Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom

 It’s the black sheep of the Phantasy Star family, the one that nearly ruined the series. If you look for online user reviews of Phantasy Star 3 you’d expect it to be one of the worst games ever made. Many people feel it doesn’t quite fit the series and was a massive step backwards. However Phantasy Star 3 is by no means a bad game and in fact improves on Phantasy Star 2 in some ways.

The game begins on the day Rhys, the crown prince of Landen, is to wed his love Maia, a girl who was found washed up on shore suffering from amnesia. However just before they can exchange vows Maia is stolen away by a Dragon who claims to be of Layan ancestry. A thousand years prior a bitter war was fought between two factions, one lead by Orakio and the other by the dark witch Laya. Nobody had seen a Layan in generations until this Dragon appeared. Rhys vows to seek vengeance on the Layans and sets off on a quest that will span three generations and reveal the secrets of the world he lives in.

And thus begins another epic.
One problem many people have with Phantasy Star 3 is that the setting is more medieval than science fiction. While this may be true of the start of the game many sci-fi elements slip in as the game progresses. Two combat cyborgs join the party and the walkways between areas are full of complex machinery. The truth about this world is slowly revealed over the course of the game. Revealing the truth about the world was one of the game’s best moments and I found it quite a clever twist.

The battle system of Phantasy Star 3 follows the same fast paced battle system of Phantasy Star 2. You have the choice of auto attacking for a round, auto attacking indefinitely until you interrupt it or choosing what targets to attack or techniques to use. While the encounter rate is quite high the battle system is fast paced enough that it rarely annoys. Phantasy Star 3 is also quite a lot easier than its two predecessors. While those games are incredibly tough and require a lot of grinding to beat, levelling up in Phantasy Star 3 is very quick and you can get through the game with little to no grinding. Dungeons are also much smaller and more manageable than the sprawling labyrinths of previous Phantasy Star games. It’s a lot easier to navigate them. You won’t be forced to use a walkthrough or get out the graph paper just to find your way around them.

Unfortunately that’s where the improvements to the battle system end. The magic, or rather technique system, is rather unique. You can pay a vendor to redistribute the strength of your techniques. Strengthening one technique will weaken another. The problem is that techniques are all pretty much worthless in the game other than Gires, a healing technique that heals the entire party. You do more damage with regular attacks and while some of the buff spells can totally break the game I never once felt the need to use them. It’s an interesting system wasted by the fact that techniques just aren’t worth using.

Wasted potential really sums up Phantasy Star 3. The overworld graphics look a lot better than in Phantasy Star 2 but in some areas it is really lacking. Towns look all the same and are almost devoid of any NPCs to talk to. Even in desert or snow areas the town will still have the same houses surrounded by green grass. The castles in the game look and feel even sparser. The in-battle backgrounds will change depending on where you are fighting, a feature weirdly dropped for Phantasy Star 2, and there’s some nice parallax scrolling effects. However the animation on enemies is very disappointing. Phantasy Star set itself apart from its 8-bit contemporaries with gorgeously animated enemies. Phantasy Star 2 went one better; battles were filled with animations of your characters running up to attack enemies or firing off spells. Character animations are missing from Phantasy Star 3 and replaced with weapon effects like you would see in the early Dragon Quest games and enemies remain motionless until they attack. These attack animations are very disappointing, most never going over two frames of animation. One enemy attacks by waggling his finger back and forth, another’s eyes will glow and the strangest of all, one enemy will attack by flexing his pectorals. Not exactly the most exciting of animations. Those zombie rabbits in Phantasy Star 2 that shoved their spilling entrails back into their stomachs were disgusting but the pixel art and animation looked stunning. The still anime cutscenes from the first and second games are now a rarity replaced with tiny portraits of the characters and text at important points in the game.

I'm not sure which town this is because they all look near identical.
The world of Phantasy Star 3 is quite intriguing as is the generation system from which the title draws its name, Generations of Doom. At certain points in the game you must choose a bride to marry. The story then continues on from the point of view of the characters son. Depending on their mix of Orakian or Layan blood the offspring can be either more focused on physical attacks, techniques or a mix of both. You have to choose a bride twice during the game and depending on who you choose the story and character you control will change. One particular combination will even result in the birth of twins, a male and a female. This system has the potential for the player to become emotionally invested in the characters and their choices but unfortunately this isn’t fully realised. All characters in the game are pretty much blank slates so it’s hard to become attached to them.  It’s telling that Dragon Quest V which came out afterwards and also had a generational mechanic became one of the most emotionally involving games of the 16-bit era. The story as a whole could have done with more exposition. It’s an interesting premise but it’s presented in a bare bones manner. NPCs and other characters that join your party are barely fleshed out. While the beginning of the game does a good job of guiding the player to where they need to go there are some ambiguous moments later on that can leave you stumped unless you look up a FAQ on where to go next unless you would prefer to wander about aimlessly for a while.

