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SummaryUnanimity sucks, Phantasy Star III doesn't.
The GoodThe first time I heard about this game was back in 1991 or 1992, in a preview article of a video game magazine. They were talking about the then revolutionary feature of Phantasy Star III, which was the generation thingy: the player would be able to marry one of two girls at the end of each generation, leading to 4 possible endings to the game. Back then I only knew the first Phantasy Star, and I was surprised in knowing that the series was already on its 3rd installment. The magazine was praising the game so much, and I knew Phantasy Star's reputation, that I thought: wow, that game must be amazing!
In the following years, I only got to know Phantasy Star IV, which I rented a couple of times. Phantasy Star II and III eventually got released in Brazil, but by then I had already sold my Mega Drive, so in the end the only game I knew well in the series was the first one.
Skip to 1999, when I finally got access to the internet. I discovered emulation, and went after those games which I only heard about but never played. I started also to read reviews and look for fan sites about Phantasy Star. To my surprise, PS III was considered the black sheep of the series, and people used to bash the game everywhere. Many people blamed it on the fact that the game was developed by a different team from the previous games. I was certain that the only way of knowing if they were right was by playing it, but being a fan of the series, I decided to play the games in their release sequence, even knowing that many people said that PS III shouldn't even be considered part of the series.
And guess what? Once a Brazilian author said that "all unanimity is dumb", and this is no different with PS III.
Phantasy Star III is far from being an average Phantasy Star game, and that pissed off most fans. Two trademarks of the series are somewhat absent from this game: PS graphic style and PS main storyline. Many other problems were pointed out about this game, so I'll try to cover all them, weighting pros and cons in their proper sections (blame MobyGames' rigid review structure here, heh).
Let's start with the graphics. Phantasy Star III has a much more "serious" tone in its graphics. From the intro sequence (less "anime-ish" than the previous games), you'll notice a less colorful palette and characters more western-like. The battle character menus are totally different from the other PS games: instead of the traditional window-like system, PS III has a "flipping-cards" system. The battle menus are also completely different, changing from the traditional text-oriented for a icon-oriented design. This doesn't make the game bad at all, as most graphics are good in fact (maybe not so good as other games from its age, but good nonetheless). However, they are not quite consistent, as the character's sheets show again "anime-ish" portraits, and the monsters are quite ugly and poor designed (more on that later), but the game has been bashed for its graphics more than it deserves.
As for the storyline: no matter how much some fans kick about it, Phantasy Star III fits in the whole PS universe storyline. At first it won't be obvious: the game starts telling the story of Orakio and Laya, and how their battle settled the current shape of things. Nowadays, Orakians and Layans live apart, each lineage considering the other "evil" for their way of life (Layans being the technique users, Orakians the plain fighters). The player starts as the Orakian prince Rhys of Landen, which is about to marry a girl named Maia, an amnesiac girl who was found on Landen's shore. As the wedding is about to take place, Maia is kidnapped by a Layan dragon, and Rhys sets out to find her. Those characters were never mentioned before in the Phantasy Star universe, and their link to the whole PS plot isn't really obvious. But as the game develops, the player is slowly introduced with more facts, allowing him to understand what's going on. Many people disliked the more "medieval" setting of PS III, but there's a reason behind it, and this same reason functions as a perfect excuse for all that doesn't fit the whole PS scheme. It is really hard to explain why without spoiling the game, but I can ensure the readers that nothing in this game is there by pure chance.
The generation system surely is the main feature of the game, and it's what the game was built around. One could understand it as a whole new character development system, as if you could choose if the main character will be a single or multi-class one: as each marriage can be made between Orakian and Layan characters, it is up to the player to choose if the next generation's main character will be a more fighting one or a more tech-user one. Not only that, but each generation has its own storyline, and it means that different characters will join the player's party depending on what path the player chooses. The only two characters that remain the same throughout all three generations are the cyborg ones, which are "inherited" by the new prince.
Another good point of this game, even if many would disagree with me, is its music. Phantasy Star III has some nice touches which make its music unique. For instance, the main overworld theme starts as a very simple but nonetheless beautiful two voices tune. Once the player gets Rhys first companion, the cyborg Mieu, the orverworld tune gets an additional voice, becoming more complex. The tune gets one more voice for each character (in a total of 4 plus the main one) that is added to the party. The battle sequences music also has a nice feature. Three songs can be played during a battle, and they vary according to the battles difficulty. If the battle seems easy from the player's standpoint, one of the three tunes is played. If it get's harder, the tune is exchanged for another. If the battle is balanced, another tune is played.
