Here is a list of things you will never do when playing Phantasy Star IV:
1. Watch painstakingly-rendered, gorgeous FMVs with cinematic production values and realisticly modeled characters.
2. Customize your party to fit your unique playstyle.
3. Contemplate your purpose in life and the inherent good or evil in all men.
4. Kiss a girl.
Forget about those things, you don't need all that shit. I swear, you gamers these days are so spoiled. With your purdy graphics and customization and sex-having.
Much has been written about the original Phantasy Star series in relation to other, more popular console RPG's of its time. As Sega's place in history as that "other"
hardware manufacturer that happened to be around in the 16-bit era becomes more cemented in gamers' collective memories, it seems like all there is to say has been said about their curiously-spelled, not-Shining Force flagship RPG series. It predated Final Fantasy in the West. It mixed swords and sorcery with lasers and spaceships. It killed off major female characters mid-game before it was cool to do so. It has a third entry to the series that people tend to gloss over.
At any rate, none of this had any bearing on a middle class suburban white adolescent Christian in 1994 who saw a magazine article on a game coming out for his beloved Genesis with "bug-eyed Speed Racer people" and thought it looked cool. And when I say I thought it looked cool, I mean I was stoked as hell for its eventual release. Not since Super Mario Bros. 3 had I anticipated a game so hotly. You've got to put yourself in mindset of the days before the internet was a thing to realize exactly what I mean when I tell you this. The only hype a game could have attached to it was through print media or word of mouth. Such as it was, magazines were my main source of gaming news, and the only one I had a regular subscription to at the time was Sega Visions. I'll give them this, they made upcoming games look good
. Sure, they had to be K-Mart Nintendo Power and shill every weak Acclaim offering that was paid for at the time, but some of their previews stuck with me enough to make me want to try out things like Gunstar Heroes and Shining Force 2, which I didn't get to experience until emulation came into existence. They even made me buy Streets of Rage 3, and after loving SoR2 and seeing how cool its sequel looked, how could I not want to squeeze out my allowance and plop that brick down into my Genny, straining as I bit my lip in anticipation of the splash that it would make in my gaming life, see, I'm making a poop joke son, try to keep up.
I had never seen anything like Phantasy Star IV at the time. It's a swords and magic fantasy game? You get a cyborg character? Hot elven chick? You travel to other planets? Look at those comic book panels! I've never seen a game with story presentation this good! That Jio guy looks like a bad motherfucker! Yeah, he was romanized as "Jio" in that preview. Chaz was also called Josh, despite being called Rudy in the Japanese release. In those days I wasn't too privvy to the inner workings of the video game industry, so things like localizations, imports, and Japanese-only releases never fully entered my comprehension until the 32-bit era rolled around. So when I saw the preview screens for PSIV, I wondered, how am I going to make sense of the game with all this Japanese text? Will I ever learn the measurements of Alys Brangwin, also known as the Eight-Stroke Warrior?
When Phantasy Star IV finally came into my possession, it far exceeded my expectations, which is no mean feat given how wild children's imaginations can run in anticipation of something. I was enamored with PSIV's atmosphere, wishing I could drive around in the desert in a big fucking tank and slay sandworms. I fretted over how I was going to ever beat Zio when I had to leave my Genesis behind for a family vacation to Florida for a week. Fuck Universal Studios, I have an epic adventure that needs a-doin'. I was floored when, on a lark, I tried the Use command on the Psycho Wand and realized that was how you have to neutralize Zio's Magic Barrier. Kuran and the Air Castle gave me nightmares. Mention "Anothergate" to me if you ever want to see me fall over backward and start foaming at the mouth. I literally plugged my ears and started yelling "LA LA LA I'M NOT LISTENING" when a friend tried to spoil parts of the game for me. I even did a second full playthrough simply because I somehow missed the Silver Soldier quest the first time around.
I've read people here and there on the internet wax nostalgic about Final Fantasy ___ or Chrono Trigger as their "coming of age" JRPG on more than one occassion. I never had a SNES. I had a Genesis. Phantasy Star IV was my Chrono Trigger.
I wouldn't change a thing about that statement.
Comparable PSO Class:
The cool, collected, intelligent, positive female role model and main character of Phantasy Star IV. It is prophesized that only she can wield the sword Elsydeon to vanquish evil once and for all.
