Before we begin, I feel a proper understanding of Phantasy Star Online’s history is required for perspective.
Between the time when the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 established 3D graphics as the standard and the launch of last generation’s trend-setters, there lived a little grey box known as the SEGA Dreamcast. Though it was loved by many and is still hailed as one of the greatest systems in gaming history, it came and went so fast (less than 3 years in the west!) that relatively few people really got to experience its glory. Not only did it continue SEGA’s history of excellent arcade-style games, it also gave birth to some of the most unique and innovative gameplay ever seen at the time. Phantasy Star Online was one such title.
Partially based on a series of oldschool 2D JRPGs on the Master System and Genesis / Mega-Drive that unfortunately never matched the popularity of rival series Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest/Warrior, Phantasy Star Online (PSO for short) was a real-time online 3D hack ‘n slash action RPG. A mouthful perhaps, but also the basis for virtually every single modern action-based MMO, though the limitations of the Dreamcast’s 33-56k modem meant that gameplay was limited to 4-player squads at most. Fast forward through several expansions, ports, spin-offs and semi-sequels as well as their own revisions, and you can still find dedicated fans playing the now classic game on unofficial servers some 13 years later.
TITLE: Phantasy Star Online 2
GENRE: F2P MMORPG
PLATFORM: Microsoft Windows
STATUS: In Localization
RELEASE DATE: Projected: January 2013 (North America) February 2013 (Europe)
It feels like forever since SEGA had finally announced a true sequel, yet PSO2 is still fresh out of beta in Japan. Better yet, it was recently confirmed that western fans would also be allowed to have of taste of the much anticipated title, which is now hitting gaming conventions in English. Of course, that doesn’t mean that some non-Japanese players haven’t been able to play it, including yours truly! I’ve played every closed and open tests, have followed development since it was first revealed, and now participate in the official Japanese release. These are my impressions so far.
Despite already being out in Japan for a couple months now, SEGA has made the odd decision of keeping the story fairly nebulous even to this point. What we do know is the following: A civilization of space-faring humanoids travels aboard Pioneer class ships, which act as small worlds of their own, complete with cities, stores and homes. Players incarnate a newcomer to the “Arkz” group, a militia tasked with exploring new worlds and protecting the general populace. As a cluster of Pioneer ships reaches a newly discovered solar system, they encounter the “Darkers”, a race of insectoid creatures seemingly bent on destroying everything they come across, including this system’s indigenous life.
Though still vague at this point, this story and its narrative style closely resemble the original PSO. Also, unlike the Phantasy Star Universe (PSU) series and its own spin-offs (the Phantasy Star Portable series), this iteration sees a return of the player character as the center of the attention. That’s not to say that cutscenes and NPC interactions aren’t to be found, though. The major changes however are immediately apparent in its vastly overhauled gameplay mechanics, with much more focus being put on action.
Right off the bat, the player is tasked with creating his or her own avatar by choosing a gender, then picking between three races and one of three starting classes, then finely crafting the character using one of the most advanced character creation menus ever seen. Available races are Humans, predictably the most balanced in terms of stats; Newmans, a race of elf-like genetically engineered humanoids who make up for their frail bodies with enhanced magical abilities; and finally CASTs, artificially intelligent androids proficient with guns but with poor mind stats. A sci-fi twist on common fantasy conventions.
Classes represent much more than simple stat modifiers; each one essentially changes the very type of game being played! Hunters, close-range combat experts, practically mirror Devil May Cry with timed combos, dodges, and flashy special attacks that can all be chained together for maximum damage while always teetering on the edge of danger. Rangers, meanwhile, turn PSO2 into a third-person shooter allowing players to take advantage of a variety of shot types and to aim for weak spots on monsters, a fact that is particularly useful to mouse and keyboard users. Forces, meanwhile, exploit enemy weaknesses and strategically make use of a multitude of techniques (spells) to buff/debuff, heal, charge up energy attacks and generally control the flow of battle. Furthermore, few weapons are cross-compatible between classes and Forces now appear to be the only ones able to use techniques at all.
Special attacks, be they combos, special bullets or techniques, consume Photon Points (PP), though those automatically refill over time. Hitting enemies with normal attacks accelerates the process, and even more points are refilled by performing precisely timed attacks, which also deal more damage. This means that simply mashing attack buttons is possible but impractical, which in turn encourages strategical play. MAGs also mark their return as living, growing mechanical assistants that lend their owners help by providing stat boosts and powerful abilities.
