Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Phantasy Star Online Version 2 is an update on the already eight-month-old release of Phantasy Star Online, with enhancements, bug fixes, and a pay-to-play system being incorporated worldwide, unlike the previous domestic release which was free in the United States. The question going through many minds about this game is simple: what makes PSOV2 worth spending another $40 for the disc, and paying monthly to play it online? Hopefully all will be made clear, right here in this brief review.
To clarify something, version 2 players CAN play with version 1 players. Version 2 players can create games in either version 2 mode or version 1 mode, and in version 2 mode, only version 2 players can join, obviously. Items new to version 2 cannot be seen by version 1 players since the data is not on the version 1 GD, and said items appear as the default item in its class in version 1. For instance, a Grants level 20 disk will appear as a Grants level 1 disk to a version 1 gamer, and an Ancient Saber would appear as the standard green saber that most characters start out with in Phantasy Star Online.
Graphically, for the most part, everything has remained the same in the old version 1 environments. In the game’s new ultimate difficulty mode, the four dungeons each get a slight new look: the forest now taking place in a sunset, the caves having cement floors in some of the rooms, as well as some new fog effects in the watery areas, the mines being darker and more eerie, and finally, the ruins having pretty much just a palette swap.
Pop up is a major issue with some of the not-so-important graphics, such as blood, box explosions, and so forth. It is nothing short of goofy, since you can see the environment from a good distance, and as you walk, pools of blood from slain monsters just seem to appear out of nowhere. Some technique effects such as Shifta/Deband have been adjusted to use less polygon power, which is actually for the better, since it looks cleaner, and it helps to reduce slowdown. Shooting traps with a rifle from a long distance results in mines that blink out rather than explode, since you’re too far to see the explosion in the updated graphics engine, leaving you somewhat… annoyed.
The new engine barely reduces some slowdown, but there’s still a good bit of it, and with the pop up issues, it just isn’t worth it. Thankfully, the graphical changes to the levels for ultimate mode are nice, and it all evens out in the end.
The storyline remains exactly the same as the original game. Those who are unfamiliar with the Phantasy Star series plotline will still be left in the dark as before. The “ending” features more pictures like last time for offline mode, but these pictures do add a small piece of information to long-time Phantasy Star enthusiasts, though not enough to really satiate the desire for a good ending.
Music and sound hasn’t changed, other than the addition of two new tracks for battle mode, so there’s nothing to really cover here.
The control scheme remains faithful to the original release, exception going to the addition of a new “quick item menu” which is accessed by holding the R trigger and pressing Y (which used to be another way of accessing chat). In this menu, you can quickly change weapons, or hit R to access an item list, or, again hitting R, to access a technique list (or for androids, traps).
Gameplay is where this update shines. I’m sure long time PSO players have noticed the lack of balance between classes. This issue has been handled quite well, with forces getting higher-level techs up to level 30 that no other class can use, as well as being able to cast those higher-level techs at a faster speed.
Androids now have traps at their disposal to use against monsters, which include fire, ice, and confusion. These traps are replenished at the hospital on Pioneer 2, or through the healing rings laid out in various areas. Higher levels result in more traps to be carried. Each of the classes also have varying max stats, giving you reason to play each.
Hunters pretty much lead the way in straightforward damage but have low accuracy and moderate tech usage. Forces have low accuracy and low strength but now can use techs with such ferocity that they almost dominate any other class. Rangers have incredible accuracy and their damage is moderate, making them the easiest class to play in the new version 2 update.
Ultimate mode is a new difficulty mode in version 2, which gives you access to the new eye candy in each level, as well as monsters with new looks, greater speed, and much more power. Requirement to access it online is level 80. Bosses for each level have slightly adjusted attack patterns, as well as new looks, exception going to the final boss who looks the same.
Challenge mode is a new gameplay addition exclusive to version 2. It is accessible to gamers of all levels, and pushes your skills to the limit. There are multiple challenge stages, and each one puts your character at a set level, with certain items and weapons dependant on your class.
When playing these challenge stages you are sent directly to the level and have absolutely no access to Pioneer 2 to get supplies. You must survive on what is in the level. This makes teamwork absolutely essential and makes those who have no concept of teamwork unable to get anywhere in the end. Trying to stay behind and attempt to get credit from everyone else playing through the stage doesn’t work, since you must go through the final teleporter in each challenge to reach the hunter’s guild and claim victory. Death results in failure for the entire team, as there is no opportunity to cast Reverser or use a Moon Atomizer. Experience does not carry over to other challenge stages.
Upon completion of challenge stages, you are rewarded with rankings, and completing challenge mode entirely gives you an overall ranking, which is determined by your completion time. The longer you take to complete each challenge stage, the worse your final ranking will be. The better your final ranking is, the better your reward will be.
Battle mode is yet another gameplay addition exclusive to version 2. In this mode, you have the ability to go down to the regular dungeon levels, with one gameplay change. You cannot walk through each other (even on Pioneer 2, you can’t), and you can hurt each other with spells, attacks, and so forth, just like you would hit monsters. You can choose to fight to the death, and take the other person’s weapon and/or money, if you desire, upon slaying another. Playing the normal game in this mode is certainly interesting, since you have to try not to hit each other.
If you do not wish to lose anything you carry, another option is the simulations available at the hunter’s guild counter. Through these simulations, you are able to access the Palace and Spaceship levels that you may have seen in screenshots the past few months. You can choose to either use your current items and retain your level, or go with a balanced game, in which everyone starts at a low level.
When you kill an opponent in battle mode, they are boosted by 5 levels instantly, and are revived somewhere in the battle stage. Battle mode is balanced well, as any class can win using the right tactics. There are some quirks with it however, such as putting telepipes in some of the boxes, which are completely useless.
Lobby soccer is somewhat entertaining, though extremely buggy if your connection is not at optimum speed. You could kick a ball, only to have it disappear merely because your connection lagged for half a second, and someone else had kicked it the other way. It is a good way to have some fun while waiting for friends to appear, rather than just idling.
There are various bug fixes in the game, such as the God/Battle unit working without having to un-equip it and re-equip it, as well as no longer using the backstep trick to walk through locked doors. However, the game is not bug free (no game is), as I have experienced a complete game lock up once and had to turn off my Dreamcast.
Also, when fighting the mines boss Vol Opt with version 1 player, there is a problem with the timing, which is off by about 2-3 seconds. You will be standing there watching the computer screens while the version 1 players will begin moving and fighting. This leads to some possible problems if one of them sets off a photon blast, as it will lock up your controls and chatting ability (which happened to me just the other day), and the game will be pretty much stuck in a subroutine that loops endlessly. Thankfully, a soft reset (hold A, B, X, and Y and hit Start) takes you to the save screen, preventing any data loss.
So in the end… is version 2 worth it? I say yes, as the new game modes are a lot of fun, and there are plenty of new weapons to keep you entertained. I’d go as far as saying that this is what Phantasy Star Online should have been like in the first place. If these new game modes and the addition of new items to find do not catch your interest, or you do not wish to pay Sega to play online, then I recommend sticking with version 1 which will remain free, or finding another game to play.