Make no notice of the fact that Alys only appears in a few of the screenshots featured in this review. It's like a Sonic Adventure game, in that you only get to play as Sonic 4 or 5 times.
Comparable PSO Class:
Alys' teenage ward and partner within the Motavian Hunter's Guild. Initially portrayed as something of a whiny slacker, Chaz eventually comes into his own as a hunter to stand between the Algo star system and oblivion.
In combat, Chaz kind of falls into the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none category. He has a few powerful damage and healing techniques at his disposal, but his limited TP well keeps a harsh check on any plans you may have to use his techs in anyting besides a boss fight. He's a strong physical attacker, but can't quite measure up to, say, a Shifted Rika using Double Slash and the Silver Tusk against a dark type enemy (at least until he gets Elsydeon), and he lacks her increased agility and dex stats. However, Chaz has more potential to combo with other characters than probably anyone else, if you incorporate that sort of thing into your strategy. He's a true bro who will always be by your side.
Alright, he's the real main character of the game.
Comparable PSO Class:
I've read on one fansite or another that his last name is supposed to be Mahlay, but I've never seen any mention of it in-game (his endgame gear set doesn't count), so I don't believe it.
A researcher at Piata's academy, Hahn pesters Alys and Chaz into taking him along when Professor Holt disappears on a research expedition into Birth Valley, which seems to be the origin of Motavia's recent outbreak of bio-monsters. You could say that Hahn is the party's benefactor, in that Alys comically extorts money from him several times in the game's first act.
Hahn is the first "squishy" character to join your party. He doesn't have much in the way of defense or physical attacks, but he has a deep TP well and a decent arsenal of techniques to exploit in those early battles. The first few hours that he's in your party is the only time that Gelun (lowers enemy's physical attack) is a useful debuff, to be honest. Vision is also the only thing in the game, to my knowledge, that boosts dex, so there's that.
Comparable PSO Class:
A native Motavian, which is a race of disgusting bear/kitty/bird/Jawa things that live in tribal villages and distrust Parmanians. Gryz fled the destruction of his hometown Molcum with his sister Pana, and assists the party on their quest for some Phantasy Star I callback macguffin in hopes that they'll lead him to get revenge on Zio, who was responsible for the death of his parents.
Gryz has strong physical attacks and tank potential, and that's about it really. He has a self-targeting physical up skill that will leave Rika free to do other things for one round in a couple of boss fights, but no other useful skills outside of a single-target instant death to exploit. You can put him in the front of the party to act as a meat shield if you believe that ancient party line of monsters attacking characters in the front more frequently, but having played Phantasy Star IV about a dozen times, I'm not sure the Order command has any real reason to exist.
Comparable PSO Class:
A genetically engineered "newman" created by the supercomputer Seed, Rika joins the party after they determine that Zio is the cause of Motavia's climate abnormalities and biomonster outbreak. Initially depicted to be carefree and naive, Rika seems to be a step ahead of most when it comes to figuring things out, and acts as a counterpoint to Chaz and Rune's constant bickering. She only gets two or three moments to shine as a character, although that's not something I can hold against her, being one of only four characters who don't join your party for about five minutes and then promptly have to go off to do something else, and one other of those four is an emotionless android. Anyway, Rika's great.
In battle, she's easily your most indispensible character. Her high agility stat means she'll often act at the front of the turn. She has decent physical attack power, and a massive pool of Doubleslash charges. She has access to the invaluable Shift, Deban, and Saner buffs, and a full complement of healing techs. Two checks that keep her from being the most broken character in the game are the fact that her TP well is rather limited compared to your squishies, and many times she's your only hope for casting buffs in boss fights. It's important to consider the abilites of your rotating characters that can complement your buff strategy with Rika.
In my as-of-yet unoptioned Phantasy Star anime series, Rika is voiced by Cherami Leigh, a.k.a. Patty of Soul Eater fame.
Comparable PSO Class:
Demi's the first of two android characters you get, and on the surface she's a lot like her cyber penis-having counterpart. High defense, recharges health while walking through dungeons, gun-wielder, can't use techs, Barrier skill. She has a couple of things that set her apart from Wren; Stasisbeam can paralyze organic enemies (although you can substitute the Stun Shot weapon, which has the benefit of still doing damage if the status effect doesn't take), and Medic Power acts as a low level Sar that can res dead party members. But if you don't get the Phonomeser skill from the optional Plate System dungeon and level her up enough to gain a few charges, there's just not that much for Demi to do.
