Phantasy Star III Is A Flawed, But Ambitious, Entry Into The Series

Illustration for article titled Phantasy Star III Is A Flawed, But Ambitious, Entry Into The Series
Screenshot: Sega

Phantasy Star III was a game I wanted to love, especially since its predecessor was a science fiction classic and arguably one of my favorite games on the Sega Genesis. I still remember when I first heard about Phantasy Star III, which released for the Genesis in 1991, I was blown away by the idea of players following the characters through a multi-generational battle. Even now, I can only think of a handful of games that follow a family down the generations, with Dragon Quest V being one of the best.

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I was able to grind my way through Phantasy Star III when I first played it. There were lots of changes in the game mechanics from its predecessor and it was undeniably bold in what it endeavored to do. But the experimentation was only partially successful, which is probably why it’s gotten its black sheep status. I recently revisited the game and completed all possible routes. At the end, I found myself conflicted, loving the ideas within the game, but wishing they could have done a better job implementing them.

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Screenshot: Sega

Phantasy Star Gaiden

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Screenshot: Sega

Phantasy Star III was developed by a different team from the original two games and it’s apparent in every aspect of the game, from the art style to the character designs which felt like they had more in common with Golden Axe than the preceding scifi JRPG. But change isn’t necessarily bad. Phantasy Star III stands out in a visual sense from its siblings with more naturalistic portraits rather than the anime style panels of the others (the developers were aiming for a more realistic take on the series).

The opening cinematic is bold and intriguing, framing the battle as an ancient one between Orakio and Laya that took place a thousand years ago. Orakio harnessed technology to form an army of cyborgs, which was led by his great robot general, Siren. Laya conjured a deadly force of monsters under the guidance of Lune to fight back. Their battles were brutal enough that the people who descended from the two heroes have remained enemies for the entire millennium, completely breaking contact with each other.

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At least that’s the story we’re told.

You start the game playing as an Orakian prince, Rhys. He’s marrying a mysterious woman named Maia who, following fantasy tropes, has lost her memory. During the wedding, a Layan monster kidnaps her. Rhys swears to rescue her and destroy the Layans in the process, renewing their ancient conflict. Rhys’ father outwardly admonishes his son and throws him in the dungeon, but secretly aids him by including equipment and a monitor in the cell. The prince escapes with the help of a stranger, Lena, and then recruits a cyborg called Mieu as he begins to uncover the mysteries behind the ancient war and why the two original heroes disappeared.

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Scattered throughout the world are random airfields and cryptic temples, the ruins echoing in the aftermath of that ancient conflict. The whole idea of the game being a traditional fantasy world was dispelled the first time the party entered one of the tunnels that connect the seven separate worlds and Rhys finds himself in a futuristic corridor with strange circuitry all around. Phantasy Star III reveals the origins of its world carefully, crafting together a constellation of whispered rumors and cybernetic anomalies. The theme that evil can sometimes be so powerful that only families working in conjunction with their descendants can overcome is a powerful one.

To that end, there’s several things the development team did to expedite the gameplay. The full party complement has been expanded up by one member to five, giving you a wider range of characters to fight with. To accompany the bigger group, the soundtrack dynamically adjusts itself depending on how many members you’ve recruited; the lonely overworld theme becomes a robust song of hope as your numbers grow. Battle music also shifts depending on the flow of the fight, with a more dreadful theme playing when monsters seem prevalent, to a more optimistic beat as your members gain the upper hand (the OST in general is fantastic and that dungeon theme is one of my favorites).

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In a distorted interpretation of the rules that Laya and Orakia left behind forbidding their followers from killing one another, the survivors engage in a proxy war using monsters and cyborgs to fight in their stead. The unfortunate result is that the lack of casualties has given them little impetus to compromise or engage in even the most remote of diplomacy.

Instead, dispersed throughout the worlds are survivors of the old conflict. My favorite character in the series, Wren, was introduced in the game. A cyborg whose template is based on the Orakian general, Siren, his ability to transform into vehicles is one of the best parts of the game. His aerojet mode, which lets the party fly quickly from one section to another, should have been available earlier in the quest as it’s indispensable. Wren and his counterpart cyborg, Mieu, stay with the party through all three generations, acting as an anchor, both from a strength perspective and a narrative one. Think of them as a more badass C-3PO and R2-D2, albeit without the humour.

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Screenshot: Sega

The first generation with Rhys is more about the setup of the world as he learns Maia was actually an Orakian. It provides context for the characters, gives a sense of the animosity between the Orakians and Layans, but doesn’t answer many of the questions I had. For example, how did Maia get lost and end up at Rhys’ hometown, Landen, in the first place? Once you finish Rhys’ quest and find Maia, the game’s vaunted generation system first comes into play. You can choose who Rhys marries; Maia, your betrothed, or Lena, the woman who rescued you (she’s a princess who was originally supposed to marry Rhys, a fact that was lost in the localization). It’s the first time in a game I can recall actually having the option of getting married.