Indeed, players are rewarded for their performance and nothing shows that more than the PSE mechanics. “Photon Sensitive Effects” occur throughout runs as battles are fought, giving temporary bonuses to various pick-ups and technique elements, potentially culminating in a PSE Burst: A timed “fever mode” of sorts where enemies become stronger and more numerous, and the longer players can keep it going, the better the rewards. Again, this is an obvious result of this newest iteration shifting more focus towards action-oriented gameplay
As with standard RPG fare, levels and stats increase as experience is gained, with each additional level allowing the player to invest acquired skill points into skill trees. Completing client orders issued by NPCs and quests from a grid called a “Matter Board” also bring money, experience and items as rewards, on top of standard missions accessed through the mission counter. In a major twist however, experience is now tied to the character’s current class; indeed, it is possible to switch professions at any time between missions. This is a welcome fact, given PSO2’s free-to-play limitations, but more on that later.
Along with a more active and just generally faster game flow, another major change that is sure to increase replayability is the fact that all non-story maps are randomly generated. On top of that, missions that involve defeating enemies, protecting ships or Arkz members, and even taking on bosses and powerful boss-like enemies can even occur at any point during a run. Groups are still limited to squads of four, though certain zones referred to as “multi-party areas” allow up to 12 players to cross paths, team up and even switch groups, which is particularly exhilarating when encountering a ton of enemies and two or more bosses at once!
Models and textures look pretty good, but this is not a game that attempts to push graphical boundaries. Presentation is where it’s at, though: With futuristic anime-style characters and a Tron-like interface that mesh with worlds ranging from shiny techno cities to lush, frozen or deserted planets, PSO2 exemplifies the very definition of a sci-fi fantasy world. Part of the original PSO series’ ambiance came from its amazing soundtrack, and while I personally don’t find the music in this game to be quite as good as its predecessor’s, it certainly is far more melodic than PSU’s and I’m thankful for that. The multitude of menus are labelled in umbrella categories that make it easy to manage the multiple elements of the game, which is good because there’s an awful lot of stuff to be found in them.
Controls are highly responsive, much more so than they have been in some previous games in the franchise, especially given the online factor. In fact, I’m quite shocked to encounter so little lag and delay in general since I use a Canadian internet connection to play on servers located in Japan with people from all over the world! Frankly, as someone who usually isn’t into online gaming at all, I couldn’t be more pleased. As for control options, controllers are not only supported, but also heavily recommended: Despite being the first Phantasy Star game primarily conceived for PC, the series’ console roots are still quite evident; for instance, I don’t think there’s any way to walk slowly without a controller. The standard mouse & keyboard setup is supported though and does offer some advantages, like the ability to aim more accurately when playing as a Ranger and quicker access to shortcut keys.
Now, this may be an overall glowing Preview, but I do have some issues with PSO2… Most of them due to the game’s shift to a free-to-play payment model. First off, players are only allowed to one character slot without having to pay to get more, though that issue is alleviated by the fact that one character can be used to play as any class. Furthermore, there are over 10 ships (essentially servers) and it’s impossible to travel between them: A character created on ship 7 stays on ship 7. I understand that is a common issue in the MMO genre nowadays, as I’ve personally observed in Guild Wars 2, but it is nonetheless frustrating. It wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the fact that it’s one character period, not one per ship; if your friend unknowingly created theirs on a different ship from the one you’ve been playing on, someone’s going to have to compromise. “My Room”, literally a room that players can decorate and use as a store, also requires extra payment to access.
Finally, probably the biggest kick in the pants is the fact that trading items is impossible without buying a monthly premium account. That’s right — A game where gathering and trading rare items is practically the whole point blocks you out of trading unless you pay extra for it! After all, from a business standpoint, it only makes sense: How else would SEGA coax players into investing on an otherwise free game? On the bright side, this system doesn’t impede progress nor proper gameplay if you don’t feel like spending, nor does it give a particularly unfair advantage to premium users, only more possibilities. Still, it’s a big part of the game to miss out on.
Truth be told though, it’s probably for the best in an era when interesting new games come out on a constant basis. Personally, I would rather spend a little bit whenever I want than have part of my income sucked out and go unused, especially when I don’t have much time between work, friends and family, sleep and other games to dedicate to any one specific game. For those who disagree or do want to invest, the option for a premium account exists at a cost of roughly 15-ish bucks a month (remember, being Japan-only at this point, we’re talking about Yen).
In short, Phantasy Star Online 2 takes several steps beyond its genre-defining roots by turning up the action and learning from the franchise’s failures and successes alike over the past decade. Its future in Japan is looking great so far, with SEGA having had to upgrade their servers multiple times already from the sheer amount of users logging in and numerous updates and additions having already taken place since release. With a release currently planned for 2013, it remains to be seen how PSO2 will fare in the west, where it’ll surely face strong competition from the recently released Guild Wars 2. From personal experience with the rest of the series, that will depend on how well the company supports its customers in the long run. When the time comes, I invite you to join me on a few missions to kick some Darker mandible!
PRE-RELEASE OUTLOOK: Favourable
“Fans of the franchise’s previous games will likely fall in love with PSO2, and its free-to-play model and constantly growing content means that anyone interested in the various sub-genres featured within should keep it in watch. SEGA’s handling of an international release is what will make or break its future.”
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