Comparable PSO Class:
FOmar when you first get him, FOnewm after he rejoins
This guy is about one thing: offensive magic, baby. He has a higher mental stat than anyone, which can be boosted even further through some judicious gear assignments (at the risk of lowering his already low def), a deep TP well, and an arsenal of offensive skills. His combo potential is as great as that of Chaz, and the two's Grandcross combo with a Shift'ed Chaz is probably the best go-to boss hurter for most strategies. It's unfortunate that all that TP never gets a chance to go towards healing or buffs, but it's funny to cast Seals on exactly three palette-swapped enemy variations in the game and watch them waste their turns trying to cast techs in vain.
Rune first appears as a mysterious stranger who seems to have a past with Alys, and takes every opportunity to get Chaz's goat. As the seriousness of the portents threatening Algo comes to light, it quickly becomes evident that Rune knows more about the situation than he initially lets on. Props for breaking the fourth wall.
Oh yeah, "HOW DOES HE KNOW CHAZ'S NAME WHEN NO ONE EVER SAID HIS NAME IN FRONT OF RUNE UP UNTIL THAT POINT" blah blah blah. It was a translation gaffe. He's not a mind reader. What I want to know is the explanation for how those guys at the Esper Mansion know who he is.
Comparable PSO Class:
Manager of the environmental support satellite Zelan and at one time Rika's mentor, Wren joins because those pesky demons are getting in the way of his programmed operations. His reaction to the Dark Force incarnation infecting the satellite Kuran is priceless: "Let us remove it." Other than that, his job is to tank and fly the spaceship.
My problem with Wren as a party member is that he becomes useless in boss fights really quick. After casting Barrier and the occasional Flare, he spends most of the battle using Recover on himself and maybe throwing out a healing item or two. He's invaluable for technology-based dungeons, of which there are four to tackle after he joins. He gets a couple of multi-target physical attack guns, and three optional skill upgrades, but after he uses up his Positron Bolt charges, he doesn't have much to contribute in the last couple of boss fights. You can't use Shift on him either.
Comparable PSO Class:
Shit, they sure love names that begin with R sounds, don't they?
Raja fits the archetype of "wacky old man that tells bad jokes." Yep. That's about all there is to him.
Oh, and he's the best character in the game. He has Rune's bottomless TP well, a full complement of healing techs, Blessing (skill-based Deban), and Ataraxia, which restores TP in battle and is easily the most broken skill ever. He also has St. Fire, which puts the hurt on dark-based enemies. Having said all that, I usually boot him from my party as soon as possible, so that Kyra can get all that delicious XP from Dezolis' optional dungeons.
Comparable PSO Class:
One of the Espers who was dispatched to aid the villagers in Meese suffering from the Black Energy Wave. Kyra is something of a tomboy; her impetuousness spurs her to go after the source of the Wave in the Garuberk Tower, causing our heroes to have to rescue her from the forest of carnivorous trees. She's also the world's Number 1 Lutz Fangirl.
Kyra's a good all-around character. Shes uses slashers, making her the only other character besides Alys and Wren with a multi-target physical attack. She has a good TP count, and though she sadly doesn't have access to the Sar family of healing techs, her high mind stat gives her Res techs an added boost. She also has Foi and Gra techs, the Deban-clone skill Warla, and the Medice skill, which comes with a lot of charges and is basically Gires on crack. She's a good complement to the party as a fifth character, somewhere between Raja's healing and Hahn's offense.
Comparable PSO Class:
That guy who drops mid quest
You meet Seth hanging around the entrance to the cave that leads to the Soldier's Temple, just waiting for a party of badass enough dudes to escort him inside. He has 0 Mind, a "Cybersuit" in a world where most everybody is about as technologically advanced as the iron age, and a bunch of skills that up to this point have only shown up in dark based enemies. Yep, he seems like a fine upstanding young man, I think he'll do. He kind of looks like Randy Marsh.
Evil wizard who's been going around burning villages, turning people to stone, starting cults, building fortresses on top of environmental control systems, and just generally being an all-around douche. He worships Dark Force and wants to eradicate all life in Algo. Who knows, his motivations, or even his methods, aren't super-duper clear. Maybe the Algo star system picked on him when he was a kid. He is a gorgeous hunk of man-meat, though.