The battle system is also usually bashed, but it has its qualities. As in PS II, the player can program the character's actions individually, or just order them to fight with their default actions. The difference is that now you choose to do it for just one round, or automatically for indefinite time as usual.
The techniques use has also a new feature: the player can choose which techniques within a group will be more or less powerful. Each group is formed by four techniques, each with an amount of power points. In every town there are technique distribution shops, where the player chooses a group of techniques and distributes its points among them. The distribution is made in a balanced way, so if some technique gets more points, other will get less. This is especially useful if you want a character to be more focused on one specific technique, for instance.
The game's general pace is quite good also, without making the player spend hours just grinding to get past some part of the game. I could play it more or less just following its plot, without stopping just for leveling up.
The BadAlthough Phantasy Star III has many qualities, it doesn't mean it has been bashed for any reason at all. It surely has its flaws, but they are often over inflated by fanboys all over the world.
As mentioned before, the graphics are somewhat inconsistent. The characters portraits are "anime-ish" while the rest isn't, and the monsters are of an awful taste. Their animation have been described as "lame" all over the net, and I have to agree: when you see a monster attacking you by moving only it's tongue, while floating one meter above the ground without even moving its wings, which are by the way ridiculously tiny, you see that something went wrong. A step was taken back by removing the characters' sprites from battle sequences: once again you'll only see their weapons hitting the enemy, as in PS I. The battle backgrounds were never the same since PS I: there, if the player was walking through trees and found a monster, the background showed trees accordingly. If the player was walking near the shore, the background would be a beach, and even the monsters would be water-living ones (remember killing all those Fishmen, eh?). In PS II they changed it to no backgrounds at all, which was criticized by many fans. This was somewhat fixed by PS III, but the backgrounds here are really poor. Just one-type-per-map backgrounds with little animation, and that's it.
The combat sequences are really were you'll find the worst flaws in the game, even if they could be just perfect, as they have some nice features (see above). The music, for instance, is quite annoying. They did it all right setting different tunes for the differences in the battle's "heat", but then spoiled it with the worst tunes in game. Actually, I like pretty much every tune in this game except for the battle ones.
The game is a bit short for my taste, also. Even though another reviewer says it is one of the longest RPGs of the time, PS II beats it anytime. They try to fit a three generations time span in the time which normally would be occupied by just one in any other RPG, and this has some serious consequences regarding the characters' development. I believe that it takes some time for the player to get used to a character and to start identifying himself with him. Having so little time to play with each character leaves you with the sensation that you didn't belong to the game as much as you would if you were playing a regular game. Some characters that join the party near the end of a generation will be played by 5 or 10 minutes, how can one get used to them? You won't even feel like wanting to develop them, since you know they'll disappear as soon as you finish that generation.
Another big problem is that the player has only two save game slots. This means you won't be able to save your game at all the critical decision points, i.e., the marriages. Even though the player has 7 possible story experiences, only two of them can be saved at once.
Some would say also that the techniques' use is underexploited, being meant more for healing than anything else. Since I always underuse spells in RPGs (guess what, I'm weird), I don't have much to complain about that, though I have to complain that the spell that was called SAR (which heals all characters in the party) in the other PS games now is called GIRES (the same name which refers in the other PS games to the stronger version of the healing spell, RES). Maybe that's just a translation problem, as I didn't play the Japanese version to check it.
Speaking of translation, the Brazilian version has some terrible mistakes in it. Just to give an idea, not far from the beginning the player will need a sapphire to unlock a cave entrance. Once you get the sapphire and go to the cave, the game says: "Sapphire glows and you're inside". Tec Toy's localization team understood glows as a noun, not a verb, translating it to something like "Sapphire, you and (the) glows are inside" ("Safira, você e as luzes estão dentro!" in Portuguese). Awful.
The Bottom LineAs I already stated in my Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2 review, PS III suffers its same fate: failing to live up to fanboys' expectations. But I think the injustice here is even bigger, as PS III is a lot better than LOK: BO2 in comparison.
The fact of being developed by another team, with the rumors of being rushed/unfinished or even being another whole game changed into a PS game in the end of the development process just made PS III unique. The way its story turns from a completely unrelated plot to a PS fill-in/side story is completely believable and quite singular. Of course the game is flawed (maybe more than other PS games), but I guess its biggest flaw is what it has done to Phantasy Star IV. In an urge to soothe and please heartbroken fanboys, the developers overstuffed PS IV with so many references to the first two games that it turns out a bit self-insufficient. In fact, to understand PS IV, one has to play all the three previous games, and not just the first two ones. Phantasy Star III is an integral and important part of PS series, no matter how much regular fanboys despise it.