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Ruminations on Phantasy Star III

Posted by AverageSoftware, 17 April 2017 · 403 views

There are few games that had as large of an impact on my childhood as the
Phantasy Star series.  My Sega Master System-owning neighbor had the original
game, and it came into my possession when he sold me all of his games after he
acquired a Genesis.


I and my friends spent way too much time with Phantasy Star.  I even made a
complete set of dungeon maps, which I still have to this day.  Later on, that
same neighbor got Phantasy Star III, which I ended up purchasing from him as


I still have that copy of PS3.  Recently, I dug out my long neglected trove of
Genesis games and decided to start playing them again.  The backup-battery had
died in PS3, so I had it replaced at a local store and got to business.


Generations of Doom


When I was a kid, Phantasy Star III was unquestionably awesome.  My friends
and I played it constantly, powered along by the excellent official strategy
guide (sadly, I don't have that guide anymore).  It was a quite a shock to me
when I discovered that the world at large thought that PS3 wasn't all that
great of a game.


Phantasy Star II, rightfully considered a classic by just about everybody, was
the last game in the series to find its way into my hands.  If I had played
PS2 in-sequence I might have realized just how underwhelming its sequel was.
I ran through it again just prior to my PS3 replay and was surprised by how
well it held up.  Would that magic continue into the next game?


The legends of the past shape our lives...


Phantasy Star III's big gimmick is that the game is experienced through three
generations of characters.  You start the game playing as Prince Rhys of
Landen, and at the conclusion of his quest you will have a choice of two women
to marry.  Each bride leads to a different son.  This process repeats after
the second generation, leading to four different characters for the final
generation.  Each of these four has his own ending, all of which are actually
pretty lame.


Rhys' quest is actually pretty fun.  It's pretty well fleshed-out, you get to
do lots of interesting things, and the characters are generally interesting.  I
think it's probably the best part of the game, which is a good thing since
it's the only part you'll play every time through.  After this, things get a
little shaky.


...and those of our children


Nial and Ayn, the second generation heroes, face completely different quests
in largely different areas.  These two sections are actually pretty decent,
but Ayn's is far more interesting.  The biggest problem with this section of
the game is that Nial and Ayn have no real personality or development.  We get
to see Rhys have his bride kidnapped at his wedding and lose his temper, which
isn't much, but at least you kind of feel for the guy.  All we know about Nial
and Ayn is that Rhys told them to go do something, and they should take Mieu
and Wren with them.  Not terribly compelling stuff, although Ayn's quest
features a lot of callbacks to Rhys' adventure, which adds a little magic that
Nial's journey lacks.


The struggle that almost destroyed our world


In generation three, the wheels come off.  The four heroes, Adan, Aron, Sean,
and Crys, basically have the exact same quest.  The starting conditions and
party compositions are a little different, but not terribly so.  The biggest
difference is that Nial's children, Adan and Aron, get a bit of a head start
due to things that Nial accomplished on his adventure.  I guess that makes
Nial the better dad.


The third generation quest consists of locating all of the transformation
modules for your Wren cyborg and using them to acquire "the five legendary
weapons."  You will then use these weapons to fight an ancient evil and save
your world.


Two of the five weapons fall into your hands for free, since two of your
characters will come wielding them.  The other three are not difficult to
obtain, but one of them always bothered me.


Siren's Shot, a powerful gun carried by the ancient cyborg Siren, is found in
a place called Sage Isle, which also happens to be the first place you need to
go after collecting the five weapons.  Siren himself is hanging out there, and
he passes his weapon to you before he dies.  What makes this encounter really
strange is that a treasure chest nearby, practically on the same screen,
contains another very powerful gun.  Why is this gun here when the most
powerful gun in the game lies just down the hallway?  I always suspected that
there was supposed to be more to this part of the game, perhaps a showdown
with Siren to collect his weapon.  He's the main antagonist of Ayn's quest,
and it would have been fitting to fight him again.


Other oddities like this plague the third generation.  Another glaring example
is the city of Mystoke, which hides a critical item in its castle.  Nial
acquires this item during his quest and passes it on to his children, but if
his sons return to Mystoke the people still greet him as if he were the one
who would finally retrieve the item.  Lazy programming, or did Sega just run
out of time and budget?


While playing the game again, I couldn't help but be reminded of Might and
Magic IX.  MM9 was rushed out the door by a failing 3DO and ended up a
complete mess.  There is a city in the game, shown as a large and important
place on the included map, that ends being a collection of three or four
shacks with a throng of people standing about, most of them speaking to you
about places in a city that doesn't exist.  The developers never had time to
build this city, and just dumped the people in a field with their dialogue


I've played MM9 several times now, and it fools me every time.  It starts out
OK, but there's a certain point where everything changes and it all falls
apart.  Phantasy Star III now feels like that to me.


There are still a few things I really like about PS3.  The graphics are really
excellent, although the monster animations are simply awful.  People harp on
this all the time, and justifiably so.  The first two games had great monster
animations, so I'm not sure what happened here.


The soundtrack is also fantastic.  I particularly like the main world theme,
which adds a new instrument every time you gain a party member.  When Rhys
begins his quest alone, it's a pretty simple and haunting tune.  As he gains
allies, it becomes a sort of rollicking battle march.  Great stuff.


I also love how fast the battles are.  It's fashionable now to look down upon
the random encounters that filled the games of old, but I think that what made
those work is that fights were generally very fast.  A typical PS3 battle
takes fewer than ten seconds.  Modern games, with their load times and ornate
battle animations, just can't keep pace and random encounters drag the game
down.  Disc-based games can get this right, Shining the Holy Ark
on the Sega Saturn is an example, but it's fairly rare.


The magic system is also quite interesting.  There are 16 spells (or
"techniques" as they're called in-game, I'm not going to get into the deep
Phantasy Star lore behind this) and the spells are divided into four groups of
four.  Characters know groups of spells, and will never learn new ones.  As
they level up, the individual spells get stronger, and you can alter the
strength of individual spells within a group by visiting a special store and
paying a trivial fee.


One problem with this system is that the only worthwhile spells are the ones
in the healing group.  I barely even know what the other 12 spells do, because
they're basically worthless.  In fact, you can gauge the difficulty of each
third-generation party by counting the number of party members with access to the
healing group.


Another issue is that there are no "wizard" type characters in the game, which
gives you little reason to explore the non-healing spells.  Each character's
weapon is far more effective than any of the spells they have access to,
there's just no point.


The Phantasy Star III world is incredibly compelling, for all its
shortcomings.  There's a whole lot of history that's referred to but never really
explored in-game, and I would love to someday make my own game that fleshed it
out.  This recent playthrough has made me sad for what this game could have
been.  I'll probably still play it, since it's part of one of my favorite
series of games, but it just doesn't have the magic for me that it used to.



May 2018

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