Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
One of the oldest series up Sega’s sleeve is the notorious Phantasy Star RPG series, with sequels and spin offs spread across three systems, the Genesis, the Master System, and the Game Gear, along with a compilation CD for the Saturn. The last Phantasy Star game to be released was Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium (also known as Phantasy Star IV) for the Sega Genesis back in ’94, and excluding Phantasy Star Collection on the Saturn, fans of the series have been left wanting more, even though the serial progression of the story was officially over. The news of Phantasy Star Online left many wondering how it would fit into the original series, since the Sonic Team was working on the game, instead of the former Phantasy Star team (Overworks?), which worked on Skies of Arcadia instead.
First and foremost, I would like to make something really clear: Phantasy Star Online is NOT a traditional RPG, as Sega and many other sites have dubbed it. It is a heavily action-based game, along the lines of Diablo, Zelda, and so forth. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. On the contrary, the game is definitely fun, if action-type games satiate your gaming appetite. However, those that prefer battle systems relying on menus and such to carry out your commands in traditional RPG style will find Phantasy Star Online, a major turn off.
The control system is customizable and easy to use. The analog stick is used to move your character, and the D-pad is used for pre-set statements that you can choose to use. For instance, I can program pushing up on the D-pad, to have my character say something like, “Damn!” which would be suitable if I were getting hit in the middle of combat and was with a bunch of friends. The Y button on the controller is used to initiate your character’s dialogue. The first menu shows all the letters of the alphabet, numbers, symbols, and function keys (such as F1, F2, and so forth), a makeshift keyboard. Here, you can type out anything you wish, and selecting Enter on the makeshift keyboard will make your character say what you typed out loud on the screen.
Purchasing the Dreamcast keyboard is HIGHLY recommended, as moving the analog stick around to each individual letter, and pressing A, in an attempt to type out full sentences, is time consuming, just as it is when using the Dreamcast Web Browser.
Pressing X while in the chat menu will bring another menu, listing preset words which you can combine with other words to make full, simple sentences. These are the ones that are automatically translated, depending on the language you speak. For instance, in this menu, if I were to say “Hello!” to a player who is in Japan, I would select the Recommended: Greetings menu, then select “Hello!”. It would show my character saying that on my screen, and it would display Japanese, and probably say something along the lines of “Konichiwa” to the person who is thousands of miles away. Things are only translated through the presets, so if you type something out manually, it will not be translated.
Pressing X once more will bring you to a symbol chat menu, where you have icons do the talking for you. For instance, the default first icon chat symbol is a smiley face with a little hand next to it, and a little sound effect plays when you use it. A quick, international hi, if you will. You can make your own symbol chat icons through the options menu.
Moving on with the control scheme, the X, A, and B buttons are customizable. The default control scheme for it is X = Strong Attack, A = Weak Attack, and B = Use Monomate (a healing item). The L trigger is used to straighten the camera angle to where your character is facing. The R trigger is used to open up a second set of button commands, by holding that trigger. The second set of commands are fully customizable like the first set.
To give an example, my hunter’s current control scheme is set with: X = Strong Attack, A = Weak Attack, B = Monomate, R+X = Cast Anti, R+A = Use Monofluid, and R+B = Cast Resta. I can customize this control scheme at any time. Note that the Y button is not customizable, since it is set for chatting.
In combat, using the attack button attacks, obviously. You can perform up to a 3-hit combination attack, which in the beginning stages for a hunter class, is enough to kill the basic beginner enemies. Button-slamming is not rewarded however, as jabbing the A-button to victory will result in your character swinging once, and only once. In order to use a combo, you must push the attack button as soon as the currently attack finishes. You can mix and match attack types to perform your own combination, such as Weak Attack + Strong Attack + Special Attack, and so forth. Weak attacks pull off immediately, while strong attacks take a little under a second to charge up before swinging, but have a lower accuracy. Special attacks charge up for a second and then attack, along with doing extra damage if the weapon has a special ability, but have very low accuracy.
Creating a character in Phantasy Star Online is simple enough. You have the choice of 9 possible race/class combinations. The humans are, for the most part, averaged out in stats, with the androids tending to have higher attack and defense, but lacking any mental prowess, while newmans (or numans, your choice) tend to be higher in the mental department than the others, but are physically weaker. Though androids cannot use techniques (read: magic), they are immune to poison, and can see traps that are hidden to the other two races without the need for using Trap Vision.
The hunter class is all about close-range combat, the ranger class sits back at a distance and fires guns, while the force class hurl various offensive and defensive magics. Rangers will take the least damage since they can sit at a distance and fire, and as enemies close in, they can run to another spot and resume their gunfire. Hunters will take a lot of damage since they are in the front lines, but they inflict the most physical damage, and can use the broadest range of weaponry. Force characters are vulnerable in hand-to-hand combat and fall quickly if played with recklessly. Though they start off the weakest, they grow in power quickly and have access to the most powerful spells.
No matter what race/class type you pick, each has its own advantages and disadvantages in different battle situations. For instance, some enemies take flight in the air, out of the reach of a hunter’s sword. A ranger can shoot at, or a force can cast a spell at airborne enemies, causing some to come down to ground level, where a hunter can quickly finish it off. Good teamwork results in low casualties, and this is one of the aspects that makes online play very fun.
