Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II marks the third edition of this game that I’ve imported to date, though this time for Nintendo’s GameCube, rather than its home system, the now defunct Dreamcast. This edition was a bit more costly however, since the GameCube does not have built-in internet capabilities, and the only keyboard alternative is a very odd, and costly keyboard/controller hybrid manufactured by a third party company named ASCII. Is the third time really a charm?
For the record, Episode I represents the entirety of the original four Dreamcast Phantasy Star Online stages, and Episode II offers playable versions of Phantasy Star Online Version 2’s battle stages as well as several new areas. Episode II picks up where Episode I left off with the storyline, adding in several missing pieces that left gamers confused in the original release, making Episode I seem like nothing more than a foreshadowing of what Episode II reveals. In keeping with tradition, just about everything regarding the plotline is implied, as opposed to being blurted out for you, so a bit of open-mindedness is required. This is no blow-you-out-of-your-mind plotline either, so buyer beware if you’re in this for story.
Before you begin however, you must create your own character. The original nine classes are present from the Dreamcast release: HUmar, a male human hunter, HUnewearl, a female numan hunter, HUcast, a male android hunter, RAmar, a male human ranger, RAcast, a male android ranger, RAcaseal, a female android ranger, FOmarl, a female human force, FOnewm, a male numan force, and FOnewearl, a female numan force. This edition introduces three new classes: HUcaseal, a female android hunter, RAmarl, a female human ranger, and FOmar, a male human force. All of these classes sport unique looks and varying abilities, hunters excelling at melee fighting, rangers specializing in ranged combat, and forces supplying both offensive and defensive techniques that can influence how quickly a battle ends. Costume options have been doubled for the original classes, exception to androids who are given slightly more to make up for their lower amount of customization. All organic type characters are able to adjust hair type, hair color, face type, skin color, costume colors, and proportion. Androids are limited to head type and costume colors. To complete the character, a name must be given, and a section ID is assigned to you, section ID influencing the kinds of items you will find during your journeys.
Episode I starts off much like the Dreamcast release, but Episode II starts off with your character in a different section of Pioneer 2, along the port side of the ship. You have been summoned to the Lab by Natasha Milarose, the chief of Pioneer 2’s research facilities, to investigate a strange transmission sent from an area on Ragol dubbed by the Lab as Gal De Val island. The transmission is from an important person who was aboard Pioneer 1, and offers another possible lead on what happened to Pioneer 1 and on Ragol. However, before you can proceed, they wish to test you by having you take a special Hunter’s Exam, where you fight through two virtual reality stages (a clever excuse to have you play the original Dreamcast VR stages). Only upon passing the two stages and defeating the bosses at the end of both, can you step foot on the island that beckons.
Graphically, despite on being on a more powerful console, Phantasy Star Online E1/2’s graphics are a mixed bag. For starters, area pop-up, one of my biggest peeves with the original game, is back in almost all its former glory. It isn’t as bad as it once was, but it is very blatant in the more open areas such as the Mountain stage on Gal De Val island. Having areas fade-in instead of just blinking in would have made things look nicer. Object pop-up isn’t improved over Phantasy Star Online Version 2, with blood popping in within 10 paces of your character. There is polygon flicker in some spots in the Dreamcast stages, the worst of it in Caves 2 in the waterfall room, where monster blood fights for dominance over the ground and water polygons… VERY ugly. None of the above affects gameplay, but perhaps the worst offender is the slowdown in some of the Episode II areas which affects the timing of your attacks, leading to some minor frustration, particularly in critical moments. Episode I is thankfully slowdown free.
So what about the positive side? Well for one, the new areas of Gal De Val Island look amazing. The water effects are fantastic, right down to the ripples made around the boots of your hunter. Characters, weaponry, monsters, and mags all cast real-time shadows, and colored lighting effects are improved. Polygon count on characters is slightly higher, and techniques, particularly high level ones, sport improved effects; a boon for forces. Ryuker creates a distortion field that bends and twists anything within the “pipe”, and high level Barta techniques create an aura of ice around the caster. Some of the new weapons are incredible, such as the new Flowen’s Sword which boasts a crystalline look. Special attacks on weapons make use of new effects such as the Sinow Beat’s Blades, flashing dark orbs resembling the Megid technique as you charge up before striking. Environment effects like fog are enhanced in the original four stages, ultimate mode Caves 1 looking very eerie. The boss arena for the Spaceship makes use of a very impressive double-mirror effect, where a viewscreen shows various angles of the fight, occasionally going to a view of what you see on your own screen, producing an endless stream of yourself. Water and glass in the Seabed cast accurate reflections, the water also neatly distorting said reflections. All of this combined, despite my nitpicking prior, result in an impressive display.