As a boss, Zio is the toughest thing you've fought up to this point. He never has the good sense to re-up his Magic Barrier after you cancel it the first time, and you should have two rounds free to run buffs. You don't quite have the healing at your disposal yet to keep up with his target-all spells, but play it smart and he should fall without too much fuss.
You will never get near Zio - unless you defeat him.
Also FORCEFLASH FORCEFLASH FORCEFLASH FORCEFLASH FORCEFLASH FORCEFLAH FGLBASNDOVCQOIFNAVCVNKMVKJXNBA
Okay! Quick, un-researched history lesson time. Back around Phantasy Star I, King Lassic, er, Lashiec ruled Algol, I mean Algo, with an iron fist. Prior to the events of the game, he usurped control of the throne from Alis Landale's (unbeknownst to her) father and killed her brother, Nero. After getting a tank, DPS/healer, and a talking cat to join her party, Alis made her way to Lassic's Air Castle and wrecked his shit in a penultimate boss fight.
Anyway! After Chaz and the gang rescue Kyra from the forest of carnivorous trees, they learn that the Eclipse Torch, holy relic of the Dezolisans, is the only thing that can destroy the forest and allow them access to the Garuberk Tower. Naturally the church isn't too keen on loaning the torch out to a bunch of crackers and a robot, but then a triumvirate of wizards appears and steals the torch, taunting the party that an ancient adversary will await them in the Air Castle. Turns out Lashiec was resurrected by Dark Force and resides in the ruins of the Air Castle, preserved in the asteroid belt that used to be Palma. Parma. Parmesan.
tl;dr: And then Lashiec was a zombie.
In each Phantasy Star game, this ultimate evil must eventually be vanquished, but when he shows up three times in PSIV, one of which being after roughly the first third of the game, it becomes evident that a more ultimater evil is the cause of Algo's problems.
From This Day On, You Are a Full-Fledged Partner!
Phantasy Star IV's fun factor lies in how simplistic yet solid the combat is, while giving you just enough variety to keep it from getting boring. Encounters are random, and you issue commands and then watch your party and enemies take their turns, but any given battle can be tackled in a number of ways that can accomodate various strategies or situations regarding party resources. Elemental weaknesses apply here, although the game doesn't call attention to them in most cases, you can assume that a creature such as a Flame Newt or a Frostsaber is going to take increased damage from its opposite element. Most characters have access to instant-death attacks that may be a gamble to whether or not they'll connect, but it's all the more satisfying when Rune waves away a group of powerful wizards in a late-game dungeon with Negatis. Elements and status-effects carry over to weaponry as well, such as the Thunderclaw, which can also cast a single-target Tandle with the Use command, and is good for fuckin' up robots. And seeing the minions of darkness sent back to hell with an instant death from dual Genocyclaws or the ultimate sword Elsydeon never fails to put a smile on my face.
You have access to a few debuff spells, thought sadly you won't find much use for half of them. As many times as I've played the game, ask me what Rimpa, Doran, or Rimit do, I have no idea. I'm just as confused as you probably are, reading all these funny words with no explanation as to what they are! It basically follows that old party line of "debuffs are useless against bosses" in oldschool console RPGs, and your turns are better spent trying to make things die against regular enemies. Buffs, on the other hand, are vital to your success, and there's nothing like an ill-timed debuff or buff cancel to make you panic in a boss fight. So on the whole, the battle strategy isn't as sophisticated as, say, a Megaten game, but you've got myriad options beyond "hit shit" or "use fire."
There's a duality to the spell system that, while not exactly game-changing, is still kind of neat. Rather than choosing between all-encompassing MP ammunition for all a character's spells or a limited number of charges for each one a la DnD, Phantasy Star IV opts for both. For a couple of characters, this dual setup can affect the way you manage your resources during a dungeon slog or in preparations for a boss fight. Sure, Rika's techs are all buffs and healing, leaving her skills for attack, but do you want to have Chaz heal between battles some so that Rika will have more TP for the boss fight, or do you want to save his TP for his light-based techs? Do you want Kyra to use healing techs in the dungeon crawl and gimp her ability to damage the boss entirely, or do you want to save her Medice charges? The system gives you enough flexibility that any dungeon can be fairly beaten in one go if you know what you're doing, rather than relying on that old staple of playing up the boss, warping out, staying at the inn, and going straight for the boss again.
