It may have had a no-fuss international release and been warmly received by mainstream gaming press at the time but Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium was never an easy title to get hold of, requiring Nineties Kimimi to do more than simply rush towards the nearest copy in a brick-and-mortar shop (specialist or otherwise) and remind weary parents that birthday/seasonal holidays were only eight months away – this elusive RPG required magazines left open on the relevant mail order pages somewhere adults would see them, a successful order involving an awkward mix of business-hour telephone calls and posted cheques. Fast forward twenty five years and I’m still not certain I’ve ever laid eyes on a physical cartridge from any region that wasn’t already my own – it’s no wonder this spectacular series-concluding RPG failed to really embed itself in the collective gaming consciousness the way a certain aria-performing, train-suplexing, SNES RPG did if copies were that uncommon even for those deliberately seeking it out. Thankfully those days are now long behind us and Sega have made a conscious effort to keep the series alive and accessible in the face of polite indifference: in fact Phantasy Star IV has been reissued in some way on most popular formats from the Saturn onwards, most often as part of a comprehensive (if now overly-familiar – please no more 2D Virtua Fighter 2, Sega) collection of Mega Drive games but it’s now also available for pennies on Steam and officially free (with adverts) on mobile phones – it’s never been easier to dive into one of the 16-bit generation’s greatest adventures than it is today.
But why would anyone want to start at the end of the series – at the end of the story? What about all of the clever references they’d miss and the series-long plot threads that would be left unexplained?
They don’t matter.
It’s true that Phantasy Star IV was designed to bring the series to a close, to gather together anything of even the slightest importance from the games that preceded it and present this gorgeous adventure as a sort of RPG encore – as arguably any good finale should. But this is also a game created long before the days of FOMO as a defined marketing tool, Cinematic Universes™, or even a guaranteed supply of the earlier games being referenced. There was no creative or financial gain to be had from catering only to the most dedicated phans: Most people would have had difficulty following the series from the Master System to the Mega Drive across four entries (not forgetting Phantasy Star II‘s Japan-only downloadable text adventures – only released in physical form on the Mega CD the year after Phantasy Star IV – or the “Adventure” and “Gaiden” games on the Game Gear) even if they wanted to, and there were no freshly reprinted collections of older titles to drive customers towards nor any expensive art books or tie-in merchandise to help them catch up. Phantasy Star IV’s references had to work on their own – and they do.
Dedicated cheerleaders of Alis, Nei, and even the Orakio/Laya conflict (both of us) will all find something to fondly reminisce over here but nobody, not even complete newcomers – as I was when I first picked up this game – will ever feel left out in the cold. Alshline is still a plot-critical magical petrification-reversing liquid even if you don’t know Myau used to have a bottle of it hanging around their neck. Zombies spewing vomit at passing heroes is still utterly disgusting even if you don’t notice the deliberate similarity to their original Phantasy Star animation. The reappeared Lashiec is clearly the lord of his impossible (too-long) Air Castle floating within the Algo system’s asteroid belt (once Palma), and whether his name hold any meaning to you or not he’s still extremely dangerous and the one flappy-cloaked thing standing between you and the stolen Eclipse Torch you need to save the people of Dezolis. All too obvious, maybe? Then let’s talk about the time Raja, ageing green-skinned Dezolian priest and soon to be party member, meets Rika, an adorable Numan with very long ears, for the first time:
Raja: A girl with horns, and a mechanical doll [in reference to the android Wren]
Rika: These are ears!
On the surface this is a mischievous old man trying to work out who – or what – the heck has just demolished his modest temple with their spaceship and then being corrected when he makes a mistake, but it’s also a cheeky wink in the direction of Phantasy Star II’s Western box art, which shows an otherwise skilfully painted Nei with horns instead of ears (If you were wondering: Yes, this reference is also present in the original Japanese script) – the important thing is the scene still works perfectly either way.
For all the loving nods to past glories and details from days gone by Phantasy Star IV weaves into its plot what it captures most successfully is the soul of Phantasy Star itself. The series has always taken great pride in doing things differently (in no small part due to Rieko Kodama’s incredible influence) and this final entry embraces this firmly-held belief with aplomb, swiftly whisking leading youth Chaz away from the expected rustic towns, inns, and creepy towers jutting out of the desert sands and into far more interesting – and far more Phantasy Star – territory, discovering hi-tech biomonster-breeding capsules in forgotten laboratories, sentient supercomputers, cheerful androids with long green hair and ancient vehicles stored within reactivated underground facilities.
As with previous titles the enthusiastic meshing of science fiction with fantasy leads to some unusual lore-related gameplay quirks (which have sadly been sanded smooth in more recent entries): In battle androids aren’t just humans with gigantic wired-up guns but an entirely separate class with their own rules, unable to be healed with magical spells or cast any supernatural techniques of their own. Instead they have to rely on specific skills and copious quantities of shop-bought restorative items to support their teammates or repair themselves (they’re the only characters capable of automatically regenerating HP out of battle too) – it’s an engaging little almost-problem to have to keep in mind, another unique string to Phantasy Star’s already full bow.
The personalities of your metallic party members have also been blessed by the same fresh look at what could have otherwise ended up being very typical RPG fare: Androids, especially ones destined to live alone for centuries or longer at a time with nothing but tasks civilisation as a whole has forgotten were ever necessary to perform to keep them busy, tend to be either overly literal Data-likes or barely functioning wrecks mindlessly repeating an ancient routine. Not in Phantasy Star IV. Here Wren, the enormous metal man in charge of the Zelan satellite, greets complete strangers with a gentle smile and is keen to put things in the Algo system right without ever so much of a mention of any contradictory rules imprinted on him millennia ago or concerns about his programming clashing with this unforeseen adventure. He’s a person. One fabricated in ages past for sure, but he’s never anything less than a steadfast friend who is more aware and considerate of the emotions of those around him than his quiet demeanour and robotic form may suggest.
