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Phantasy Star II (Genesis) artwork

Phantasy Star II (Genesis) review

"'80s video game brutality, console RPG-style."

Phantasy Star II is a rebel. It plays by its own rules, and it doesn't care if you survive its onslaught of vicious foes or winding mazes. It'll look you in the eyes as you complain and say, "Tough break, kid." It thrusts you into its forbidding world with the primary objective of finding the Biosystem Lab. So off you go, believing you'll mosey over to the place, give the local wildlife a good thrashing and move on to the next point in the quest line.

However, the game doesn't offer all of your mission's details up front. You don't automatically know that in order to reach the lab, you'll need to explore some other dungeon, find a key, unlock chests to obtain dynamite, travel to another facility, blow the door open, recruit some girl and lead her to a homicidal maniac. With those plot points complete, you'll finally gain access to region where your first objective lies.

Along the way, you'll get pulverized by all kinds of mutations created by a glitchy machine. You don't start this quest chopping up pathetic slimes or rats, but battle massive mosquitoes, killer toads and dinosaur-sized mantises. You'll need to cut through tons of these guys, too, because it's the only way to gain the necessary dollars and experience to improve your party.

Of course, that's assuming you hammer out the kinks in the equipment system. When you browse new weapons and armor, the game neither offers up stat information nor tells you who can use which device. If you're green like I was, you'll probably look up some item charts online and buy the most powerful weapons your characters can use, perhaps with a shield. You may not realize that each weapon class handles damage differently, that attack power doesn't always equate greater damage output, or that you're better off dual-wielding single-handed arms early on and foregoing shields for a while.

On top of that, you receive a third party member almost right away and may not even realize it. The game doesn't bother to tell you that if you go back to your house after a certain point, a dude named Rudo will be waiting for you there. Who would have thought to randomly go home during their journey, because they might find some ass-kicking, gun-slinging tank waiting for them there?

Hell, unless you've done your research and you know a thing or two about old school RPGs, your run with this adventure is likely to end as about as well as my first attempt at it. I wandered the region for ages, ill-equipping my allies, leaving Rudo in the dust and watching my duo get slaughtered. I eventually found the first dungeon and didn't even live long enough to snatch the aforementioned key. I wrote Phantasy Star II off as a fossil and never went back to it.

But it kept taunting me, beckoning me to place its name on my backlog spreadsheet again. After picking up a Sega compilation, that's what happened. As you might've guessed, my findings and opinions shifted during that final replay...

The game doesn't spoon feed you the quest line. You figure out where you need to go by talking to townsfolk and jotting down the intel they give you. Modern RPGs have moved away from such clue gathering, and it's kind of a shame. A system like this makes for an engaging campaign, filled with NPCs who are more than flavor text dispensers. The game leaves progression in your hands, and forces you to rely on your wits to advance. One destination lies in the middle of a lake, but a wall around the water prevents you from entering it. Conversations with locals tell you that a tunnel in the sea connects to the lake, and that the lake's water is a different color from the ocean's. Putting the pieces together, you might realize that you need to obtain a vessel and look for an oddly colored patch just off the main continent's shoreline.

Combat is tough, but it's nothing your standard grinding can't handle. Once you get to know how your allies function, you can suit them with the most befitting equipment available and beef them up to survive the game's two harsh worlds. Rather than emphasizing high strategy, battles are more about how you manage your troops. You can go for maximum damage, but you also need to account for healing. Adding a healer to your crew, though, might not allow you to kill things as quickly and lead to longer grinding sessions. The truth is there is no perfect configuration, especially when you consider that people have beaten this game using only the protagonist, Rolf. All you need to do is fine tune your party to your tastes and figure out how to make it work.

This game isn't out to beat you to a bloody pulp with any one enemy squad. Rather, it wears you down little by little, forcing you to exhaust your resources before reducing you to a pile of corpses. It partly accomplishes this through its skillfully designed overworlds, where there is no straight shot from one town to another. You have to amble impassible forests, or look for crossing points around rivers and swing around other obstacles. Though one town might be ten miles away as the crow flies, you could be looking at a thirty mile hike. The situation gets even worse when you reach the second planet, Dezo, where you need to crawl through a convoluted, multi-floor dungeon to travel from one burg to another. All the while, mutants, robots and aliens wear you down and sap your resources. Thankfully, each town has a teleporter that allows you to travel to any previously visited city.

Just when you think you've got a handle on things, you creep into a new dungeon and understand your party's limitations. You traipse down one hallway and find multiple branches, with two of them taking you to dead ends. Another leads to a chest with some merchant fodder, and the final one takes you to a new weapon and another branch. You'll rip your hair out as you crawl past winding passages filled with fire or enter a temple dotted with pits, struggling to remember where you've been and where particular pathways lead. Meanwhile, new enemies rip you to shreds with each step you take, including massive dragons and mobile fortresses.

You know what's most impressive about these stages? It doesn't matter if you grab a map or chat with friends or get through them the old fashion way. Whichever route you take, you still feel absorbed in each dungeon, engaged in figuring out how to get through its challenges. You still need to use your brain while peeking at maps generated by numerous players and FAQ writers, and you still feel like you're involved in deeper problem solving. Bear in mind that this game came out in 1989, and yet its designer managed to craft levels that are challenging and awesome even if you take the modern spoiler route.

Look, I'm not going to pretend that Phantasy Star II plays exactly like a contemporary RPG. It doesn't. It bleeds old school sensibilities, and yet it it still manages to mostly hold up. Yeah, its menu system is annoying, and one of its dungeons is a plain maze of caves with nondescript scenery, but everything else this title offers remains engaging, challenging and clever. This piece plays by its own rules, and it doesn't care if its design is unconventional, inconvenient or a little dated. By all accounts, it should've aged poorly. Instead, it looked time in the eyes and said, "Tough break, kid."


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Featured community review by JoeTheDestroyer (May 07, 2019)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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CptRetroBlue posted May 08, 2019:

Nowadays RPGs hand you everything on a silver platter. Those wussy whippernaspers have it easy :p
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overdrive posted May 10, 2019:

Other than the whole "play it through to the end" thing, I have kind of the same relationship with this game. I tried it once and gave up shortly after going through Mr. Crazy Guy's tunnel early on. I tried it again and was making good progress (in Climitrol or whatever it's called), but the computer I was using stopped working. I currently own it on Sonic's Ultimate Genesis collection, but haven't started it and, man, with these more grueling games, if I'm making progress and something beyond my control cuts that short, it gets really questionable whether I'll ever start it up again.

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