Phantasy Star IV is about as old school as an RPG can be. It was released over a decade ago for the Sega Megadrive (aka Genesis), and has since been included in a number of Sega collections for the PS2 and PS3.
The game has a number of features which were well ahead of its time, an interesting and pretty large cast of characters and a top notch plot.
For a start, it has two protagonists, Chaz Ashley and Alys Brangwin. They’re both Hunters (mercenaries), with Chaz the apprentice of Alys, who is not so much a mother figure as a feisty aunt figure. They’ve been sent to investigate an outbreak of monsters at a university, but I won’t go further than that with the details of the plot.
The story is connected to the previous instalments of the Phantasy Star series, but you don’t need to have played or read about their plots to thoroughly enjoy IV. There’s no voice-acting, of course, and characters are represented by nicely drawn pictures or 2-D figures. The script is generally excellent and the characters are (script-wise, anyway) very three-dimensional. They flirt, they bicker, they get jealous and pissed off: they’re a decade earlier but a mile better than the likes of Penelo and Vaan from FFXII.
The battle system is pretty damned fantastic. For a start, you get up to 5 party members at a time. Each one has a predefined set of skills and techniques. Techniques are basically magic, and require points to be used. Skills can be used a limited number of times but once they’re exhausted they can’t be used again. Probably the best part of battle is the ability for co-operative attacks, usually with 2-3 members working together to inflict substantial damage. If there’s one gripe with the battle system it’s that techniques and skills are not explained, so if you get a new one you have to use it to see what it does. However, the prefix system (Nares is an improved version of Gires which is an improved version of Res) does help this a bit.
Naturally, the graphics are dated. Unlike Vagrant Story, where things had moved on to three-dimensional dungeons, everything is firmly 2-D. For me, it’s filled with old school charm, though if graphics are your thing it may be a weak point.
There are side quests. As a Hunter, you do get to perform optional Hunts, which are contracts that do not necessarily involving actually hunting something down. In addition, there are areas that you do not need to visit and might only find by exploration. However, the game doesn’t take prisoners and if your levels are too low you’ll end up dying pretty sharpish. The optional areas often have rather tasty equipment for your characters.
Ultimately, this game is one of the best games I’ve every played. It’s up there with Vagrant Story and Shadow Hearts. If you haven’t played it, and aren’t put off by the 2-D graphics, I’d strongly advise you consider buying one of Sega’s collections.