Nobody is “RPG normal” in this game: Your “glass cannon” magic user’s a man. The big axe-wielding alien powerhouse is a really sweet youth who openly cries with joy when the evil sorcerer Zio’s defeated – and then leaves the group to take care of his little sister, leading teen Chaz responding with nothing but understanding and support. Raja, the priest with an excellent range of healing spells, is a lively old man well known to the local drinking establishment. The women in your group can be accurately summarised as “close-range claw using bioengineered Numan”, “tries to kill an entire forest of demonic trees by herself”, “tiny android with a massive gun in charge of Motavia” and “legendary Hunter”. Every last one of them refuses to fit in the genre boxes expected of them – pink-haired love interest Rika does not ever fawn over Chaz, and in turn he never treats her as anything less than a true equal – but more than being written different for different’s sake what’s especially exciting is seeing the cast behave as surprising, emotional, and independent individuals within the story itself. Hahn is portrayed as everything from a timid tag-along to a loved-up fiancé to a reliable researcher during the game – and all of these descriptions are true, because all of those descriptions are of Hahn. The Rune that considers winding Chaz up to be his favourite sport is the same Rune who is adored by Kyra as the all-knowing Lutz from afar and shares an unspoken past with Alys. Alys may think nothing of punching a village elder in the face or intimidating a client in her quest for answers but she’s also keen to make sure Chaz understands the events that are unfolding around him, and when Zio appears she doesn’t rush in for the kill but instead asks questions and then waits for him to give a reply – not that it does her much good…
Alys Brangwin, Chaz’s mentor and the closest person his orphaned self has to family, protects him from Zio’s sudden “Black Wave” attack – essentially a burst of pure evil. Our brave band of heroes don’t swell with courage before taking him down there and then, they panic and retreat to safety, Alys left gravely wounded in a bed.
She dies from her injuries not long afterwards. I’d never seen RPG heroes die.
I’d never seen RPG heroes mourn.
There is no dialogue during her funeral – what could anyone possibly say? – but the small images shown tell you more about the sombre mood of the event than you could ever want to know. For a genre that traditionally thrives on words it’s remarkable to think the development team were brave enough to not use any at all at such a crucial moment, forcing players to helplessly watch in silence alongside the cast – and then before the tears have dried the gang’s off again, hoping to finish an already dangerous task with one less person by their side.
Phantasy Star IV’s packed with emotional scenes that stay with you long after Algo’s been saved forever and the sound test’s been unlocked, although if you took the trouble to time them you’d soon realise they’re all over in mere minutes at the most. But this is part of the reason why they have such an impact – you’re never given the time to dwell on anything, never given the space to neatly deal with one situation and then move on to the next, not when there’s a whole Algo system’s worth of adventure to pack in, a series to finish off, and an entire genre to subvert along the way.
The biggest rug-pull is saved for what in any other tale would’ve been the final rallying cry before the final boss, the time when other games would make sure it’s leading hero was at their most powerful and assured. There comes a point in Phantasy Star IV where the party have proven themselves more than worthy of being dubbed Protectors of Algo and are ready to set off and destroy the Profound Darkness once and for all after having listened to Le Roof, an intelligence created to dump exposition on bands of chosen heroes every one thousand years (that’s not quite as facetious a description as it should be), talk about light and dark and destiny for a very long time.
We are most definitely the good guys – the disembodied voice said so – and therefore we should fight the bad guys. Off you go, says Le Roof. Go and do your predetermined heroic deed and give yourself a pat on the back when you’re done.
Chaz is not like other RPG heroes. Chaz is furious.
And as with every other swerve woven so expertly into this story there’s a good reason for this that goes way beyond “Because we’re doing things differently from other RPGs for the sake of it”: Aeons ago “The Great Light” – more accurately described as “The one who won the fight” banished the loser – named by the rather biased narrator as “The Profound Darkness” – to another dimension, created Algo and all its people to keep The Profound Darkness in place, and then knowingly abandoned every living being it had deliberately put in harm’s way while also leaving Le Roof hanging around on a secret planet to tell people they had to risk life and limb in somebody else’s fight if they didn’t want everyone to die. Based on that explosive information alone Chaz’s reaction would be understandable enough but you can really see how much wiser this teenager’s grown over such a short period of time when he rightfully points out that blindly obeying The Great Light would make him no different to Zio – Alys’ killer – following the will of The Profound Darkness. The names have changed, but they’re ultimately just capable pawns in a much bigger game. It’s only after a heart-to-heart with Rune of all people and a mystical chat with the spirit of Alis Landale herself that… Ah. Again, Phantasy Star IV is going to march to its own beat as it brings the plot back around to the climactic final battle. The conclusion Chaz and his friends reach isn’t “The Great Light was right after all, sorry for getting storming off like that”, but that defeating The Profound Darkness needs to be done for their own sakes because it protects the people of Algo, because their victory will free them all forever from the evil of the past – and of their unwilling obligation to The Great Light as well.
It’s a worthy send-off for the charming interplanetary team players inevitably fall in love with along the way, all the heroes that came before them – and for Phantasy Star as we knew it. The touching goodbyes that follow their victory is felt by us just as strongly as it is by them: Algo’s free – really free – and in that moment we realise our work here is done, forever.
We fought so hard for a future we, the players, will never get to see.
“From person to person…
From age to age…
As long as memories last…”