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The problem here is that I didn’t get a sense of who either character was so I didn’t feel a connection to either. I still had no idea who Maia was and as the final boss for the section had me fighting her dad, the king of Cille, I doubted he’d welcome me as his son-in-law.

Generation Gap

This leads to the biggest issue with Phantasy Star III, which is that there’s no emotional connections between any of the characters. Despite having really cool character art, players barely get a sense of who any of them are. I understand there were memory limitations on the Genesis cartridge, but even a few lines of dialogue when characters meet and experience catastrophic events together would have gone a long way to getting a sense of their personality. This in turn has the unfortunate effect of rendering the generational system moot since, aside from slight differences in the narrative and characters, there’s no real need to experience the four ancestral lines. I would have loved to have seen Rhys impart some of his wisdom to his children and show how the two different marriages changed his character, or how the children in varying lineages had their lives molded by the different societies in which they grew up. What would a child growing up sharing the ancestry of the ancient enemies of Laya and Orakio be like versus someone who went back to their home country? As it stands, almost the entire story is situational and plot-driven rather than being guided by the characters and their decisions (aside from Rhys’ opening choice).

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In most RPGs, you’ll spend the plethora of your time engaging in battles. Considering how much ground there is to tread as your party walks from one end of the seven worlds to the other multiple times, there’s a lot of fighting to do. Sometimes, games that are sparse in story can compensate for that weakness with really good combat that gives players a feel for who their team members are through the way they fight. In Phantasy Star II, you actually got to see your characters battling; Nei would slash foes with her claws, Rudo would launch his cannon at enemies, and whenever Amy healed a character, they’d stand side by side as she did her magic. Phantasy Star III gets rid of all character animations and replaces them with symbolic stripes. Rather than seeing Prince Rhys slice an enemy with his sword, all you see is a line representing a slash. The same simple lines represent the attacks of the other party members. It was disappointing and took me completely out of the battles, making them dreary and repetitive.

The absence in aesthetic differences between the towns for each era is a huge missed opportunity as well. Whether you’re visiting a Layan or Orakian town, they share the same architect. From grandfather to grandson, the buildings never change. Even the cyborg city inhabited solely by artificial life looks the exact same as a human one. Most towns are barren and barely have any people in them. One of my favorite parts of Phantasy Star II was hearing the quirky things the NPCs said, so I sorely missed that.

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Screenshot: Sega

While Phantasy Star III struggles in developing its characters, it does weave together a fascinating science fiction plot. Players eventually learn that the game is connected to the events of Phantasy Star II and the tragic destruction of the planet of Parma. In the aftermath of its demise, multiple colony ships escaped and roamed the stars to find a new home (not sure why they didn’t hop over to Mota or Dezo). Over a thousand years later, the people of the colony ship the game takes place on completely forgot that past. They instead became consumed in a civil war that ravaged both sides. I loved the implications this had for me as a kid, making me wonder how much of our own history was real and how much of it had been distorted over time? A few years ago, I got to visit an archaeological site called Banpo which had been a Neolithic village from 6,000 years ago. There were traces of its culture, language, and artistry, but archaeologists didn’t know what the religious rituals and symbols they’d found specifically meant. I marveled, wondering what their society was like and what they would have thought of us thousands of years later, walking through their village that had now become a museum.

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There is a concern in oversimplifying history from a dialectical perspective, framing it as two forces battling against each other. There’s usually a far more complex pigmentation to the motivations and politics that drove the age. In PSIII, there’s an acknowledgement of that complexity as the dialectic is reframed from Orakio and Laya to humanity versus Dark Force. While it doesn’t pursue the theoretical implications to a deeper level, it does make us think how a lot of our own conflicts are based on the beliefs and ideas developed by people who lived over a thousand years ago. The folly of the Orakians and Layans paints a damning picture of our own society. Would those original figures have wanted so much death and suffering inflicted in their name?

Unfortunately, this really fascinating concept isn’t reinforced by the art style within Phantasy Star III. The environments feel staid, like artificial stage pieces that don’t quite fit together. The dungeons are overall underwhelming, breaking down into two motifs; red-floored caves and the previously mentioned corridors connecting the worlds which are made up entirely of glass floors. It would have been nice for the other worlds to have had a more distinct visual theme as well. Two of them are suffering arctic temperatures, though one gets fixed with a visit to the climate controls. There is also a desert world. Aside from that, there doesn’t seem to be any design or planning for the seven colony worlds. If they had been formed in a way that tied them in with their previous functions as a colony ship (say one planet specializes in producing monsters from a biolab and another specifically controls food production), that would have given them more meaning. It’s unfortunate because the bestiary of monsters and robots is an eclectic assortment that I always found memorable; I especially remember the half-bodied Triclops and the giant heads made of rock that attack with their ears.

