While Square was releasing the perfect Final Fantasy VI, and Enix was releasing the near-perfect Illusion of Gaia, Sega decided that it was time to bring back the Phantasy Star series for what turned out to be its last installment for seven years and counting. (I'm not counting any of the spinoffs, including Phantasy Star Online.) Indeed, Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium serves as just that - a coda to the series, to bring together many of the best elements from the three previous games and maybe wrap up some loose ends in the process.
Graphically, there's not much to get excited about here; in fact, most of the sprites look like they were taken straight out of Phantasy Star II (Chaz, for example, is a differently colored Rolf). The same goes for the music, although there are a couple of rather good, if simplistic, techno/dance bits. The battle/item/menu systems have practically not changed at all (although the game plays much faster, a welcome improvement from watching Rolf and company slog through the dungeons). Interestingly, the one big innovation here is the combo system - predating Chrono Trigger by a full year! The (very effective) cut scene format is simply a development of the one in Phantasy Star II. But let's face it - no one ever played Phantasy Star for the eye candy or the technical innovations (although it delivered plenty of both); this was always the series known for the landmark storylines. And although Phantasy Star IV lives up to the name in that regard...well, keep reading.
Basically, the main character is Chaz, a monster hunter, who sets out with his mentor Alys (not the Alis from the original Phantasy Star, but translated as Alys in homage) to eliminate a Bio-Monster threat (hey, isn't that how Phantasy Star II started?). From there, the plot expands rather nicely (and yes, you do get to travel the Algol solar system), often explaining things from the previous three games and tying their storylines together. But despite all the cool twists and turns, it always seems like we've seen a good deal of this before. In fact, the game's first really major plot point (you'll know it when you see it) is straight out of Phantasy Star II - and in that particular game, it seemed not only far more original, but far more moving. (In fact, the first part of the game deals with eliminating planetary control systems that are going haywire...now, does that ring a bell?) The cast is rather strong, but again will bring about a sense of déjà vu: Rika is a dead ringer for Nei, Chaz is reminiscent of Rolf, and Wren should look familiar to anyone who played Phantasy Star III.
Of course, there are plenty of references to earlier games to satisfy fans of the series; the problem is, occasionally it seems like a conglomeration of pieces of the earlier games. And indeed, the best moments of Phantasy Star IV are the ones that echo the first two games and tie them to the present. In essence, Phantasy Star IV is a thoroughly enjoyable, engaging and satisfying experience, but lacks the originality and almost operatic force that made Phantasy Star II a masterpiece.