I have been a fan of the Phantasy Star series for quite a time now. It all started for me when Final Fantasy 6 got me hooked on RPGs, and I was anxiously looking for a good RPG for my Genesis. I found that game in Phantasy Star 4. Though it was regrettable that I had started with the ending of the series, I still enjoyed PS 1 thru 3 (yes, even part three!), and I still think that the PS series is one of, if not the best RPG series out there.
Considering all this, you could imagine just how excited I was when Phantasy Star Online was announced for the DC. Back then all we knew about the game was that you could play it online with four of your buddies. I imagined that it would be just like playing through a normal RPG, only with everyone in your party controlled by a real person.
So, PSO came out and proved just how wrong I was. But, was it a good game nonetheless? Read on.
Let me start with the obvious: the graphics. I can honestly say that PSO sports some of the best graphics on the DC, and it's easily on par with Shenmue, albeit in a completely different style.
The first time you enter Pioneer One, your mouth will drop to the floor. I spent quite some time just watching the city in the distance and the vehicles flying over. Then, when you finally decide to move on to the first level, Forest 1, your mouth will hit the floor again. The levels are beautifully rendered, and the tranquil feeling of the Forest levels is really soothing. That is, until the enemies appear.
The enemies are all well rendered, and they all animate very smoothly. The one flaw here is the limited variety of the enemies you'll encounter. There is a lot of palette swapping, and few new or original enemies in each area. Room in, room out you'll be blasting enormous numbers of Bugbears, Pal Sharks and Dark Dimenians. This can get quite tedious, but it's not that much of a drawback.
What is a drawback though, are the levels you'll go through later on in the game. Most of your time (trying to complete the game or playing offline, that is) you'll be playing through the Dungeon and Ruins levels. And it's these two areas (with exception of the truly m magnificent Dungeons 2) that are the most bland and dark of the entire game.
Compared to Forest, Dungeons 2 and Mines 1 these levels are extremely boring and very low on detail. Maybe Sonic Team got bored halfway through the game?
The characters are all nicely animated. Each type of weapon has its own attack animation, which adds quite some variety and some animations are very entertaining, like attacking with the Photon Claws. The characters are well rendered too, and are quite detailed.
The camera really sucks, and this is just one of the areas where the game really slips. It's very irritating having to push the L trigger all the time just to see where you're going. Another thing the camera often leads to, is blindly walking into a group of enemies, which will immediately surround you, making escape impossible.
All in all, this game looks really great, but does have some flaws.
Contrary to popular believe, PSO DOES have a story, albeit a very poor one. This is really THE part of the game that takes away all feeling of playing a real Phantasy Star game. Anyone who has played a game in the PS series, knows that the story in the PS series is one of the best ever in an RPG.
PSO's story is quite okay, even if it's nowhere near the standard that the PS series has set, but it's the execution of the story that becomes its downfall. There are little to no conversations that actually help develop the story. If you want to know what the story is about, you have to check out all the message capsules left on Ragol by Rico.
Another bad thing about the story is that it seems to be included as an extra. When you reach and defeat the final boss, all you get is the closing credits. No ending movie, no conclusion to the story. You're not told if Ragol is finally safe to settle, or if your people have finally found rest. No, you just get to watch the credits roll by. Yaay.
Being a real-time RPG instead of a turn-based one, I wondered how they would map all actions and techs (magic) to the few buttons the DC controller has, but the final solution is a very satisfying one. You have three of the four face buttons to map any item or action to, and another three if you hold the R trigger. This means you can put a weak attack under A, a strong one under B and a technique or something under X.
The Y button is used to call the ultra crappy software-keyboard, allowing you to chat with others. If you are to play this game online though, a keyboard is an essential. The software keyboard is unbelievably slow and awkward to use. A problem with this button layout is that force characters have nowhere near enough buttons to map their techniques to. However, this does add the element of planning ahead, as you have to know which tech you're going to use in what area.
Aside from this the controls work well and are pretty intuitive to use. Attacks can be stringed together for combos but with a maximum of three hits. Combos require timing to perform, removing any feeling of button bashing.
The game is very, very repetitive, and if you play it offline, you'll get bored with it quite easily. Because I live in Europe, where we have to pay per minute, I was forced to do most of my leveling offline. The game started to get boring when I reached the very hard mode, which I got to after about 140 hours of gaming.
The main reason I played the game so long offline was to level up for the times I went online. If you're not planning to take this game online, then don't buy it. But even online, the game gets repetitive after a while. I myself have reached level 76, and then stopped playing. I still go online from time to time, but when I do, I chat more often than that I actually go fighting.
Another problem with the game, is that it's very unbalanced. While Rangers and Hunters can just fly through the game, Force characters have a long hard road to travel. Force characters are weak, have low HP and do very little damage, even on higher levels. Still, when a Force reaches level 100, he/she does kick major ass.
The later dungeons get very irritating. Their layout resembles that of a maze, so you will be going through the same empty rooms over and over again just because you missed one switch. Online, this is not much of a problem, but offline, it'll drive you insane.
The music in the game is okay, but nothing more. I never found myself humming along or anything, nor do I remember any of the songs in the game.
What's there is good enough, but it can get very quiet in dungeons.
PSO tries to use dynamic music, as in the music changes according to the situation. I said tries, because it fails miserably. The battle music starts at the weirdest times, like when you're in a completely empty room, or after you've finished a battle. This gets very irritating because you never know if you should be preparing for battle or not.
Also, the dungeons tend to get very quiet. The music completely dies down most of the time, maybe to create a tense atmosphere. What it really does is make boring dungeons even more boring... offline that is, of course.
I don't even have to mention the sound effects, because you won't notice many of them. They're not good enough to notice, nor are they bad enough to irritate you.
What does rule, is the sound the sabres make when you wield them- they sound just like light-sabres! Overall though, the sound department is very average.
Remember, if you're going to buy this game: it's called Phantasy Star ONLINE for a reason. Offline, it's nowhere near worth buying, but if you're going to take it online, you will be experiencing one of the greatest games ever.
Yes, it does have it's faults, but the most important thing is how much fun you have with a game. And I can honestly say, there are few games with which I've had this much fun. Be warned though, PSO will rule your life.