All right, it's time to shake the cobwebs of nightmares & dreamscapes and get down to what matters. Phantasy Star II! That's what matters! A bit ago, I mentioned an article in Game Players magazine that piqued my interest in PS2. On the great repository of archive.org, I found the article.
I don't think this was the magazine I owned; Game Players often repurposed its articles, and I wouldn't have bought a dedicated Genesis publication at a time that I didn't own a Genesis. To my recollection, the magazine I owned was a more generalized end-of-year cross-system roundup. But the magazine above does contain the article, and it deserves a page-by-page appreciation after all these years.
I can just hear that title screen fading in by looking at the image on the bottom left. So classy. So wondrous. Just a cut above anything else in its day. It makes me want to start up the game right now.
We see in the first paragraph an example of a phenomenon unique to this period: the very idea of an RPG, a game that could exist outside of an arcade-like action experience and provide a more "intellectual challenge," as this article puts it, was considered outright bizarre in the console space, the province of the more sophisticated, adult world of personal computers. The "what is a role-playing game?" explanation had to be run through several times in the day when PS2 was discussed. I remember my beloved copy of Sega Genesis Secrets had one prefacing its Phantasy Star II section, beholding it as a "remarkable game, as anyone who's played it can tell you," and mentions the voluminous (and quite well-produced) start-to-finish hint book Sega packed with the game to guide players through this one-of-a-kind title:
This isn't the first time the thought has crossed my mind, but I wonder how PS2 seemed to those coming from the first game. Yeah, your brother bites it in the opening moments, and you're trying to save the star system from an evil tyrant, but it's visually a very bright & happy game, and though Phantasy Star is renowned as a sci-fi series, the original game has a very strong strain of childlike fairy tale to it. PS2 was renowned as a technical marvel in its day, so maybe that pushed all other considerations aside, but I can imagine a number of fans must have been really taken aback at the turn events take in the Algo Star System.
Your first party member is "a product of bioengineering"! You didn't see that in Final Fantasy - not in this era, anyhow.
As will become evident, the author of the article finished the game, but the look doesn't consist of a walkthrough or plot synopsis: it instead focuses on isolated snapshots of the sights you'd encounter throughout the game, with short, matter-of-fact but evocative captions on screens showcasing the then-stunning graphics and sharp futuristic style. It was, I can testify, an effective sales technique, one that was of a piece with the game's narrative approach. It makes you feel adrift and enhances the title's uniqueness but treats you like an adult.
This section of the article goes over the buildings you could visit in the starting town, Paseo, and their functions. In the medieval RPGs that were the genre's bread & butter to this point, you generally knew the basic components of the town - the inn, the pub, etc. Here, even discovering the nature of the buildings was a novelty - that even the weapon & armor vendors (even that word in the captions sounded futuristic) looked unique, and that your potential destinations included the central government hub, a future technology library, and the far-off Biosystems lab. It sounds like work, but the task you were tackling was a level above a typical fantasy quest: you're preparing yourself for an elaborate job in an advanced society, where understanding the world around you, and what's gone wrong with it, is as much a task as the challenge ahead.
That screen of Rolf waking up in the dim morning light instills much the same feeling in me as the title shot on the previous page. The snippet of prose does much to establish PS2 as something apart - that it was written in an adult manner, that it was solely tone-setting, that it was melancholy and unsettled.
"The weapons shop owner in Paseo bears a striking resemblance to David Bowie." So do many other people in JRPGs. Until I saw a certain piece of official art several years ago, I thought the shopkeeper was male, possibly in part because of this caption.
These screens demonstrate how every little corner of this world was unfamiliar and a feast for the imagination. Even the shopkeepers looked all exotic, and you even got a glimpse into their showcase stock behind them. Typical starting equipment such as Leather Armor and Short Swords couldn't hold a candle to the likes of CARBONSUIT and FIBERCOAT. Also: "Later, ace!"
In other news, the Bridge Is Out (that wasn't yet a cliche, but still) because a fucking assassin who wants to kill your friend is on it.
In yet other news, I thought for the longest time that those trees on the world map were actually green stalagmite-like rock growths. The overworld is so futuristic, though, green and colorful yet domed and enclosed with sleek future metal.
I think this page did more to sell me on the game than any. The character art is sharp, colorful, and full of character. PS2 is not a cast-driven story, and this is as much characterization as your comrades will get outside their intros and the ending, but it's enough. Rudo stares ahead with cold yet reassuring confidence, his solid frame encompassing the entire bottom of the image. Anna gives a wary side-eye as uncertain as her age and background. Hugh peers from beneath his crisp bangs like a curious cricket, scientist resembling subject.
(Also, a small detail I didn't notice until years later: the backgrounds for each character portrait combine to form a single, coherent environment.)
Furthermore, your allies aren't mages or warriors, but doctors, biologists, "wrecker"s. The classes are original yet, again, evocative of work, of something resembling the adult world but in a thrillingly sci-fi milieu. Even the bios are written elegantly - professional yet enigmatic, suggesting more not only about the characters but the world they inhabit (that the world, despite its ultramodern, frictionless veneer, is dangerous enough to require both hired hunters of uncontrolled biohazards and hired guardians from human predators; that something called a "wrecker" is a viable profession). It follows PS2's storytelling style of implying more than telling. The captions echo the economy and intrigue of the in-game text.
On another note, it cannot be overstated how those first-person over-the-shoulder, animated battle graphics were off the hook for the day. Even the placeholder graphics for empty party member slots had futuristic class.
A thief! You didn't have thieves who actually stole stuff in other games. They usually just had a DEX boost. (My mother was not impressed by PS2's advances in this field. One time, I was going in and out of one of the Paseo shops in an attempt to scam some rare item, and for some reason - giving an excuse for why I couldn't relinquish the family TV immediately? - I started explaining to my nearby mother what I was trying to do. "Well, that's nice," she said mildly. "Encouraging thievery.")
On a less-felonious note, even a small detail like the futuristic names helps with world-building. "Shir" and "Rudo"! Everything is abbreviated in the go-go-go future, which has minimal time for mealy-mouthed final schwas in female names, save for take-no-prisoners characters who are sufficiently self-evidently badass! I kid about the first part, but stuff like the evolution of "Motavia" and "Dezoris" to "Mota" and "Dezo" does reflect actual long-term trends toward shortening and compacting proper names and other words over time. It's the smallest of details, but one of many that gives PS2 one of the most indelibly futuristic worlds.
Oh, yeah, and when we're ready, we're going to another planet. Odd that the destruction of Palm escaped this preview. It seems like a conscious omission, though they certainly weren't shy about spoilers.
Then again, maybe "they weren't shy about spoilers" isn't exactly correct. Though it covers almost the entire span of the game, this article doesn't really get into specific plot events, past the premise. Despite this, this page gives a definite impression of things coming to a climax. Everything is dark, unexplained, and dangerous. It hasn't described plot events, though - just atmosphere. It's a testament to how effectively PS2 leverages atmosphere in its storytelling - you can faithfully represent the experience of the game by relying solely on that element.
The exception to Game Players' stance on spoilers is Lutz's presence here, though the author clearly didn't know who he was ("her question"). In-game, Lutz marks sacred purpose in a world devoid of it, but to young me reading this article, who had no idea of his significance either, he was another draw, another exotic person to meet, though of a wholly different variety - a magician; visually still somewhat of a piece with this sleek, streamlined world, yet still apart from it. Concluding the look on the appearance of this markedly-different element in the story does leave you wondering what's to come, how things led up to his introduction, and how it all ends.
And, man, did the actual game deliver on that note.