Sega’s flagship RPG series is the long-running and popular Phantasy Star series. First appearing on the Sega Master System, the original Phantasy Star is still considered one of the greatest games of all time, and the three follow-ups on Sega Genesis were, more or less, equally well received. With the Dreamcast needing a solid RPG, as well as a convincing online title, it wasn’t much of a stretch to try to move the series into the online realm.
Phantasy Star Online is certainly not a traditional RPG, but for those who enjoy solid action RPGs, this game’s right for you – online or off.
We need a better realtor!
Having one’s planet doomed to die is really a major inconvenience. So, in the name of saving civilization, the Pioneer Project was conceived. Interstellar probes were sent out to find a new, habitable world. The planet Ragol fit the description, so the ship, Pioneer 1, was sent to colonize. The go-ahead was given, and Pioneer 2 – with the majority of the population – made the trip to Ragol. Right as Pioneer 2 arrived, however, a massive explosion rocked the planet, and all contact was lost with the colony. The wildlife is violent, everyone has disappeared – exactly what happened on Ragol? Was Pioneer 1 mistaken in their claims of finding a safe world, or is there a conspiracy afoot?
You play a member of the Hunters Guild, who is charged with discovering the truth of what happened on the planet.
The plot isn’t the strongest element of Phantasy Star Online. In fact, it’s relatively non-existent. The vast majority of the story comes from messages left behind by Red Ring Rico, a Hunter aboard Pioneer 1 who survived the explosion. These explain the basics of the game, tips on traps and monsters, and, eventually, the truth of what happened on Ragol. There are also some sub-plots that you discover as you do offline quests, as well with conversations with people aboard Pioneer 2. Overall, though, the truth is that the game’s plot is quite simple, and can actually be summed up quite quickly. This isn’t a game for those who value plot over everything else.
If the future looks like this, sign me up.
The graphics are, for the most part, fantastic. The first thing you’ll notice is the spectacular environment. They look great, and there’s a lot going on – from scrolling billboards and signs in Pioneer 2, to birds and insects flying in the forest, to lava bubbling in the caves, there’s always something to catch the eye. The sense of scale in the environments is also quite impressive – the caves feature massive, high-ceilinged caverns, the mines feature suspended platforms over yawning chasms, and so forth.
The character models are also top-notch. For each of the nine character types, there’s a full set of animations associated with them. Some of the models themselves look a bit goofy (particularly the Forces and their jester-style outfits), but they all move well. The customization of a character’s looks is also nice – there’s a variety of skin tones, faces, hair styles, body proportions, and outfits for the humanoid characters (as well as the ability to set your hair color to any shade you want), and the androids get a variety of body types and head styles (though not as many options as the humanoids). While there’s certainly going to be some overlap in character graphics, there’s a reasonable amount of variety, which helps to spice up the world – you’re not going to run into too many identical twins as you play.
Similarly, enemies look very cool and animate well. There’s a fair amount of palette swapping to represent enemy strengths, but it doesn’t detract too much. The bosses are incredible, both in sheer size and in the way they’re animated and act – definitely a visual payoff for playing through the dungeons.
Battle just looks nice, between the spells cast by magical characters (which look rather nice), to energy bolts being shot by rangers and hunters smacking enemies around with photon weaponry. It can get a bit confusing with so much going on at once, but it’s nice to be a bit overwhelmed with the sheer amount of action, rather than be passively bored by everything you see.
*thwack* *thwack* *graaaaa*
Sound effects are pretty good as well. The weapons have a decent variety of sounds when they’re used, though admittedly it’s a probably bit difficult coming up with a large variety of “energy weapon” type sounds. Monsters similarly sound pretty good, though the sound variety is limited, predominately by the generally limited number of monster types you face.
Music is good, but not great. There are some really cool tracks in the game, particularly in the later areas. There’s also the occasional song that plays after you finish a quest that really fits the mood. The problem is that it’s generally the same song or two for each area of the game, and you may become sick of them fairly quickly. On the bright side, the boss themes rock – you will definitely be psyched up when fighting the bosses, and the tracks don’t let down. Again, it’s not the greatest soundtrack, but there are some awesome individual efforts, so it’s certainly not worth muting your TV.
Hey, I’m supposed to be the hero, not that other guy!
