- The admiration for the individualistic will, coupled with warnings of the danger a techno-autocracy poses.
- The strong thematic through-line and the context that helps to ground it.
- The bold ways these games are willing to experiment with their form in order to better represent these ideas.
Even side projects like the Text Adventures have earned my respect. Unfortunately, exceptions are inevitable with long-running series like these, and as you’ve probably already predicted, Phantasy Star Adventure is that very exception. I would call the game yet another experiment in Phantasy Star’s illustrious history, but that would overlook a lot of the game’s core flaws: namely, their unwillingness to experiment. Despite following in the Text Adventures’ heels, Adventure makes no effort to capitalize on those gains or to represent any of the previously listed strong points. Instead, the game retreats into the safety of generic convention, unwilling to question or challenge or impress.
I should point out that I’m not trying to chain Adventure to what its predecessors accomplished, but using this context to illuminate flaws that would be present in the game, anyway. For example, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the game could stand alone as its own adventure; an easy task, considering the narrative premise. We open on our unnamed protagonist reading a letter from his old friend, The Doctor. After reading about his latest invention, the hero decides to pay the Doctor a visit on the planet Dezolis. This soon develops into a conflict between the protagonist and the Baron Research Institute, a corrupt organization that plans to use the Doctor’s invention for evil.
There aren’t many other details outside this. Phantasy Star Adventure is clearly trying to imbue itself with a sort of pulp fiction quality, much like Famicom Tantei Club or Nightshade or the countless other pulp fiction adventure games that populated 90s gaming. Where Adventure falters is in its unwillingness to consider anything outside that limited purview. This isn’t some hypothetical worry, either. If the game is to have any hope that the player will be interested in its conspiracies and escalating plot, then it must realize that simply presenting the player with action isn’t going to be enough. It needs to do something, anything, to foster a more powerful emotional engagement; to end the world the richness and depth it might otherwise lack. Adventure’s peers realize this, which is why they look outward to supplement whatever developments they make on their own. For the examples I cited earlier, those would be suspense and humor, respectively.
Adventure, by contrast, puts so much faith in the strength of its own format that it never considers developing anything beyond the immediate fact. No wonder, then, that so many of the story’s elements feel as though they arise out of convenience rather than organically forming from the situation at hand. Why is this old man living outside the city so willing to help me take down the Baron Research Institute? Because the plot require it. Why does the Doctor’s invention turn the villain into a literal monster? Because this is a world of moral simplicity, where people are either fundamentally good or evil. Not even the final plea of, “These were powers man was not meant to have” falls flat as it finds only the barest of support it needs. I won’t even go into the way the game glosses over all the problems Lyla (the game’s sole major female character) has to put up with.
It’s worth noting that what I’ve said about the narrative thus far also applies to how the game plays. As the name vaguely hints, Adventure is a simple graphic adventure: you navigate a world represented through static images and cardinal directions, using your limited menu of options to solve basic puzzles that advance the narrative. It’s a flexible format that’s served many games well in the past, but because Adventure lacks the proper ambition, it only sees that format as a means of moving the story forward. Battles, despite owing so much to the Text Adventures that preceded them, lack the brutality and raw physical nature that made those bouts so impressive. What we get instead is two sides attacking each other until one decides to give up. This isn’t to say the game doesn’t understand what it’s capable of; you use a progressively larger number of dice as the battles advance. But it lacks any clear direction beyond pursuing what it sees on the surface. On top of this, the one moment where Adventure shakes things up – specifically, by switching which character you control – lacks the tension it needs.
Conversely, one might also note the unrecognized potential teeming beneath Adventure’s surface. For example, the game presents a somewhat positive view of what life will be like in the future. Breaking away from the gloomy worldview that its peers in the Phantasy Star series present, Adventure sees life among the stars as an extension of the life we enjoy today; maybe with a layer of 70s sci-fi optimism layered on top for good measure. It’s a fascinating picture that I wish the game would elaborate more fully on.
However, the more I played, the clearer it became that this optimistic outlook was rooted in willful ignorance rather than any serious engagement with what it presents. To be fair, some of this comes down to a lack of development on the game’s part. I imagine the few instances we see of everyday life aren’t as compelling as they could be because the game’s energy was directed elsewhere. But maybe it shouldn’t have been. Adventure’s world features a medical monopoly ruling the people through violence, a police force that’s so corrupt it refuses to help you until you’ve given them a conspicuous bribe, firearms being sold at a very easily accessible shop (right across from the police, I might add), and little real consideration on what any of this means. Even if the game wanted to explore these topics, the peppy music and cartoony art style would betray the game’s intentions. So strip away all the extraneous refuse and you’re left with a story lacking in any real mood. (One might also note how little sense the setting makes in Phantasy Star context. Dezolis was known for its spiritualism and its attempts to distance itself from the technocracy that defines the other planets. Why does it look like Paseo?)
Usually when I review or write about video games, I try to get at the heart of why this particular game exists. What is its existence trying to tell me? What message does it hope to communicate? (More cynically: what message does the game implicitly communicate?) With Adventure, I see that logic frustrated to no apparent end. Whether I try to find within its world an artistic statement or entertainment value, I still find myself at a loss to explain why Sega decided this game was worth making in the first place. All I am left with is this unsatisfying answer: Phantasy Star Adventure exists only for the sake of existing. And yet it can’t even make a meaningful statement of that.