When creating your character, you have a fair amount of ability to customize your looks. There are 7 different hair type sets to choose from, and have full Red-Green-Blue color control to choose your shade of color. There are several face types, and different skin tones to choose from, along with multiple costume color/styles. You also are able to adjust your characters proportion, and can make a tall, lanky guy, or a short, beefy girl. Proportion doesn’t seem to adjust gameplay though, such as running speed.
All characters at the start of the game are given a MAG, a little machine-like creature that floats behind your character when fighting. You can feed recovery items to your MAG, which in turn, makes it grow in strength, and at later levels, get Photon attacks. Photon attacks can be used when a MAG absorbs 100 points of energy. Energy is accumulated when taking hits, and when you complete combo attacks successfully. You can feed a MAG up to three items every feeding session. Several minutes are needed to pass in between these sessions.
You begin your journey at the Principal’s office, and he gives you a small bit of info about the situation with Pioneer 2, a spaceship that has left their homeworld with refugees that are to land on the planet Ragol. Pioneer 1 had arrived on Ragol many years prior, but just as Pioneer 2 arrived, an explosion occurred on the planet’s surface. You are one of many hunters whom have been asked to investigate.
Walking around the Pioneer 2, you will find a Hunter’s Guild, in which you can get missions to complete for money, a Hospital, for obvious reasons, and a Bank in which you can deposit money and items, in addition to your typical weapons, items, and armor shops. There’s a teleporter near the Hunter’s Guild and Hospital to take you to the planet surface. If you’re playing the online mode, you can choose to play on any one of the numerous PSO servers, and to talk with other players, you must go to different lobbies, all being divided into blocks on each server. There are 10 lobbies per block, and there can be up to 1000 people on each server. Overall, Pioneer 2 in a way, is kind of small, and you will not be seeing any other “towns”.
Graphically, the environments in Phantasy Star Online are nothing short of amazing. From the waterfalls, with the rainbow-like effect you see in mists within the caves, to the reflection of the walls on the floors of the machine center in the mining area, the Dreamcast is definitely pushing some great eye candy. There is a minor problem with pop-up that you notice if you are watching someone play, but you generally do not notice when you are playing yourself. It’s a minor thing, considering the level of detail on the textures of the polygons.
Lighting effects are pretty nice, as trees cast shadows on the ground, and sunlight reflects off of water to ‘illuminate’ your character when you’re standing near streams. There are rooms that have switches to turn lights on, and it’s interesting battling monsters in the dark. Techniques (spells) are a mixed bag, ranging from decent (the Barta technique, featuring a blue colored stream of ice), to nice (the Foie technique, which fires a fireball), to just plain cheesy (the Zonde technique, which shoots lightning from the sky, that looks like nothing more than a yellow squiggly line).
Musically, Phantasy Star Online is decent, but nothing exceptional, as I had hoped. The title theme is a remix of Phantasy Star II’s title theme, which is pretty nice, and the song that plays while fighting one of the bosses has a techno-ish feel to it, but for the most part, the music is fitting, but doesn’t really “Wow!” you like the scores from many other games, both of the Phantasy Star series, and otherwise, have.
Sound effects are crisp and clear. Swinging your photon weapons around sounds similar to the light saber effects from the Star Wars movies. Walking through water and walking on stone sounds just like it should sound. Monsters tend to have 2-3 total sound clips for grunts, death moans, and such, so it does get a bit repetitive. Overall though, nothing plays that would grate on your nerves.
Now here comes the critical part that many wonder…. does Phantasy Star Online fit into the Phantasy Star Universe? Well, the answer is yes, it certainly does. For those who have followed the series since the first game, you will be pleased to know that it ties in quite well with the series. However, those that have not followed the series may end up feeling empty inside, and it is recommended to those that have not played a Phantasy Star game, to start right now. In addition, the amount of actual dialogue in the game is rather low.
Other downsides to the game? Well, it’s incredibly short, and repetitive. There are a number of Hunter’s Guild missions for you to go through, complete, and be rewarded with money, but they all consist of escorting NPCs, or are some form of fetch quest, and they all take place in the same key areas. You will end up memorizing the layouts of the areas in no time flat. You will be able to clear the game within 15-20 hours easily, even less if you are a skilled player. If you only play the offline mode, you may find yourself bored after completing the game, possibly even sooner than that.
There are also issues with the saving of data itself. You are allowed only one character, per VMU, and save files CANNOT be copied from one VMU to another. Files tend to corrupt easily as well, caused by things such as not using the Quit Game option in your game play menu, or even using your VMU in another person’s Dreamcast! I can understand security issues, since people like to cheat on online games (which really is disheartening), but this is a bit extreme. I had to restart a game five times while playing. Discussion with other current Phantasy Star Online players has led me to discover what causes such problems, and how to overcome them, but there shouldn’t be problems in the first place.
Upon clearing the game, you are able to play harder difficulty levels. The increased difficulty rewards you with more experience points, special items, and so forth. Also note that online play allows you to get items you otherwise could not get in offline mode.
Scoring this game was extremely difficult, as is recommending this game to various audiences. It’s not for everybody, especially those that do not like action-based games. This is no Secret of Mana-type action/RPG either, as quick thinking is required when you’re about to be surrounded, and the odds are 10 to 1. There is no pausing like you can do in some action/RPGs, and enemies are relentless, attempting to surround you and beat you to nothingness.
Don’t let my words seem too intimidating though. Phantasy Star Online was a load of fun for me, and I’m sure many of you will like it too. But know what you’re buying, and note that this game is meant to be played online with others. Alone, you will eventually be bored out of your mind.