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My Impressions on Phantasy Star (1987)

Some years ago there was a time I regularly played Phantasy Star Online 2, and it really got me interested in the series as a whole. Now I finally found the time to play its very first entry, a game that was developed before I was even born.

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I have to admit it took me a bit of an effort to really get into this one. After a very short introduction scene the game dumps you right into a city, and if there's a thing Phantasy Star doesn't do well its the town graphics. The first gameplay screen you get to experience looks just ugly, and the town is clunky to navigate too boot. It took me a while getting used to the fact that gameplay in towns is really slow. You can only walk on specific tiles, each NPC dialog triggers two scene transitions and the player character's walk speed is rather slow in general. So the game starts off feeling as dull as can be. Once I walked to everyone in town I still had little to no clue as to what I should do, so I left the area onto the world map.

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Notice the walkways - those are the only passable tiles here

Game Over

And then, two random encounters later, I was dead. For some reason the balance in the first few minutes is way off, and stepping on the wrong tile, even if it's right next to your starting location, can instantly end your play session. Fortunately it gets better quick, otherwise the game would have been a mess of trial and error. Combat in Phantasy Star I is really simple. It's turn based, you can use a healing item, attack, or choose to cast a spell. There's only 2 types of healing items in the game, and the set of spells is rather limited too: there's two attack spells, some defensive spells and a bunch of defense oriented ones. If you choose to just attack an enemy the game will take the choice from you and automatically has your character attack a random enemy. 99% of the time it's "keep pressing A to win" against a bunch of monsters of the same type. In this game there are no encounters against facetious monster teams, and the enemy site is always represented by one sprite. Feels really weird at first, but I'm sure there's good reasons for that found in technical constraints imposed by the 80's hardware. Still you level up quickly, and collecting money to purchase some good equipment doesn't take long either. Therefore combat early on feels actually rewarding and it's fun getting to explore one area after the other. On the other hand later on combat gets kind of pointless as you reach a point where leveling up requires dozens of encounters, and the encounter rate in areas with enemeis weaker tha your party never drops. I often had 4-5 encounters in about 10 steps, that was always annoying.
Earlier I complained about the ugly graphics, but was only referring to the town scenes. In battle scenes the game looks surprisingly good, and enemies are even animated when they attack. The first RPG I ever played felt a lot more modern, and that game didn't have this feature.

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I just love that cold backdrop

The story sucks, but...

Plotwise the game has a very basic setup. Mankind has settled in a star system far from earth, and the guy running the colonies was seduced by evil and now makes everyone feel miserable. Phantasy Star's protagonist is a girl who vows to take over her brother's task of saving the sun system. And that's pretty much all the story the game has. Sure you meet more people that join your party, but there's no real development. It's a static world where everything stays the same while you're on a giant fetch quest to find a bunch of items that are necessary to reach the bad guy in his flying castle. However I really liked the way that fetch quest is presented. Almost every NPC in the game has an important piece of information that you need to put together to figure out what you need to do and where you should go. It's a great puzzle, that's brought down by how much travelling back and forth it requires if you're not using a guide. It's a relatively open game with a reasonable sense of progression.

Grab yourself some pen and paper

As i suggested this is a game with an open world right from the start, but there's no world map, no town maps and no maps for any of the dungeons. This can turn exploring the later into real hell trips. If you don't have a guide on hand, you really need to map out all of the dungeons. Making at least a rough sketch of the world map can also help, and it's important to take notes on what NPCs tell you to piece together your objectives.
I admit that I skipped this part of the game by using a guide. It seemed that mapping out all of the dungeons would only drag out an already dull experience, but looking back I'm sure doing this by hand would rather enhance it. There's probably a sense of accomplishment for completing maps that's otherwise missing.

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Every inch of these first person mazes looks the same

The bottom line

A fun game that I mostly enjoyed even though I played it wrong. An item or spell that reduces the encounter rate would have been welcome, the story could have been more fleshed out with some actual events happening, but those issues aside Phantasy Star is a really solid game. And it has a lot more game to it than today's RPGs too. I'm looking forward to the sequel, knowing I won't skimp out on the map drawing next time should it be required.

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