All the original songs from Phantasy Star Online Version 2 make a return, aside from Sonic Team’s decision to use the inferior, lyrical edition of “Can Still See The Light”, Phantasy Star Online’s ending theme as featured on the soundtrack. While a minor annoyance at best, it just seems odd considering how great Loren’s singing was in the original non-lyrical version of the song. Episode II features an all-new score, with what I feel to be on par with Episode I’s songs. One theme that stands out the most is the final boss theme for Episode II, which is arguably one of the best songs in the entirety of Phantasy Star Online. 3D area sound is enhanced a good bit, and ambient sounds are louder, much more apparent than before. GameCube PSO supports Dolby Pro Logic II, so sound enthusiasts can rejoice.
The control scheme remains the same as it did in the Dreamcast release, just with slightly different placement of the buttons since the GameCube controller differs a bit from the Dreamcast’s. Just as before, you have the ability to customize the function of the three lower buttons, as well as another three that are used in conjunction with holding the R trigger and pressing any one of the three lower buttons. L trigger moves the camera directly behind, Z and Start bring up your menu system, the D-pad and C-stick navigates the menus, analog moves your character, the Y button brings up the communication features, and holding R and pressing Y brings up the “quick menu” which gives you access to inventory, a customizable listing of spells, and equippable weaponry.
Gameplay mechanics have been tweaked a great deal since the Dreamcast editions of Phantasy Star Online. Combat still consists of using techniques and making use of chaining hits in a combination of button presses dependant on weapon type, but techniques are now a lot more dependant on your character’s mind power, bringing balance to what originally consisted of a game seemingly in favor of the hunter class. Weapon percents which add damage dependant on an enemy’s attribute, which consists of Native, Altered Beast, Machine, and Dark, now calculate damage based on a weapon’s strength, as opposed to the original calculation of using a character’s total power that caused the overpowered hunters in Phantasy Star Online Version 2.
Difficulty modes offered are no different than Phantasy Star Online Version 2: Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and Ultimate. Hard mode cannot be accessed online until level 20, Very Hard at level 40, and Ultimate at 80. Ultimate mode has been tweaked considerably so that forces can play a role beyond casting support techniques, and ATA is important, but not nearly as demanding as in version 2. Your character can use non-rare weaponry and get by in ultimate now, making item drops not-so-worthless like before.
Reverser, a technique that resurrects fallen comrades, Grants, an extremely powerful light attack technique, and Megid, a dark technique that instantly kills, are now for forces only, as they should have been originally. The RAmar is restricted from Jellen and Zalure, techniques that lower attack and defense of enemies, and the HUmar cannot use Shifta and Deband, techniques that increase attack and defense abilities of your character. The Anti spell has been altered in that it now cannot go past level 7, and the HUmar and RAmar class cannot go beyond level 5, preventing them from negating Jellen/Zalure and the Freeze status effect. HUmar and RAmar are limited to level 15 techs as before, but the HUnewearl has been boosted to be able to use level 20 techs, RAmarl also sharing this ability. Forces retain the ability to reach the highest of tech levels, level 30. Techniques themselves have also changed in cost, making non-force players rely on techniques a lot less, and forces rely more heavily on fluids than before, which is only fitting as they are arguably the most powerful class in the game.
Other neat changes include the complete removal of the state/maintenance unit, a unit that would negate all possible status effects, which was arguably TOO powerful and made the game way too easy. In its place, there are seperate units which each cure one of the many status effects in the game, such as paralysis, freeze, poison, slow, confusion, and shock. Shock now effects organic players, which helps even things out for android players, but seems rather absurd since short-circuiting organic creatures is like trying to make bread out of sand and water. The Sacred Guard which originally also cured all status effects, now only cures poison. Various other units have been tweaked, such as the God/Luck unit which increases said stat by 30 instead of the original 10, making it useful. Weapon and armor stats have been tweaked for better balance. Armors like the Sacred Cloth which had ridiculously high level requirements (Level 171 would take an eternity to reach) have been toned down (Level 141 now). There is also an item called “Addslot” that does just as it implies… it adds slots to armor, said slots used for units that increase your stats. Thus ends the horror of finding a rare armor and being unable to use it because it has 0 slots.