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Of all the generations, the second generation’s quest with Nial (Rhys’ son if he marries Lena) was the best crafted from a story perspective. It starts off with the mad cyborg general, Lune, destroying Lena’s home and killing Nial’s grandfather. Nial sets out seeking revenge for his mother, but learns the truth behind the Orakian-Layan war. Laya’s pendant reveals that it was Dark Force that had corrupted Laya and Orakio, forcing them into a battle between the two sides. Cyborgs and monsters had been engaged in a perpetual battle based on the machinations of Dark Force when they should have been united against it.

Ayn’s journey (Rhys’ son if he marries Maia) is less satisfying. His quest has him fighting against the cyborg army and the general Siren. I would have loved to have seen more of how the marriage between an Orakian and Layan changed them. Unfortunately, that’s not addressed at all and Rhys barely mutters anything of importance throughout the whole journey. In fact, it seems Ayn’s uncle, Lyle, plays a bigger role than his father, actively assisting the party. There’s an important character reveal that ends up falling flat because it seems like it came in the wrong generation. Lyle reveals to his nephew that he was the one who had kidnapped Maia at the beginning of the game. This revelation would have had so much more emotional poignance for Rhys to have discovered. He would have been conflicted, forced to either forgive or fight Lyle. With reconciliation, it would have been a more humane representation of showing how the ancient conflict was finally coming to an end. The way it plays out, Lyle reveals his dragon form to Ayn, who expresses no reaction. Why would he? Then Lyle passes away and it’s onto the next section.

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The cyborgs who accompany the generations through their journey, Wren and Mieu, barely speak. They could have been a counseling figure, especially in the generations where the main characters lose their parents. But instead, they stay silent throughout.

While the possibilities of four unique generations seems vast, the third generation is more or less the same across the board. The opening movies are different, but the goal is the same. Gather the five ancient weapons, transform them into the more powerful Nei weapons, then fight Dark Force. The amount of repeated backtracking players will have to do is onerous. As memory limitations made the implementation of the four separate generations difficult, I almost feel that if they’d cut out two of the four and focused on making the ones that remained stronger, the game itself would have been a more rewarding experience. In particular, I wish the twin siblings of the third generation, Adan and Gwyn, could have had more development as I loved their character designs.

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Successors of Time

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Screenshot: Sega
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The final world, Termina, is mostly a body of water with a floating city called Lashute. Even here, I wish the developers could have done a little more through the art to show its dissipation. For example, what if the entire sphere was full of ancient ruins that had been destroyed, marring the surface and conveying the war that had taken place there? Without a single word, players would have had a sense of how grave the stakes were.

Rulakir, the brother of Orakio, has been sitting on the throne for a thousand years. He’s been totally twisted and corrupted after losing his family in the war and being consumed by hatred. As it turns out, Laya and Orakio actually sealed all the gates intentionally and locked Dark Force underneath the world of Landen. Rhys and his descendants were the ones who opened up all the gates and unleashed Dark Force on the unsuspecting world. Had they made things worse? Ultimately, they defeat Dark Force, and at the same time, help connect the divided cities of the world. The inhabitants of the colony ship finally know the truth about their past. The hope is that they remain united and not fall back into partisan strife.

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The endings themselves have interesting science fiction twists and I especially liked the one that created a time paradox with the sinister Terran ending of Phantasy Star II.

Phantasy Star III is a game I’d love to see revisited. I really appreciated the art style, the experimental gameplay choices, and the story implications. Maybe a new generation of developers could carry on the mantle and, with more time and space, achieve its potential so that it could be the true successor to the Phantasy Star series that I really wished it was.

Peter Tieryas is the author of Mecha Samurai Empire & Cyber Shogun Revolution (Penguin RH). He's written for Kotaku, IGN, & Verge. He was an artist at Sony Pictures & Technical Writer for LucasArts.

DISCUSSION

Phantasy Star is a series I would love to see revisited, and not in MMORPG form. I’ve always felt the character development, or lack thereof, was what held Phantasy Star III back. I just could not form a connection with any of the characters. This made the marriage choices seem so abrupt and lacking in any sense of consequence. A more fleshed out story and some modern polish could really make this old gem shine. I think it would probably benefit from an update more so than the other three games in the original series.