Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.
The “classic” Phantasy Star series has four games, each unique in their own way. The original is a hybrid JRPG/dungeon crawler whose main character is one of the earliest female protagonists in video game history. The second game was the closest thing to a “killer app” the Sega Genesis had until Sonic the Hedgehog. Now, it’s known as the quintessential “old-school” JRPG, with all that entails. The fourth game is the series’ masterpiece, regarded as one of the best JRPGs of its era, and one that holds up even today.
And then…there’s Phantasy Star III.
Subtitled Generations of Doom, Phantasy Star III is the series’s black sheep. Its reputation ranges from “An abomination” to “Pretty good for what it is, but not really a Phantasy Star game”. The game was developed and released a little over a year after Phantasy Star II, by a different team. And it shows.
One thousand years before the game’s events, there was a near-cataclysmic war. Before disappearing, Orakio and Laya, the two leaders in the war, gave their respective followers the same commandment: “Never harm another”. But the two factions utilize a loophole–the Orakians send cyborgs after the Layans, while the Layans command monsters to do their bidding. As the game begins, Rhys, an Orakian prince, is about to get married. Maia, his bride, is an amnesiac who washed up on the shores of Landen two months prior. But at the altar, Maia is kidnapped by a Layan, and your quest to get her back kicks the game off.
Phantasy Star III’s main “gimmick”, if you can call it that, is hinted at by its subtitle. At a certain point, you’ll be given a choice of two characters to marry. This will determine your character and quest for the next portion of the game; that character will also be given a choice of wife, for a total of four possible paths through the game.
The concept is neat, but the execution leaves something to be desired. As an example, in the path I chose, I was given the choice of two women to marry, neither of whom had exchanged so much as a romantic pleasantry with my character up to that point.
Indeed, Phantasy Star III is rife with “so close, yet so far” moments. Whether due to rushed development, or the limitations of the Genesis, you’ll be a lot of points where the developers’ ambition shows through despite the execution not living up to it. The first generation of the game goes for a political intrigue sort of storyline, as you learn that the Layans may not be the heartless monsters Orakians see them as–and that the Layans themselves have some interesting beliefs about Orakians. But the game’s translation limits the effectiveness. Similarly, poor word choice ruins what should be a poignant moment on at least one occasion.
Still, there are enough positive aspects to call the game “not as bad as its reputation”. So why is it regarded as the worst of the first four “main” Phantasy Stars, to the point that Sega effectively declared a do-over with Phantasy Star IV? Part of it is the game’s beginning, which feels more like a standard JRPG in the vein of Dragon Quest than a Phantasy Star game. The sci-fi elements that set Phantasy Star games apart from their brethren show up early enough, but I won’t lie, it took me four or five tries throughout the years to get to the “Now this is Phantasy Star!” point of the game. Even then, I only did so after forcing myself to stop thinking of the game as a Phantasy Star game, and just judge it as an independent creation. For that reason, the game might, paradoxically, work best as an entry to the Phantasy Star series, free of the expectation of what a Phantasy Star “should be”.
The game’s biggest flaw, though, is its random encounter rate. Even by old-school RPG standards, the number of random battles you’ll get into is ridiculous; I was ready for the experience to be over by the end of the second generation. The problem is aggravated by two other factors. First, like many old-school JRPGs, triggers to advance sometimes boil down to “find and talk to one random NPC hidden away in the corner of a village”, leading to more wandering about the world than is necessary. Secondly, for about 80% of the game, there’s no way to alleviate the encounter rate. Even Phantasy Star II had spells, teleportation stations, and items to remove some of the backtracking from place to place. Phantasy Star III has Escapipes, which return you to the entrance of the dungeon you’re currently in…and that’s it. This means a lot of walking, a lot of backtracking, and a lot of fighting enemies every five steps or so.
There are two silver linings to this. An individual battle is almost never a problem. Rather, the game employs a “death by thousand cuts” methodology to achieve its difficulty, bleeding out your resources via sheer number of encounters. And the dungeons are much simpler than Phantasy Star II’s infamous labyrinths, though you may wish to have maps handy regardless.
I have a soft spot in my heart for “ambitious failures”. Phantasy Star III is certainly ambitious. It’s also frustrating for how close it comes to being something great without quite getting there. Did I enjoy it? On balance, yes. Do I recommend it? That’s trickier. If you can handle random battles for days, give it a shot. Otherwise, since Sega themselves have all but disowned it, you aren’t missing much if you pass on it.