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SummaryOkay, let's try this one more time!
The GoodPhantasy Star series started its life with a truly ground-breaking game that set standards not only for its own offsprings, but for other Japanese RPGs as well. The second game of the series was also an innovative title, though the enjoyment of playing it was severely impeded by its difficulty level. The third game was universally considered the "black sheep", being set in a different era and abandoning many stylistic elements of the series. And here comes the fourth game, which many fans consider the pinnacle of Phantasy Star franchise.
First of all, as a sequel, Phantasy Star IV is beyond reproach. It is true to the spirit of the series in every way possible - setting, visual design, gameplay, narrative; it fixes what needed to be fixed without changing too much; it contains all the possible elements and references to the previous games to make a fan of the series weep with joy.
As before, the setting proves to be one of the series' strongest trumps. Biolabs, androids, genetic experiments, ultra-powerful computers, space ships co-exist sword-wielding chosen heroes and forces of darkness. The first Phantasy Star made this Star Wars-inspired setting its own, creating an engrossing world. Hopping from planet to planet on a spaceship and having a couple of characters use guns instead of swords and axes is as enjoyable as ever. Instead of one planet and one world map you have two to explore; you also travel to some remote places in space instead of being forever stuck on the same surface.
The character cast is quite colorful, with representatives of different races, androids, and of course Rika, the nostalgic reminiscence of Nei. Having native Motavians and Dezorians in the party was a very nice touch, as was the inclusion of five active party members.
The writing has definitely improved. There is much more dialogue between party members than in previous installments; there's also the handy "Talk" command, which allows you to consult them at any time. The dialogues are noticeably more emotional, with occasional goofy humor here and there. The characters are for the most part interesting and have reasonably well-developed personalities.
The battle system is remarkably robust and balanced. After the maddeningly difficult second game, it was like a breath of fresh air to plow through the battles in Phantasy Star IV. The difficulty level is just perfect. Many battles (particularly the bosses) are quite a challenge, requiring careful planning, as you have very diverse characters with various strengths and weaknesses. For easy random battles, there is a useful "macro" command, which allows you to "program" your entire party for the next fight. Devastating combo attacks was also a very nice addition.
The game's production values are quite high. While the music doesn't always please the ear, the graphics are excellent. Most of the dungeons are somewhat uninspired design-wise, but the towns often display high level of detail. In one town, for example, you can see swans swimming around in a pool. But the best thing about the game's graphics are undoubtedly the manga-style cut scenes, which unfold like comic pages, with still pictures appearing one after the other.
The BadWhatever Phantasy Star IV does, it does right; but it doesn't really do anything substantially different from what its predecessors have done before.
The narrative is schematic in many ways, particularly resembling that of the second game. Such a story would be great in 1988 (as it was in Phantasy Star II); but five years later, it just doesn't impress any more. There are no interesting villains in the game, just same abstract "Dark Forces" that carry on and on, no matter where you are in the game. You spend many hours searching for an uninteresting, abstract evil thing you have already fought in two other games.
The plot itself is a rather standard "good vs. evil" issue. The ending is disappointing; the final confrontation is too impersonal, lacking that certain majestic feeling that made great Japanese RPGs of the past emotionally engaging.
In short, the game is mostly "fan service" (admittedly of a very high quality) at the expense of originality. Compare that to Final Fantasy series, which have often been the hostile target of the most excessively fanboyish admirers of Phantasy Star. Many of its installments evoked harsh critical responses. But why was it so? Because it is impossible to satisfy everyone. Because people have different preferences. And that's precisely why, unlike Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy series could actually evolve - and that considering the fact that the first Phantasy Star was head and shoulders above its Final Fantasy competitor.