MAGs in the game remain the same as Dreamcast, MAGs not too different from being “virtual pets” that you feed various recovery items. What you feed determines its looks, abilities, as well as stats that are applied to your character. Thankfully, when leaving a game or quitting, your mag does NOT lose Synchro anymore, which is what happened in the original versions of Phantasy Star Online, extremely irritating.
One of the most welcome changes is the altered penalty for dying. On Dreamcast, dying resulted in your dropping all carried meseta and your equipped weapon, which obviously left things open to exploiting. Now, the penalty for dying is losing 5% Syncho on your MAG, your weapon is unequipped, and if you choose to return to Pioneer 2, any meseta you were carrying is deleted.
Android players can now regenerate HP by standing still, and Numan players can regenerate TP also by standing still. The rate of regeneration is 1 HP or TP respectively at level 1, and very (and I emphasize the word very) slowly increases as you gain levels. This may not seem like much, but it helps a great deal for those that play challenge mode a lot.
Speaking of which, challenge mode remains the same as its Dreamcast counterpart, having you and 1-3 other players complete the original four stages and their bosses at preset levels with preset equipment, unable to go back to Pioneer 2 for supplies, and relying on only what is available in the stage, fighting against the clock for the lowest time possible. At the time of this writing, all the challenge stages are NOT up, so what rewards are possible are not known, though one can assume they will be the same as before. Battle mode is also the same as before, though taking in account the new gameplay tweaks to weapon percents, technique costs, and so on.
Regarding communication aspects, the censor is just as dumb as ever, making words like Saturday come out as Sat%*$@ay since the word turd is censored, yet you can say every STD in the book. Also, word wrap is still not present, annoying. On the positive side, you have the ability to block simple mail and guild cards from annoying players. You can also use an Infoboard, which lets you leave or read messages left by people. There is also a very nice feature, an auto-response system for simple mail, great for use during challenge mode or boss fights when you’re busy and can’t respond.
The lobbies are now very spacious, easily four times larger than the Dreamcast counterparts. In the lobbies, you can perform animations with your character by holding CTRL and pressing any alphanumeric or function key. Holding SHIFT and CTRL while pressing a key gives you the alternate sex’s animation. Additionally, you are able to literally create a chair out of thin air and sit in it.
Currently, as of this writing, Halloween is being celebrated on Pioneer 2, decor composed of huge Jack-O-Lanterns and ravens fluttering about in lobbies, complemented with a catchy new tune playing in the background. A special limited-time quest for Halloween is also available, with Rappies dressed up with Jack-O-Lanterns for heads, and all-too-familiar Sonic Adventure tunes playing as your characters roam about in the levels.
Separate from the above in online play, is offline multiplayer. Offline multiplayer is a nightmare. Pop-up is so bad in areas, it is ridiculous. New graphic effects are non-existent, and proper lighting is gone, all making it worse looking than the Dreamcast release of the game. The view area is worse, and the perspective seems odd. Add the fact that there is no area map aside from one that is shared by all players and takes up 1/4 of the entire screen which is brought up by pressing the Y button, and the end result is that navigating is a nightmare. Because it takes up so much of the screen, you end up not keeping the area map up during battle, and you are unable to be aware of enemies that may be closing in. Music also does not stream as normal, as the game sticks to one track constantly for each area. I have nothing but dislike for offline multiplayer, mostly because everything is dumbed down. The game was meant to be played online, so play it online and save yourself some grief.
Offline play has been tweaked so that all characters have a better chance of completing all difficulty modes. One of the best changes to the game system, is that you can now find special rare items while playing quests, unlike the Dreamcast counterpart, which originally made quests seem pointless as you couldn’t get anything out of them other than variation from the norm and a little bit of cash. Speaking of quests, the download quests from version 2 are now part of offline mode, and some of the older ones have been tweaked up with new dialogue, making the story elements fit together nicely. Sadly, there are absolutely NO offline quests for Episode II.
So… is this game worth the purchase of a game disc, modem or broadband adapter, as well as a keyboard component, not to mention an online fee? Some Phantasy Star Online veterans may find it a disappointment, since it is honestly a lot more of the same, but others much like myself will love it. Those that have never played the game and wonder what all the hype is about should take the plunge, as I’m certain you won’t regret it. Phantasy Star Online still has its flaws and bugs, but this is easily the best version of the game to date.