There’s been a lot of debate over whether or not Phantasy Star Online is truly an RPG. The best way to determine how to classify a RPG is to compare it to the games it’s similar to. One thing struck me as I was playing PSO – it’s like a console copy of the original Diablo (for PC).
And there are some major similarities between the two titles. There are three main character divisions – warrior (Hunter), rogue (Ranger), and sorcerer (Force). Gameplay consists of going through a few levels of a dungeon, killing things, picking up treasure and spells, and then killing an ornery boss. The focus is most definitely on the gameplay, and not on plot. Levels are semi-random, and so on, and so forth. Most importantly, you can play alone, or with three other people.
This is certainly not to say that PSO isn’t worth playing if you played Diablo or Diablo 2 – but it owes much more to those games than it does to, say, one of the other Phantasy Star games. Moreover, that’s not to say that PSO doesn’t offer anything unique.
The character creation was briefly mentioned above, from a graphical perspective. While you can choose how your character looks, there’s a more fundamental decision to be made – what type of character you want to play, and what race. There are three types of character – the Hunter, who specializes in hand to hand combat and weaponry. The Ranger specializes in guns – machine guns, pistols, shotguns, and really huge rifles. And the Forces mainly just cast support spells and blow stuff up.
Moreover, there’s three species – Humans, who are good all around, numans, who tend to be more fragile but much more mentally powerful than humans, and androids, who can’t use spells, but are strong, immune to many status effects, and so on. As such, it’s not just a matter of saying to yourself, “Ooh, I want to be a Hunter!”, you have to think about whether you want to just be a strong, hard to kill hunk of metal, a well-rounded warrior, or a battle-mage. It’s really nice to have that kind of variety, and it certainly adds to the replay value of the game.
One interesting facet of character creation is your Section ID. Depending on the name you choose for your character, you’ll be assigned a random ID, such as Redria, Whitill, Yellowboze, and so on. While it’s unsure at this point exactly how important the ID is, it’s a subtle factor that affects virtually all aspects of your game. Certain rare items can only be found by certain IDs, the types of treasure found will be affected, and so forth. It’s an interesting factor to consider, and forces cooperation – you can’t assume you’ll find everything you want, and may have to trade or work with a person of a different ID to get an item that may come fairly easily to them. Moreover, ID has another, visible impact – on MAG evolution.
Your MAG is a little mechanical pet you have. It flies around with you, but it’s actually a very important part of character growth. Since it’s a pet, after all, you need to feed your MAG. Depending on what kind of items you give it, it will grow – its defense, dexterity, power, or mind can all increase, and as it becomes more powerful in these areas, so do you. As it goes up in level, your MAG will learn Photon Blasts (which are essentially Limit Break style attacks that trigger after you’ve been wounded sufficiently), cast support and healing spells on you, and evolve into new and different forms. There’s a huge variety of MAGs, and it’s interesting watching yours change as you progress. It’s almost a minigame unto itself, but it’s actually very important to your survival, which is a really nice touch – you definitely get rewarded for giving your MAG the items it wants.
The real meat of the gameplay comes from the adventuring and combat. After leaving Pioneer 2 (which features the typical town amenities – item, armor, weapon stores, a Tekker who identifies items, a bank, and medical center), you’ll teleport down to Ragol. From here, it’s a matter of exploring the countryside, finding items, beating up on hostile wildlife (and other creatures), and generally having a good time.
The controls work pretty well. You move with the analog stick – fast when you’re safe, and you slow when a monster’s nearby. Attacking with weapons is divided into three attacks. There’s the normal attack, which does moderate damage and is accurate; a strong attack with low accuracy and high power; and special attacks, which only occur on special weapons, but can add elemental damage, paralyze enemies, and so forth. It’s not just a matter of button mashing, though – you can combo up to three attacks by starting the next attack right as you finish the existing one. Combos allow you to do more damage, attack more accurately, and so on – you’re rewarded for patience in combat.
Spells are easy and quick to cast, and items can be used quickly, thanks to the ability to customize your controls – you can have six moves (spells, items, attacks) selected for use, without needing to visit the menus. This generally works well, except for the fact that you probably will need more than six moves selected, particularly if you’re a Force character. Still, it’s more of an inconvenience than a critical flaw.