This is what replaces the anime stills from the previous two games. At least the awesome 80's anime style is still present.
What isn’t disappointing is the soundtrack. It’s one of the best FM synth soundtracks ever composed. The instrumentation might be a little lacking compared to later Megadrive games but there’s no faulting the compositions. The title track which I’ve put a link to below is one of the all time great pieces of videogame music. Another nice touch is how the music changes in battle depending on how you are doing and how the overworld music adds more instruments as you recruit more characters.

Phantasy Star 3 is far from a bad game. It’s a good game that just failed to live up to its predecessors. In ways it is an improvement. It’s far more accessible due to its much fairer difficulty level and smaller dungeons. The potential was there for it to be something special but it never fulfilled its own ambitions. The battle system is unique and fast paced but you can beat most of the game by just using the auto attack command. The story goes to some very interesting places towards the end but the bland characters and underutilised generation mechanic leaves the player emotionally detached. It never reaches the heights of the Phantasy Star 2’s social commentary and superb ending. If you are interested in the Phantasy Star series don’t skip over this one. It’s fun, relatively short and has some interesting features. Just be prepared for some measure of disappointment when it’s all over.

All that leaves me is Phantasy Star IV to play. I’ve started it and from the first few hours it’s been absolutely superb and I hope to get a review up soon and maybe even get a podcast out on the series.

Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog: Pocket Adventure (Neo Geo Pocket)

You have to feel sorry for SNK and their Neo Geo Pocket console. It was looking so good. They had a wonderful console that boasted more power than the Gameboy Colour yet had far better battery life. They even managed to tempt some third parties to publish for their console. However they just could not compete with the juggernaut that Pokémon became. Sonic the Hedgehog on the Neo Geo Pocket was a surprise third party release for the Neo Geo Pocket and is to my knowledge the first time Sonic had appeared on a non Sega console. I’m sure the fact that the Neo Geo Pocket could link with the Dreamcast sweetened the deal but it was still a miraculous coup for SNK to have such a big franchise appear on their fledgling handheld.

The usual 'Green Hill Zone' stage starts everything off.
Many people label Sonic Pocket Adventure as a port of Sonic 2. They would be mistaken; Pocket Adventure is a unique sonic game. The game’s looks borrow heavily from Sonic 2. If you have played that game you will have a strong feeling of déjà vu. However the level design is completely different. Art assets look like downscaled versions of Sonic 2’s art and the borrowing doesn’t stop there. All the music is taken from Sonic 3. It’s a bit of a bizarre combination when you hear Sonic 3 music over a level that looks like it came from Sonic 2. Of course there are chaos emeralds to collect. The special stage is accessed by finishing Act 1 with 50 rings, ala Sonic 1. The special stage is ripped straight out of Sonic 2, which were my favourite Sonic special stages. What I don’t like is how fiendishly difficult these stages are and the fact that there’s only one chance in each zone to collect a chaos emerald.

In terms of visuals the special stages are more than a match for its Megadrive cousin

 Pocket Adventure was developed by Dimps, the same team that would later go on to create the Sonic Advance games for the GBA. It plays remarkably close to the Megadrive games it is based on but unfortunately falls foul to the same mishaps as the Advance games. Maybe it’s the development team or the diminutive size of the NGP and GBA screens. Pocket Adventure’ just like the Advance games’ is filled with leaps of faith and pitfalls that aren’t avoidable without the power to see into the future. It becomes more prevalent as the game advances. It’s not enough to ruin the game but enough to annoy. Mostly the level design is pretty good.

The Neo Geo Pocket hasn’t got many platform games and Sonic Pocket Adventure would definitely be one of the best. It’s fast, plays remarkably close to the Megadrive games and looks gorgeous. It’s definitely worth picking up and is relatively cheap even in the gorgeous PAL mini MVS case version.