And thats the other big reason the combat manages to stay consistently fun; it's tough but fair. You can't just go through every random encounter mashing attack (well, unless you grind a lot), but at no point is the prospect of leaving town as daunting as it is in, say, Phantasy Star II. The encounter rate is consistently high, but your field sprites traverse dungeons at such a clip that walking into a dead end never feels like a fatal misstep. Some of the dungeons are ridiculously huge though, particularly the Air Castle and the Garuberk Tower, which storyline wise you have to tackle back to back. Even though there are no in-dungeon save points, they put healing circles in the Air Castle anyway, although on repeat runs, I didn't feel that they were particularly necessary.
Still, if combat tedium starts to get to you, you can always set up macros to move things along. Personally I like to maintain finer control over my party and destroy enemies as efficiently as possible, but macros are good for getting your buffs out of the way early in a boss fight, and they are invaluable for pulling off combos.
Phantasy Star IV's combo system doesn't work on the principle of selecting a single command when the conditions are met for a combo to become available, as in Chrono Trigger or Suikoden. Instead, you have to execute the individual commands in a particular order, much like Persona 2's fusions but without the hold time. Enemy actions can still interrupt a combo if the game's randomness deems that an enemy should act in between the comboing characters' turns. Unfortunately, thanks to the coding, this also means that a dead enemy that was slated to act in between a combo can also break it up. You can work around this some if you pay attention to your character's agility stats when setting up the macro, and always always always remember to use Saner. It sounds like a hassle, but it's worth it. Seeing a combo executed successfully is just so much fucking fun. The aren't all extremely useful, but you've got to love seeing Circuitbreaker make all machines in a battle cease to exist, or the extra pain that Paladin Blow or Grandcross bring.
The biggest criticism that can be levied against PSIV, at least as far as its story pertains to the gameplay, is its linearality. Progressing through the main game is a simple matter of reading the major cutscene dialog for its prompts of "go to this exact location and do this," and I can think of only one or two instances where you have to do any actual talk-to-the-correct-NPC work to trigger a major event flag. That, and half the time the way the world maps are set up, you prettymuch go to major waypoints in the way that the game dictates anyway. You can try to go to Molcum before it burns down or the Esper Mansion before you get Kyra, but all you get for trying to do this is "fuck off Parmanians" or "fuck off non-Espers."
Still, as mentioned before, there are number of optional dungeons to tackle, some of which you happen upon by exploring the world maps, others you are guided to through NPC prompts or by taking guild quests. There are a number of quests to take at the Hunter's Guild in Aiedo, which will open up to you at predetermined points in the game, usually when an event flag has been passed that allows you to travel to a new section of the Motavian world map, such as getting the Land Rover or the Hydrofoil for example. Some of these let your take on optional bosses, like an early-game sandworm battle or the King Rappy, some are silly little fetch quests or complete wastes of time (The Stain in Life), and one nets a particular character his best equipment in the game (The Silver Soldier). The Hunter's Guild carried over into PSO in the form of its offline quests, though such quest-dispensary is not uncommon for Diablo clones, the quest variety in that game is similar to PSIV's, spanning from semi-important optional backstory to Rappy genocide and cake-spelunking.
Look at This Luster, This Massiveness! What a Functionally Beautiful Design!
PSIV came out in the time leading up to the Genny's twilight years, well after Sega had struck their developing mojo with Sonic the Hedgehog and pushed the hardware past the dooldrums of watered-down arcade ports, but before they were trying to make the system look still-relevant in an industry slowly going toward polygons, and experimenting with prerendered sprites. Clearly developers on either side of the console war saw what Rare was doing with Donkey Kong Country and went "copy that!" but much of the Genesis' offerings in that graphical aesthete ended up looking like shiny puke. PSIV, however, was clearly designed by people who were comfortable with the hardware, on both the aural and visual sides of the coin. Compare PSIV to PSII, and you'd swear the latter looks like it could have been housed on the Master System. IV even looks light years ahead of III in a lot of aspects.
