played on my trusty PlayStation 2. I’ve chosen “Phantasy Star”, a role-playing game made in the late eighties exclusively for SEGA. Because I am playing this game on an emulator, I can post screens of my game to show you something of the game I am discussing, and hopefully some in-game screens can help give you a better idea of what the game is like. Or to help pretty this review up. Either way, I hope the pictures are appreciated.

The story of “Phantasy Star” is quite simple. In the opening scenes, Alis’ brother has died, and she swears revenge against the person responsible – Lassic. Apart from killing your brother, which is enough to make him a villain in any RPG, it also seems that Lassic is also an evil overlord of sorts. So you are justified in setting out to kill him, then. Obviously there are a few things that need to be done before this encounter occurs, otherwise there wouldn’t be a game to play, and this review would have already ended. Alis starts with merely a goal of revenge and a sht. sword (apparently stands for short), and needs to build herself up to take on a variety of obstacles leading up to the showdown. She enlists the help of several allies, needs to do a bunch of quests to get items, fight lots of monsters over three different worlds (forest, desert, and water) to level up and purchase special items, and do a lot of dungeon crawling, in time-old RPG fashion.
“Phantasy Star” is a strange hybrid universe of science fiction and fantasy. You have rocket ships, robots, mad scientists, ruined laboratories, all of which you encounter over three different planets in the late twenty-fourth century. The opponents you fight, and the skills you use to battle comes straight from more traditional fantasy – there are undead people, werewolves, dragons (there are always dragons in role-playing games), talking spiders and so forth, and you cast a variety of magical spells - fire, wind, cure, and so forth. It’s an odd mix, quite formulaic and doesn't always work.

The graphics are something of a mixed bag. The maps in which you traverse are decent enough, but there have been a lot of better efforts since. The maps are somewhat repetitive in the tiles they use, they are somewhat sparse, simple, and lack some of the graphical tricks used in later 2D RPG’s. The sprites don’t look great, and there is little variety in their appearance. Compared to the efforts of, for example, early Final Fantasy games and the like, the maps look somewhat ugly. Yes, they do the job, but there’s little artistry here.

The game is not entirely bad in regards to graphics – far from it actually. The game uses quite a lot of pictures, and quite a lot of effort has went in here. Speak to an NPC (a non-playable character), you get a picture of the NPC and an appropriate background. You go to battle, you get a monster on a background. The monsters are animated, which does look nice – monsters snap at you, winged creatures flap and so forth. Talking to a new character or reaching a major in-game achievement unlocks a cut-scene of sorts. Well, a montage of pictures and text, but it still looks nice. None of this is going to be serious competition against more modern games of any sort, but I have a fondness for 2D art in games, and what’s here is quite good.

But graphics are one of the least important aspects of a game. Far more important is the gameplay, and it’s quite decent, and still worth playing today if you are a fan of role-playing games. The exploration element of this RPG works quite well – here’s an objective, figure out what to do, complete the task, and learn a bit more about the story, the characters, the in-game world, and get another objective in the process. Or you can just have fun. The game can be occasionally be somewhat opaque on how you go about your objectives, and you will find yourself having to talk to people you have already talked to previously, to find that one hint that will clear up your confusion on what you need to do. If you leave the game for a few days, you’re also going to forget exactly what it is you have to do, and spend some time figuring this out. This is never an insurmountable problem, though, but would have been appreciated had the conversations been made somewhat clearer, more people doled these important hints out, or even if there were a menu screen to show your objective/s.
You’ll also have to do a lot of dungeon-crawling in “Phantasy Star”, and this is one of the better games of this example. Dungeon-crawling is where you navigate through one enclosed area within a world map, searching for treasure, a quest objective, or both, all while fighting monsters. The dungeons are done in a fake 3D style, which I’ve only ever seen in this game. No maps, only a sense of direction and inquisitiveness to find the exit, treasure and objectives. Unlike most 2D RPG’s where you look down as the omniprescent player, this will requires some thought to figure out. This is even more notable for the inclusion of the 2D pictures they use for enemies –no separate screens for battling enemies at all when navigating in a dungeon. Compared to the normal map-style dungeon that is normally given in 2D RPG’s, it’s a dramatic improvement - I wonder why it didn’t catch on, as it makes the game quite distinctive.

Navigating the world maps, or the myriad of dungeons, inevitably results in battles against monsters. Battling is simple but decent enough – your characters get a variety of weapons to equip, and several can use a variety of spells of varying uses – heal yourself, hurl magic at enemies, or do a variety of odd things in and out of battle. You can even talk to enemies, which can save you from fighting. I quite like this compared to the “attack anything that moves” that is so prevalent in nearly every single other RPG. The start of the game can be quite ruthless and unforgiving in the battles you fight, and the later areas are paced well – difficult but not insurmountable – and you can lose a character or two if you aren’t diligent in keeping your characters’ health up.
However, there are some problems with battling monsters, which become quite apparent when so much of the game is spent here. Firstly, whether you battle one, two or eight enemies, opponents will appear as a single enemy sprite, and you can’t choose which monster to aim at when fighting. It’s fine when you battle one monster, but doesn’t work well when you have to take on multiple enemies. This can be alleviated somewhat by using spells or weapons that target multiple monsters, but it makes battling groups of monsters more difficult than it needs to be. I also don’t like how variable the damage dealt is, both for monsters and your characters – sometimes characters do thirty or forty damage to an enemy, and then can’t manage five damage to that same enemy in another turn. It’s quite a difference when a tough enemy might have two hundred health.

Levelling up is an extremely simple affair – killing monsters nets you money and experience, the money goes towards kitting your party and purchasing necessary items, while experience goes towards levelling up your character. Easy enough to get understand, but there is not much depth here. I prefer something more complex, such as having to learn skills or abilities.

There are some minor things that I miss that I have gotten used to from later 2D RPG’s. You can’t sort your items. Information isn’t readily accessible for my liking – you need to visit a church to find out how much experience you need before you reach the next level, for example, and skills and items have no description, so you will be using trial-and-error to figure out their exact use. There are other niggles of a similar vein, but these are only readily apparent when you compare the game to other games of a similar nature – few of these ruin the game in of itself, but do detract from the experience slightly. And it does add up over time.

So, my impressions of the game are quite mixed. In some regards, it is quite behind later games of a similar nature. It doesn’t have the finesse and all of the features that have come to be expected of later RPG’s. Levelling is rigid and overly simplistic, you can’t sort items, there is simply not enough information shown in the game for my liking. I have other complaints, but they are of a minor nature and the game works well enough without the features, even if they might have made it slightly easier and more user-friendly.

On the other hand, the underground mazes are quite interesting, the explorative gameplay is quite good, and the plethora of 2D pictures in the game and in the battle system are quite pretty. Yes, it seems odd to praise the graphics in such an old game when games on new consoles are so detailed that they show the individual pores on someone’s face, but there’s an aesthetic pleasure that I derive from bright and colourful 2D graphics that I do not get from highly realistic, sombre 3D graphics.

It’s a challenging game, of a decent length – I’ve currently completed approximately twenty-five hours or so (it’s hard to tell without an in-game clock) and I’m still at work. There are also a huge variety of things to do and items to collect – outfitting your party with the best equipment will take some time. I found it interesting, and I quite enjoyed it overall, but it’s probably not an RPG I would introduce new-comers to, because there are better examples out there, both 2D and 3D. I would have to give it a 3/5.