Monster Hunter has been one of the PlayStation Portable’s biggest hits on the other side of the pond, taking a great deal of its style from Phantasy Star Online, Sega’s Dreamcast hit online RPG. To try and hit that same demographic that has been so popular for Capcom, Sega has released Phantasy Star Portable, a game taking place between Phantasy Star Universe and Ambition of the Illuminus. While it might not be poised to replace Monster Hunter as the game of choice for junior high boys looking for ad hoc play in Japan, Phantasy Star Portable has a remarkably interesting single player campaign, and once Ad Hoc Party for the PS3 hits North American shores, it will be one of the best RPGs on the PSP.
Fans of Phantasy Star Online and Phantasy Star Universe will be right at home with Phantasy Star Portable, as the overall structure of the game hasn’t changed much from its predecessors. Players take control of a character in one of four races and choose one of three initial classes – Ranger, Hunter, and Force. Newbies won’t be confused with phrases like FOmarl or RAcaseal, but veterans won’t lose the nuances of having multiple versions of one class. One of Phantasy Star Portable’s most redeeming features allows players to change classes between missions at will, making it so that players don’t need to start again at level one if they want to start throwing some spells. Additionally, Phantasy Star Portable introduces advanced classes, more specialized versions of the three basic classes, as well as two more unique classes. These advanced classes are very skilled with certain types of weapons or items, but are more limited in what they can wield compared to the basic classes. This setup will allow most players to find a class they’re comfortable playing as, without shoehorning them into a certain role.
Once players hit the battlefield, the gameplay is pretty simple: kill monsters, pick up their loot, and level up your character. Monsters drop tiered loot with different rarities depending on how powerful they are, though unlike previous games in the series, players cannot trade loot with other members. This isn’t to say that if someone picks up a force item as a ranger, they’ll be scorned by their friends, however – when playing in multiplayer mode, the same items drop for every character. Without an infrastructure online mode and a way to trade items, however, I just stuck my extra loot in my storage unit, since money is fairly easy to come by in the single player campaign and there’s rarely anything worth purchasing from the shops in the game. Also unlike Phantasy Star Online, players can add NPCs they meet in the single player campaign to their party to head into dungeons with them. This is certainly a step up, although the AI is far from perfect – your allies will often get lost, and those playing as ranged characters won’t see their allies head into battle until the enemies come into melee range. Anything is a significant step up from playing with no one else, though, even if your allies are far from bright.
The game’s control scheme is a mixed bag, much like the AI allies. The buttons themselves are mapped very well – X picks things up, square and triangle attack things, circle activates the item menu, the left shoulder button centers the camera and makes the character strafe, and the right shoulder button activates the player’s secondary weapon. There’s little to argue with the control scheme and how it’s executed; items are easy to get to, as is the ability to switch weapons at will. There are few times players will need to delve into the item menu (which does not pause the game) during battle due to the fact that the quick-item menu is brilliantly designed. The main problem with the control scheme involves targeting. Much like its predecessors, PSP lacks a lock-on targeting system for gun-toting and magic-wielding characters. This is both a blessing and a curse – some monsters are able to be targeted in multiple locations simultaneously, making them much easier to kill, as they take more damage, but without a lock-on, it’s often tough to attack smaller monsters as a ranger or force. All-in-all, the controls are more than passable and don’t stand in the way of one’s enjoyment of the game.
In the single player campaign, players take control of their custom-designed, mostly-silent protagonist as he or she fights against a terrorist in the Gurhal system as a member of the police group GUARDIANS. The player teams up with a new type of CAST (robots in the Phantasy Star world) named Vivienne, who has a wider range of emotions, making her much more human-like than other CASTs. The game’s focus, aside from the terrorist thread of Illuminus, seems to be on Vivienne learning that no one of the four races is superior to the other. Fans of PSU will run into several characters from both the first title and Ambition of the Illuminus, but the story stands up well enough on its own for newcomers to simply drop in and enjoy the game. The story isn’t the main focus of the game, and while some of the characters are somewhat interesting, it exists as a backdrop to give players a reason to keep gunning down monsters of different types, despite its warm overtones.
The game’s major dialogue is fully voice acted and sufficient for what it does. There are no characters that have lines that sound like they belong in a Sega CD game, but neither is there a character that has a voice that sticks with you. The music, likewise, is passable but not memorable – chances are you could have me listen to a track from the game two weeks from now and I’d be unable to tell you it was from the game, much less which portion of the game it was in. Sound effects follow suit – they’re the standard laser blasts, grunts, and footsteps that could be in any game.
Graphically, Phantasy Star Portable is technically proficient, if not artistically brilliant. The characters themselves look good and can be customized throughout the game with additional clothing (or parts, for CASTs) that can be purchased from shops or drops from NPCs in the game. There’s more than a fair amount of customization available to the character right off the bat during character creation, so chances are you’re not going to run into anyone that looks just like you when you hop into a game with a friend. The weapons are all of the standard fare, though some, like claw-type weapons, do look excellent. The characters animate very well, and there were only a few spots in the game where I saw any slowdown, and that was with multiple larger monsters on screen. The environments are all fairly standard – there wasn’t much that made me go “whoa”, and most of the boss monsters are fairly small. This is likely due to the fact that it’s difficult to put huge-scale monsters on the PSP’s screen, though it was still a little disappointing.
All-in-all, Phantasy Star Portable is a worthy RPG on the PSP. While its lack of infrastructure mode is more than a little disappointing, hopefully Sony will release the beta for the PS3’s Ad Hoc Party in North America so players won’t need to resort to third party programs to get their online fix. Those who aren’t big fans of PSO or Diablo-style grindfests won’t get their mind changed, though with the added depth to the classes, beefed-up story, and portability, it’s much more palatable than other games in the series as a single-player game. If you’ve got a PSP, this is a quality game, something the system hasn’t seen much of lately.