When I heard that the next game in the Phantasy Star series was going to be online, I was just as happy as anyone. I followed the hype, got excited about the graphics and the thought of exploring with others, but then something hit me. Online RPGs just don't have any complexity in the story department. Sure, the games have incredibly non-linear settings and can still be amazing in the other departments, but what's an RPG without someone trying to destroy the world?
I don't want to sound too negative, but to be candid with everyone, the story in Phantasy Star Online is close to nonexistent. Everything in the world is going fine, and then you realize you have to get the hell off your planet before the end of the world arrives. So taking a hint from Lost in Space, everyone packs into two ships, Pioneer I and Pioneer II and head for a new planet.
Before Pioneer II arrives, a giant explosion rocks the new world and everyone from the first ship seems to be lost. That is where you come in, taking the role of anyone you chose (naturally a treasure hunter), customizing your character's appearance and type through a very interesting (but at the same time limited) system that Sonic Team came up with.
From there, you have to search through four different areas of the new world and try to find out what happened to everyone while fighting off monsters and bosses alike. Although the game has moments where you think its really going to get deep, it just falls shorts of the common RPG story.
That's not to say that the entire story was terrible though. For the players with the extra incentive to beat the entire game, there are quests that you sign up for and have to complete with certain limitations (like time limits or weak party members). Although not a huge thing, it added something to do when just exploring the different areas became boring.
One of the things that I really liked about Phantasy Star Online was its controls: they never felt sluggish and were almost always responsive (minus the lag in the online mode). Sonic Team made very good use of the Dreamcast controller, using everything to its utmost advantage.
Looking fairly similar to Zelda, you assign different items/spells to the A, B and X buttons and then can use them at will during the game. However, knowing that it was going to take more then three spots to save the world, by holding down the R button you have access to a new set of A, B and X slots. Where is the Y button? Unfortunately, it's the auto chat button, which is really useless for everyone who plays PSO offline or with a keyboard.
I'm hesitant to make such a general statement, but I think that everyone knows that great controls don't matter if the gameplay isn't up to speed. With Phantasy Star Online, there are some noticeable flaws, but they never hurt the game enough to prevent it from obtaining the success it deserves.
Taking another hint from Zelda type games, your character can lock-on to enemies and items in the game, but there isn't anything to keep you locked on them. What that means is that you can be moving in to attack and then suddenly miss your enemy and hit the air. It's something that I wish Sonic Team would have worked on, but it's just another challenge the player has to overcome.
Although the lock-on feature has its flaw, the actual gameplay never ceased to impress me with its well-done designs (pity the Sonic Team member who was forbidden to sleep).
Despite the Dreamcast being the oldest of the next generation systems, the graphics are top notch. They easily match any of the recent RPGs being released, and for some reason I felt very nostalgic just looking at the game. The player animations are excellently done, and the enemies all look different but equally impressive.
On top of the great graphics, the game features some of the best sound effects I've heard in a while. Everything seems to fit nicely into place, without ever seeming like it was forced.
The actual music, on the other hand, is a bit of a disappointment, but like I said earlier, you have to give some things up to make a solid online RPG.
When I say solid online RPG, I really do mean that. Phantasy Star Online is one of the best four player online exploration titles I've played in a long, long time. There is no feeling like getting together with three of your buddies and just hitting one of the four dungeons and tearing the monsters apart. By working together you can raise your unique character's level, buy/find new spells and equipment and then play on the harder versions of the game.
I think that it's very important to point out that Phantasy Star
Online lives up to its name. It's the best online game for the Dreamcast by far. However, the single player mode in a word, stinks. The only thing that playing alone does is allow you to build up your character's level and go on the various quests that I loved so much.
All that I can say about PSO is that Sonic Team obviously put a lot of work into the game, and that it definitely shows and paid off. This is easily one of the best games to grace the dying Dreamcast and is a must buy for all fans that love to go exploring. The game is very finite, and you will eventually be able to do everything it has to offer, but with the release of PSO v.2, nobody should miss the chance to play this free online RPG.
Just make sure that your using SegaNet or have a reliable connection, because without playing online this title just isn't that much fun. Oh, and you can't rent the game, you have to buy it from the store (something about registering the game to the Dreamcast its played on).