You can either explore Ragol randomly (which is needed to actually progress through and beat the game), or you can get quests from the Hunter’s Guild. Quests range from escort missions, to deliveries, fetch quests, and so forth. They provide a bit more story to the game, give you something to do besides killing things, and give you some much-needed money. They’re fun to do, if a bit frustrating at times (particularly when escorting a NPC – the mission ends immediately if they die, despite the fact you could easily revive them).
Of course, the real meat of the game is the online play – not surprising, since this is Phantasy Star Online. You can dial up to the PSO servers. There are several different ships (servers), further divided into blocks (to prevent the lobbies from becoming too crowded), where you can create games. Games can have up to four people, who adventure together. There are online quests as well, but these aren’t as interesting as the offline quests. As such, you typically sign on, find a game (or make one), have people join, and just go play. Online, the monsters are harder, there are more of them – but there’s also more and better treasure to make up for it.
The true joy of Phantasy Star Online is the teamwork. Finding a good group of people to adventure worth is worth the price of admission. A good, mixed party compensates for the individual character weaknesses, helps each other out with healing, support spells, and resurrections, and just adds a sense of camaraderie to the game. Sure, all you’re doing is killing monsters, but you’re doing it with friends – you’re watching their backs, they’re watching yours – and you’re having a blast at the same time.
It’s really hard to write about the online mode. It’s fundamentally the same as the offline mode, except you’ve got teammates. Yet the ability to adventure with other people – to chat with them, help them out, trade with them – adds so much to the experience that it’s impossible to really know unless you’ve experienced it yourself. This title was designed to be played with other people, and it shows.
Danger, Will Robinson
There’s some flaws in PSO, though – some design-based, some not.
For starters, the game’s rather short. There are only four major areas, each with a few levels, and a boss. That’s it. However, there are three difficulty levels – Normal, Hard, and Very Hard. These live up to their names – Hard mode will make a level 30 character (who does just fine in Normal mode) feel like a newbie all over again. Correspondingly, there’s a significant boost in treasure, experience, and so forth. I’m glad the extra difficulty levels are in there, as they’ll certainly enhance the long term value of the game, but a fifth or sixth area would have been great – particularly considering how much I enjoyed the later areas in the game to begin with.
Further aggravating the shortness of the game is how accessing the areas works. You can play online if you want – you could create a new character, hop online, play through the entire game (killing the bosses), and beat it. Next time you joined a game, you’d only be able to access the first area. This is because you can’t permanently gain access to the next area until you’ve beaten the boss of the current area – alone, offline. While I understand the rationale behind this (not letting someone get access to all the areas without working for it), it seems like a glaring flaw to have to go attempt to kill a boss all by yourself when you’ve done it with a group several times before.
When you do die, you drop all the money you were carrying (not surprising), and your weapon. Dropping your weapon is a real problem online. While I love playing online with a group of people, the fact that you can’t always trust your teammates does hurt things. Many times, I’ve reverted to using a weaker weapon, because I’m concerned that I’ll die, drop my rare powerhouse, and get it stolen. While you can store backup weapons in your stash, it’s disappointing having to worry about not using a great weapon because I may lose it.
The repetition of the game may be an issue for people. I don’t mind it – I happen to rather enjoy this particular style of game. However, it does boil down to killing monsters, over and over again, and all you’re doing is just getting better at it. Sure, you find new and interesting items, but it’s fundamentally the same thing. It’s something you need to consider – like I said before, this is not a plot-based RPG, this is gameplay-based.
Finally, there have been many reports of characters getting corrupted and deleted. Some of these are the fault of the user, and some are accidental. It’s not something to be overly paranoid about, but it is a factor, particularly considering how long it takes to build a character up (it took me almost 40 hours to get my HUnewearl up to level 30).
Boldly going where no console RPG has gone before
OK, Phantasy Star Online isn’t perfect. You may not even think it’s truly a Phantasy Star game.
What it is, however, is an amazingly addictive, fun, console RPG, with one spectacular bonus – online play. It’s one of the Dreamcast’s finest moments, because it proves that online console RPGs are not just possible, but viable as well. There’s nothing like signing on, meeting up with some friends, and kicking ass. Or signing on and helping a lower level character get through a tough spot.
Offline, the game will get repetitive, which is a shame. But this is predominately an online game, and it’s wonderful at that. Highly recommended.