Good flow, slightly mediocre content
Being released during the golden age of 16-bit CRPGs, Phantasy Star IV took some of the best qualities of the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series and gave them its own spin. The game features a Star Wars-esque mixture of epic battle deeds of an adventuring party, set in a refreshing sci-fi setting with a heavy dash of anime seasoning.
The adventure plays straightforward, told in a crisp manner with very little idle time between adventures. Where 16-bit Final Fantasies often dwelt tediously on situations and early Dragon Quests offered way too little plot, Phantasy Star IV found a good measure between the two that doesn't interrupt the gameplay's flow.
This carries over into the battles, one of the game's strong points. The parties comprised of up to five characters require a pleasant amount of tactical thinking. Text information, combat animation and battle summaries are concise, making the many random encounters just long enough. Clever damage and XP balancing result in a perceivable character progression. Although a watchful eye must be kept on characters' hitpoints, extensive dungeon crawls are actually explorations, not gradual advances interrupted again and again by overpowered enemies forcing a retreat to the nearest town.
Outside of combat graphics are functional rather than fancy, although personally I appreciate it that character sprites aren't super-deformed compared to their surroundings and that the whole party can be seen while wandering around rather than the lead character representing everyone. In battles characters are even more realistically proportioned and overall appropriately sci-fi-looking. Dropping the 3D dungeon view of the early Phantasy Star instalments, the battle view focuses on the enemies like in Dragon Quest. However, it also shows active party members from behind, rushing forward to deliver blows, which creates a nice and almost cinematic way of presenting encounters.
A trademark feature of the game, its cutscenes deserve special notice because they are presented as fully illustrated and very effectually arranged comic book panels which are visually superior to mere text boxes or the use of limited sprite animation to tell the plot.
On the same note, I must admit at this point that generally I despise the Sega Genesis' sound capabilities. If (arguably) nowhere else, the SNES was clearly superior to Sega's machine in that department. Surprisingly, the soundtrack of Phantasy Star IV is very decent. While not as orchestral and rich as the best pieces the SNES has to offer, the techno-influenced musical style of Phantasy Star IV seems to fit the Genesis' sound chip perfectly, rather gracefully dodging the flat and scratchy tunes heard in so many other games.
Like most Japanese CRPGs of its time, Phantasy Star IV plays extremely conservatively. Its gameplay formula is a strict "rest and resupply in towns - overworld map - isometric dungeons - random battles" procedure, looped ad infinitum and set in a linear story with linear character development. It takes players' willingness to see beyond those unoriginal aspects to discover what actually sets Phantasy Star IV apart. The real qualities lay mainly in the details.
Graphically, Phantasy Star IV doesn't disappoint although enemy and scenario depictions in the separate battle screens are noticeably better than in the isometric overworld, town and dungeon views. It is solid 16-bit fare and little else.
The cutscenes are perhaps the game's most outstanding visual feature but they were designed in a generic anime style by today's standards. The very idea was unusual for its time to be sure but whether or not one finds the character designs overly outstanding is a matter of taste. Personally, I find Akira Toriyama's quirky Dragon Quest designs more appealing, considering TV shows like Saber Rider had already established a character style comparable to PSIV even in Western regions.
The plot is carried mostly by its setting as the characters populating it are for the most part classic fantasy stereotypes outfitted with sci-fi weapons. The writing itself adheres to many clichés, be it the sword-wielding, youthful firebrand hero or the dark, sorcerous overlords who reveal themselves and their plans only gradually which seems to be directly related to the heroes' party level. Thankfully, the game isn't bereft of humour or exciting moments but the impression of 'seen it, give me more' is often hard to shake.
The Bottom Line
What Phantasy Star IV copies it copies well. What little it does differently it does very well. Above all else, the game is a joy to play because its main gameplay aspects, combat and exploration, are well balanced. Although repetition cannot be denied, Phantasy Star IV tends to not get as tedious as many of its better-selling rivals at their worst.
While the series isn't as expansive or successful as other 16-bit CRPGs, especially Phantasy Star IV holds up even today. The game isn't punishingly difficult or so flawed that only die-hard fans can tolerate its shortcomings. Instead it is nothing less (or more) than a solid experience with an excellent gameplay flow.