Note: For consistency’s sake, I’ll be using the characters’ Japanese names throughout this review.
For everything I liked about Phantasy Star II, I have to admit that characterization wasn’t its strong suit. Only a few of the characters were fleshed out enough to be considered individuals. The rest serve as props for the narrative to use in service of its ideas. Granted, this doesn’t detract from the quality of the story Phantasy Star II wants to tell, but you get the sense that Sega wanted to correct it, anyway. In enter Phantasy Star II Text Adventures, a compilation of side-stories focusing on the heroes of Phantasy Star II. While it was ostensibly made to expand our understanding of the characters, the game’s more notable achievements are expanding on world and mood. Despite the uneven quality from story to story, there’s a meticulous understanding of the Phantasy Star II ethos and how to render it within this new space. What we’re presented with is a dismal world that’s unafraid of uncovering the firmly entrenched problems that plague Motavian society.
Unfortunately, the game is not without its problems. Most of the problems I have with the Text Adventures – OK, all of the problems I have with the Text Adventures – stem from the game’s commitment to its pulp fiction ethos. Each of the narratives feels like an unabashed representation of one serial fiction genre or another, like Yousis’ action-flavored bildungsroman or Shilka’s heist story. This isn’t an inherently bad trait, as Famicom Tantei Club and the more recent Nightshade have both proven. Unfortunately, because the Text Adventures are too willing to believe what little hype they have, they often skip over the question of whether or not the individual stories are actually deserving of that hype. The natural result of that is an uneven level of quality between stories, largely based on the type and amount of emotional strength behind them. Amia’s and Rudger’s adventures, for example, work as well as they do because their neutral perspectives lend the heavier moments gravity by glossing over them as though they were nothing special. And Shilka’s and Huey’s stories forgo such gravity altogether so they can tell mildly entertaining stories.
Yousis and (to a lesser extent) Nei and Kinds aren’t as lucky as their peers. Although their stories do offer at least some evidence for their protagonists’ highs and lows – Yousis’ master talent for swordsmanship, Nei’s isolation from society – those stories still end up feeling unrealistically exaggerated. It’s as though the game is performing emotions for the reader rather than letting them arise organically from its own situations. Not only does this prevent the heavier moments from acquiring the legitimacy they might otherwise have, but it also has the unintended side effect of shining a huge spotlight on the protagonists. They’re not ordinary people anymore, but grand heroes who stand apart from their own surroundings. The odd dramatic coincidences that close out some of these stories (Kinds’ girlfriend boarding the plane with him at just the last minute) only reinforces that notion.
What I find odd about all this is how much that philosophy works against Phantasy Star II’s strengths, which also happen to be the Text Adventures’ strengths. Phantasy Star II is primarily interested in dispelling the sort of idealistic futures that technological advancement often promises us. It shows how the order these futures depict can only really exist within an authoritarian police state, one that’s destined to fail because at its foundation rests the very violence and disorder it seeks to eliminate. That fate is foreshadowed rather well throughout each of the stories: there’s a sense that the system is already rotting away and the characters are simply waiting for the day when society buckles under the pressure. Crime runs rampant in Motavia’s various cities. Racial biases can be so entrenched that the only people you can rely on are those who, like you, exist on society’s fringes. At any moment, an accident or a mysterious monster could destroy everything you’ve ever known.
Besides rendering these moments in intricate detail, the Text Adventures’ defining characteristic is how it filters that bleak worldview through individual characters. Despite the variety of life experiences between them, there are commonalities between each character. For example, they’re not yet the heroic figures the ultimately become in Phantasy Star II. They’re ordinary people (at least when the game remembers to present them as such), trying to live as best they can in a dreary world like this. However, there’s a much more significant connection between each of these stories: struggle. Everybody feels like they’ve been wronged by fate in one way or another, yet no matter how much they struggle, you still have to confront the fact that they’re ultimately not in control of their own lives. (They may not confront it, but you do.) In fact, most of them have a very limited ability to push back against the machinations of the cold, unfeeling world that surrounds them. Their lives are bleak and arbitrary. Getting ahead depends far more on luck than it does on any effort the characters could ever hope to put forward.