Environments in this game are incredibly detailed. Sure, the field sprites are minimalistic and towns can look a little samey, but the atmospheric touches such as the dinginess of the warehouse underneath Tonoe, the flashing lights and conveyor belts of any technology-based dungeon, the sprawling desert landscape as seen from the elevated walkways in Zio's Fort, the crystal wasteland of Rykros, or the grotesque organic architecture of the Garuberk tower keep the game from becoming boring to look at. Battle screen backgrounds follow similar aesthetics, and the Genesis' relatively limited color pallete give them a more realistic feel. The landscape shots for Motavian overworld encounters are especially beautiful, and they have a neat touch of changing slightly based on whether you get into an encounter on brush, sand, or near the ocean. This being an early area in the game, the designers see fit to wow you with little extra touches, though this high quality naturally doesn't carry through every battle screen. Generic caves and the like are characterized by bare stone walls and Dezolisan landscapes are pretty indistinguishable, but there are some immersive backgrounds to be found here, and a damn sight better than PSII's sprawling wireframe.
Combat sprites have been stepped up too. The perspective is PSII's familiar over-the-shoulder approach, and the detail level on your dudes has been increased, although with a similar range of animation for character actions. Essentially the same type of stuff that was seen in II, such as "raise arm to cast spell" or "strike with sword," but they get the job done. Where the sprites really shine, though, are the enemies. I'm probably going to catch some flak for ragging on Final Fantasy (I don't hate the series, but I've only ever completed V and VI), but when I did play Final Fantasy VI, my impression of the monsters was "Wow! Look at those huge, detailed sprites! Oh, they don't move. They just kind of flash when they attack." In Phantasy Star IV, everything, from the weakest popcorn enemy to the most horrific boss is pulsing with life. Biomonsters have pinching mandibles, Rappies rock back and forth, robots have blazing jet engines, Lashiec's cape flutters in the wind, Dark Force incarnations writhe with organic loathsomeness. Their attack animations are no slouch, either. Sorry Final Fantasy, I was spoiled on PSIV's excellent battle sprites. You sure looked good when you went 3D, though! Yes you did!
Phantasy Star IV's soundtrack is quite excellent as well. Don't even hand me that "good for Genesis music" chestnut, it's good
good, and no amount of SNES steel drums or Konami string stabs could possibly improve it. The windy desolation of the Motavian overworld, the emotional cutscene themes, atmosphere-building menace of the dungeons, the energetic battle themes, nearly every track placement here is incredibly fitting and rarely boring. Most of it is a bit more techno or rock oriented than its symphonic contemporaries, and it suits the game's fantasty/sci-fi motif. A few songs from PSI even make an appearance. Ooze
has got to be the greatest end boss theme ever featured in a JRPG, with the possible exception of this
. Or this
. There goes my SMT fanboyism dangling out again.
Oh, Him? He Was Just Arbitrarily Saying Stuff
Up until IV, the Phantasy Star series' focus on story, or at least, its integration with the gameplay, was perfunctory at best. You'd maybe get an inciting action here or there, a text box over the field sprites making a few basic motions, or maybe you'd have to read the manual for much of the backstory. Even with something like III, with its generational branching paths and shocking (at least for the characters) revelations of their world's origin, there was a disconnect between the imaginary trials of those little sprites and the player's care factor.
IV remedies this by putting more focus on the narrative than any previous game in the series. Nearly every plot point is accompanied by some lenghty cutscene with copious dialog, even if it's something as non-dramatic as getting a working spaceship or turning off that troublesome Plate System. Not content to let the field sprites convey the entirety of the action, the game opts for comic book panels with anime-style sprite art. This was another thing that PSIV spoiled me on, so that the Square offerings I later experienced seemed scanty by comparison. Just look at some of these screenshots and tell me this isn't some of the best narrative presentation in a 16-bit cartridge based RPG.
It's unfortunate, then, that with all this brave new storytelling power at the game's disposal, that the story itself is actually kind of basic. It's not horrible or even boring by any means, and it wraps up the Phantasy Star series rather nicely, but the narrative's progression usually amounts to, "Bad thing X happened, we gotta go to point Y and fix it. Well, we fixed that, but now bad thing Z poses even more of a threat." But I dare say that the added presentation muscle aids the weaker parts of the story in this regard, since it gives the preceedings character and makes you care about what's going to happen, depsite it being the usual fetch-quest or monster-of-the-hour runaround.
