Through no fault of its own, Phantasy Star III has always been the black sheep of the Phantasy Star series. Its predecessor set a very high bar, one that the many drastic changes to series tradition prevent it from passing. The game eschews all the cool sci-fi elements that give the series its identity and replaces them with a generic fantasy RPG facade. What’s more, the game doesn’t even feel finished. Its worlds are barren, and minor plot foibles frequently gnaw away at the story. No wonder fans were less receptive to Phantasy Star III.
I’m not going to deny all of these problems. However, I still want to give the game credit, because it’s not as though it’s completely lacking in value. In fact, I see it as a conscious rebellion against Phantasy Star tradition. It makes the gameplay more meaningful than it’s ever been and tempers its predecessors’ positive outlooks with something more grounded. Is the break complete? Of course not. Yet I still find myself intrigued by what the game does.
Before I can explain what I find so intriguing, though, it’d help to establish just what Phantasy Star is. For starters, it was never about the sci-fi elements. They helped distinguish it from the countless fantasy-themed RPGs of its day, but more important was what it did with those elements. The social commentary and the experimentation with form; those were the true meat of the Phantasy Star games. It only makes sense that Phantasy Star III would stage its rebellion here. Its story follows a procession of heroes over several generations, each one tackling issues important to them. Rhys, for example, has to rescue his abducted wife from the Laya clan. His son Nial has to aid the rebel forces against Lune, and Aron has to…do something. His quest isn’t set up very well, and it feels like it starts just because it has to. But that’s beside the point. The point is that so far, the game falls well within the series tradition of making broad social statements. I can already see the game commenting on issues like racism and government-backed rebellions.
Where it starts to diverge is in how it addresses those statements. This isn’t like previous Phantasy Star games, where even at their darkest moments, they ultimately maintained a positive outlook. By its very nature, Phantasy Star III’s format precludes that kind of tone. Despite each generation ending with the hero having solved whatever problem plagued his people, his solution never sticks. His children still encounter problems of their own to solve, and it’s usually because of whatever solution the previous generation employed. While I’m certain this was done to add weight to the narrative, it’s hard to deny the effect this set-up exerts on the game’s tone. Instead of optimism, we find a bleak realism. No grand solutions can ever exist, as the heroes can’t anticipate the problems that future generations will face. Even if they could, any solution they do employ is only going to create new kinds of problems.
As dismal as this makes the game sound, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it nihilistic. If anything, the game derives its strength from how realistically it approaches its problems. It’s that realism that allows Phantasy Star III to temper its predecessors’ idealism without outright destroying it. After all, in spite of the lack of permanent solutions, the heroes still decide to make the world a better place. All the game is asking us to do is recognize that any answer we find to our problems will inevitably create new problems down the road. In fact, that’s one of the things I really like about the newly introduced marriage mechanic. What better way to examine the long-term impacts behind the heroes’ actions than through political marriages?
The gameplay, on the other hand, is a little harder to make sense of. This is because gameplay has never been that important for Phantasy Star games, at least for its own sake. For all the narrative value it holds, you’d never play one of these games because of their tough challenges or their uniquely engaging mechanics. And to be perfectly honest, Phantasy Star III isn’t that different. Its battles are still hands-off affairs, and its various locales do more for the story than they do any other part of the game. (Not that they’re consistently good at serving the narrative, but that’s another issue.)
Where Phantasy Star III really tries to break from tradition is with its magic system. Rather than have the characters learn progressively more powerful spells as they level up, the game instead starts everybody off with a set amount of spells. You adjust their strength as you go, but you can’t strengthen one spell without weakening another. I really want to congratulate the game for this system, because it feels like an honest attempt to make gameplay meaningful on its own terms. The system is set up in such a way that there can never be an ideal arrangement. Instead, you’re forced to change your spells based on new circumstances. So magic stops being this static system and instead becomes this thing you’re constantly engaging with. This means that the gameplay, rather than serving as a metaphor for some events in the story, can finally be enjoyed for what it is.
Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, the magic only works insofar as the battles will allow them to work, and they’re quite intent on cutting magic out of the picture. Why bother using that cool water spell? You can win these fights just fine with regular attacks, and it’s not like your spells are significantly more powerful than those attacks. So the only hope the game has that you’ll cast your spells in battle (let alone tweak their power) rests on your idle curiosity. It deserves better than that. This is a strong system, and it fails through no fault of its own. Unfortunately, because the game surrounding that system doesn’t capitalize on those strengths, the magic is forced to languish.
And what does Phantasy Star III have when you strip away that magic? A world that’s strangely hostile toward whoever’s exploring it. These poor individuals must endure fight after fight, each one slowly wearing away at their fortitude. Then, when they finally arrive at town, they find the local shops stock their wares inconsistently. I know that sounds like a minor quibble, but it often translates to you trekking to an entirely different world just to get a basic item. All while dealing with those grueling fights, mind you. It’s as though you have to struggle against the game to get anything done.
While many other games have managed to pull off this kind of hostility to great effect, the only reason they were able to do so was because they had a greater purpose in mind. If Phantasy Star III has such a reason, I haven’t been able to figure it out. Even at its most dour, the story never presents the world as outright vicious. And from a pure gameplay perspective, that hostility doesn’t make the game more compelling to play. At best, it renders the experience a muted one; at worst, it makes the game needlessly frustrating.
I don’t want to be too cynical about the game, though. As much as I maligned the gameplay (which really isn’t that much), I still appreciate what Phantasy Star III does from a narrative perspective. It turns over so many Phantasy Star mainstays while somehow preserving the parts that make the games work: the nuance, and the attention to detail the games apply to their own social commentary. So maybe it’s best to follow the game’s lead and look at things in a more reserved light. We don’t have to discount what the game gets right; we only have to consider that alongside its faults.