Ahh, the venerable Phantasy Star series; a series that has made many of us into the RPG addicts we are today. Phantasy Star for the SMS was the pinnacle of 8-bit RPGing, Phantasy Star 2 ushered in the age of 16-bit RPGs with a brave and unique storyline, Phantasy Star 3, while a good game, didn't quite live up to the standards of the previous titles, and Phantasy Star 4 was a grand title which can best be described as a love letter to Phantasy Star fans.
The 32/64-bit age was a trying one for fans, as a new installment of this beloved series was not happening, and other series like Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire were receiving 32-bit updates. Sega's Saturn wasn't a big success, but with the new Dreamcast, there was hope. A new Phantasy Star was in the works. After having spent over 170 hours on Phantasy Star Online, does it measure up to the lofty standards set by its predecessors? Yes and no.
Phantasy Star Online (PSO) is a radical departure from the rest of the series. Unlike proverbial Japanese console RPGs, PSO's focus is not on a developed story with pre-set characters. While there is a story, it's very thin, doesn't quite jive with the Phantasy Star timeline and, at times, seems like an afterthought. This is very disappointing to fans hoping for the same type of poignant storyline found in Phantasy Star 4. Story is the area where this Phantasy Star installment took the biggest step backward, but in a game of this type, story doesn't matter that much. To me, Phantasy Star Online is more about going treasure hunting and monster hunting with three of your favorite friends. Nothing quite beats the fun of kicking some monster butt with a bunch of friends.
Kicking monster butt in PSO is different than in the rest of the series. PSO is an action-RPG where you fight beasties in real-time. As with many 3D action-RPGs/ action- adventures (like Zelda- ToOT and Maken X), PSO utilizes an auto-targeting system. Unfortunately, unlike Zelda and Maken, there is no auto lock-on; I found myself many times accidentally grabbing a felled item, or breaking a treasure box when I really wanted to rail that monster nearby. But it's a minor niggle to be sure, and won't affect your enjoyment of the game any.
You get to customize six actions (be they attacks, spells or item uses) on your action bar, one each to your X, A, and B buttons and three more to the R-Trigger pressed simultaneously with the X, A, and B buttons. Y is permanently to the chat function. Pressing it brings up the on-screen keyboard, which does not cut it compared to the Dreamcast keyboard peripheral.
Control is generally sound; there's no delay between a button press and the on-screen action, but the analog movement could have used some minor tweaking. It's not noticeable, but would be if the game had platform jumping or a 'walking the balance beam' segment. Also, there are times when I walk past a monster and my character starts walking in an attack pose when I want her to run instead. This is more of an annoyance offline when you're fighting off hordes by yourself. When you're playing with three friends online, there's so much going on, that you forget the niggles and lose yourself in the rush. I would have also liked a fully rotatable camera, instead of the current one-button set-up. I want to see my character's pretty face more.
Other aspects of the gameplay I like are the character creation and Section ID assignment. Character creation has got to be my favorite part of PSO. You can choose from nine different templates from three different character classes and then the rest is up to you. You can choose from a variety of face types, skin colors, hairstyles, outfits, and even create his or her proportions. I love this and wish to see it in more RPGs. I really enjoyed creating my character to my specs and it helped me get more into the game. This was MY character; not some factory preset.
And also, based on your character's name, the game assigns you one of ten colored section ID's (like Greennill or Pinkal). Certain types of items appear more frequently in some section ID's than in others (for example, rifles are frequently found by people with the Greennill ID, while those with the Pinkal ID almost never find them). This is one incentive to play online and make some friends. Someone from another section ID may have items useless to him/ her but useful to you.
So how does this all look? In a word, stunning. The graphics are simply beautiful. When I play offline, I often just stop and walk around just to gaze in wonder at the incredibly done locales. The Dreamcast's 8 megs of video RAM are put to some great use here. Forest 2, Caves 2, and Mines 1 are simply a joy to look at. I still can't get over the reflective floor in Mines 1.
The character and monster models are also beautifully rendered and look awesome. And close up, you can even see the individual strands of fur drawn on the boomas. But don't stare in awe too long, lest you want to die and lose your equipped weapon and money earned in the process (another beef I have).
Also, there are only four 'dungeon' areas to explore (forest, caves, mines, and ruins). While it may seem limiting, once you complete the game, you gain access to the Hard difficulty level. With that comes added challenge (as if the game wasn't challenging enough) and better treasures. Beat that and you can play in Very Hard for added challenge and the best treasures. So the game's only got four areas. The same treasures aren't in the same places and the allure of finding new treasures keeps me coming back.
Before I forget, I should discuss PSO's sound in this review. The sound effects for the weapons, monster grunts, etc. are all decent. They fit the game like a glove. I particularly like the sound that's made when you cast the grants spell. The music, while good, is not quite as catchy as the tunes in the rest of the series. I love how the music is very understated during exploration and it adds a nice ambience to it all. My personal favorite musical theme is the one that plays while you're in town (Pioneer 2).
While it may seem like I've picked this game apart a bit, it just goes to show that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (hence the 100% overall score). I've spent over 170 hours with this game (as of this writing) and it's still as fresh and fun as it was when I first got it. I've never spent more time with a video game than I have with PSO. It's truly the online aspect that sets this game apart. This is my first experience with an online RPG, and I'm loving every minute of it.
If you're expecting a quality single player experience akin to Phantasy Star 4, then skip this title, and get Team Overworks' brilliant Skies of Arcadia. But if the idea of going on a treasure hunt and killing monsters with some friends appeals to you, then you will love PSO. Treasure hunting will never get old, and I will be playing PSO for a long time to come. So if you see a FOmarl named DezaMistique or a HUnewearl named Tamara Ny, say hi.