The core story is the basic archetype of a group of characters going about their normal business getting caught up in a plot by an ancient evil to destory all life, and realizing that they're the only ones who can stop it. The colorful-yet-revolving-door cast of characters has no lack of charm, but the only real constant is Chaz, giving him the only real potential for development. He fills the Luke Skywalker role, except they made Obi-Wan and Han Solo the same guy (Rune), and the character whose death provides the inciting action for his journey took more of a central role in his mentoring to become the eventual hero. And R2-D2 uploaded his AI into IG-88.
It's easy to write Chaz off as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, one-dimensional personality surrogate for the player, but I prefer to look at the game's plot as his coming-of-age story. Given his limited backstory, Chaz has always been out for himself, and even with the guidance of others his existence has been focused on practicality and survival. When his mentor is taken away, he comes to realize that with the power to do good, that power must be exercised for something other than personal gain (am I talking about Phantasy Star IV or Spider-Man?). His frustration is palpable, shouldering a responsibility that he initally wanted nothing to do with while being powerless to make any leadership decisions. Chaz's contribution to determining the party's course of action is to say, "Okay, let's go to ______!" after listening to Wren and Rune yammer on about storyline macguffins. He's much like the player in that regard, since the beaten path is always clearly indicated (there's even a "Talk" command in the menu if you need a reminder).
Yet Chaz's emergent sense of justice and willingness to protect his new friends anchor him as main character material. His regrets over the "pretty bad things" he did in his nebulous past cause him to display misgivings that he's fighting for the right reasons. He initially opposes Gryz's desire to go after Zio, but the two's motivations quickly align. Zio needs to be stopped and all, but what then? With no real ties left on Motavia, he continues the quest to get Algo back in order; recruiting Wren, purging the environmental control system of demonic influence, getting the Eclipse Torch back, eliminating the Black Energy Wave that afflicts Dezolis.
But his somewhat limited characterizaiton still glosses over the fact that he's just along for the ride, up until the revelation of Algo's origin on Rykros, when the party is told, "You are the main characters and you must attack the darkness." Chaz displays an all-too-human sense of incredulity and self-doubt at being charged with the sole responsibility of saving the star system by a disembodied voice. As he explains to his compatriots, his reason for continuing his quest was that he had no direction left in life after... uh... you know what? I've danced around it enough. Alys dies. She is an ex-hunter. She is no more. She has ceased to be. I swear, there should be a statute of limitations on this shit. Ehem.
Though the implicit moral lessons that Chaz learned from Alys (she was the staunchest proponent of getting Motavia's shit together, up until her death) cause him to realize that he must do good for good's sake, his misgivings with carrying out the task of saving Algo "because God told him to" come out in the lead-up to the culmination of his character arc,
as beautifully represented by the game's competant, yet sometimes "off" localization:
In my as-of-yet unoptioned Phantasy Star anime series, Chaz is voiced by xoxak, of PRO REVIEW fame.
I can't fault Phantasy Star IV for having a simplistic story. At 11 years old, this was all the epic narrative I needed. Like Star Wars, which is also awesome when you're 11, it's a simple story of good vs. evil where evil is evil for no other reason because they're dicks, and good has to wreck their shit because we don't want evil on our lawn, or something. At the time I was ignorant of the rest of the series and couldn't appreciate all the little callbacks (lol cake), but it has a fascinating world and memorable characters. What more do you want? Mike Patton voiceovers
"Rune, Do You Think It's Cute?" "Not Really."
Even after I moved on from the Genesis to PC gaming climes, I still came back to Phantasy Star IV. The internet unlocked the secrets of the combo attacks I had missed, Use command effects of certain weapons, and random apocrypha such as that Japanese commercial
or those early development screens from when it was supposed to be a Sega CD game with 3D dungeons (thank God it wasn't, or I'd probably never have played it). I never finished another RPG until I beat Chrono Trigger when I was in my early 20's. Eventually I checked out the other Phantasy Star games, and sunk countless hours into PSO and its handheld spinoffs. I can still pick up Phantasy Star IV and play it from time to time, and I never get tired of it. I still choke up during the ending, and whether it's due to Rika's decision, Rune's departure, or the realization that I'll never have this kind of emotional attachment to another game, I can't say.
I don't know if Phantasy Star IV is my favorite game ever, but it's definitely my favorite RPG. J or otherwise.