Which isn’t to say the game completely lacks hope. Assuming you bracket the source material while playing, the Text Adventures are replete with happy endings. At the same time, though, there are important limits to those endings. They don’t extend out to the wider world of Motavia, but only ever apply to this character’s specific situation. In addition, you’re painfully aware of how little guarantee there was the characters would have earned those happy endings. It’s possible to interpret that lack of a guarantee as something which makes the endings that much happier for them, but it’s equally possible to reason that the luck that brought these characters their happy endings could have just easily denied it to them.
What makes these moods especially impactful is how consistently they’re reflected within every facet of the game. Text Adventures is a very textured video game. Not only is it aware of the tools at its disposal, but it’s determined to wring as much value as it can from each of them. The vignette format already lends itself well to the game’s ambitions. Collectively speaking, the perspectives give us a very comprehensive view of life under Mother Brain, and, therefore, just how serious/pervasive the problems of that life really are. But by no means are the Text Adventures’ talents limited to that. Other examples include:
- Music. Despite the limited number of tracks (one for battle, another for everything else), Text Adventures is smart enough to tailor the music enough to communicate the dominant mood in each story. In Yousis’ case, that mood is perpetual intrigue and a building sense of action; in Nei’s, heavy oppression with a hint of loneliness; and Huey’s, strangely enough, combines lazy summer days with worming conspiracy.
- Movement. Moving from one place to another is a slow, deliberate process, leaving you a lot of time to process your surroundings. Combine that with some vivid narration, and you have spaces that are very easy to inhabit. Because of that, the chaos/uncertainty/deacy/whatever other aura these areas project is that much more immediate than it might be otherwise.
- The money count. Normally, it’s just there to show you how much money you have, but Amia’s Adventure changes that from “Meseta” to “Bounties Captured.” It’s a minor yet clever way to demonstrate how she interprets wealth not through money, but through the personal accomplishment of capturing criminals.
But by far the most game’s most valuable assets are the fights strewn about Motavia. The concept behind them is simple: you pick an attack, watch the literal dice roll out before you, and hope you land some decent numbers (anything below a 5 counts as a miss). Minimalist though it may be, that same minimalism lends the battles a greater deal of clarity than most of the game’s peers could claim. That clarity comes through both in the stories’ specific moments (like better weapons giving you more dice to roll) and more generally in the system itself. The low numbers, for example, magnify the impact behind each blow. You’d think that would make these fights feel empowering, but given the transparency of your own HP versus the opaqueness of the enemy’s, the opposite turns out to be true. These are desperate, brutal affairs where every hit can feel like a punch to the gut.
And going a little deeper, seeing the dice roll before your eyes impresses upon you just how arbitrary, how luck-based, and how dismal these encounters really are. However, I wouldn’t call them unfair. The system admits very little (if any) skill is involved in procuring victory, a hard fact that applies to both to you and the characters doing the fighting. Theirs is a world lacking better options. Not only do none of them grow stronger (Yousis being the sole exception), but given the nature of the system, that growth wouldn’t mean that much anyway. Besides, the few moments of empowerment within the game are usually brief. All you can do is roll the dice and hope you get lucky.
I don’t want to give the impression that the Text Adventures are entirely doom and gloom. Huey and Shilka offer a nice reprieve from it all, and if you’re looking for pulp adventures, then the game clearly offers that. The reason I highlight the darker moments so much is because they’re the most powerful aspect to the game. They’re uncompromising, willing and capable of penetrating any ill-considered idealism that the future can only get better. That’s not necessarily a gleeful nihilism on the game’s part; the inherent subjectivity of multiple perspectives keeps that from becoming reality. The Text Adventures just want to present as full an image of what the future offers us as possible, for better or worse.