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SummaryPhantasy Star Online... how I miss you.
The GoodI remember when I bought Phantasy Star Online (PSO) for the Dreamcast on a whim when it first hit the stores, and I instantly fell in love with it. The music, the setting, character customization, the option to play with 4 friends for free over the 33.6 modem which was built in to the Dreamcast... Everything was perfectly executed. And even offline there were tons of missions and odd rare items to pick up (Aikiko’s frying pan anyone?). Basically it was a really great game. So much so that I even decided to buy PSO: Episode II when it came out, just to explore the added worlds and enjoy some more of what the planet Ragol had to offer. And when the game came out for Gamecube under the name PSO: Episode I & II, I threw myself over it. They'd done something so awesome I just had to buy it a third time... 4-player split screen Co-op on a single console! Me and my friends played it tons, until we finally managed to pry ourselves away and move on. I still have all 3 versions in my shelf, and listen to the soundtrack on a regular basis just to remember the good ol' days of PSO'ing.
So, why did I just more or less write a fanboy’ish review for PSO here instead of PSU? Well... I thought I'd give you a little background before I start reviewing what you came here for. Because, as soon as this game was announced, it caught my attention. More PSO goodness? Single player full blown story line with 30+ hours of gameplay?! When it finally hit the shelves, it got poor reviews more or less all over the place, and the price dropped to a third of what it originally cost. Wearing the PSO equivalent of beer-goggles, still smitten by the mere thought of another PSO (Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution certainly doesn't count in my book!), I picked it up from a bargain bin for the 360 since it was the newer of the consoles it was released for.
So without further ado, I'll start picking and prodding in the next chapter in the Phantasy Star saga, both the good and the bad. Mind you though, this review will only talk about the offline part of the game, as I haven't tried the online part (for reasons found in the ”Bad” section of the review).
The intro of the game sets a very good (and familiar) tone for what's to come, and gave me some hope. The intro is basically a summary of the world, with the races and people in it. Some action filled sequences give you a taste of what you're going to face down the line, and it's all accompanied by a musical score that is very reminiscent of PSO with it's orchestrated space'y soundscape and female opera like vocals. After this you're transported to the title screen, where your options are slightly limited at first. You can either play through the story mode or play online.
The story starts out with a big happening on the Guardians Colony, home to a lot of people. The Divine Maiden has come to make a "divination" at the 100th anniversary of The Final Conflict (which ended a war between the different races). Enter Ethan Waber, a bashful redhead stereotype of an RPG hero on what looks like a hoverboard stolen from Back To The Future II. Him and his sister Lumia are on their way to watch the maiden perform her divination as the Colony gets attacked by a meteor, and big parts of it break down. Separated from his sister he tries to find a way to help her, and meets up with a Guardian named Leo. This is more or less where the real game starts. You are given a weapon and get taught the basics of gameplay.
This is when I first let out a sigh of relief as the gameplay is more or less intact from PSO. This familiar hybrid of hack 'n' slash and RPG made me feel right at home quite early on in the game, and they even kept the names of some items and weapons as a bonus. Basically it comes down to hacking / shooting down everything that moves, usually in order to unlock the next door or give you a key (to open the next door with), and finally kill the chapter boss.
After your first tutorial mission, Ethan is invited to join the Guardians (or more like he demands it), and from here on you're basically free to do one of the many side missions, fiddle with your character or go on with the story missions.
I really liked that they give you the options of accepting side missions in between the story missions, so that you can break it up a little and just mindlessly hack some monsters to pieces. This was what I enjoyed most in PSO; just walking around with my character and killing things hoping to get some nice items dropped at my feet to make my character just a tiny bit more deadly. You also have all the options that the 3 planets and the Guardians Colony offer; such as buying different things to decorate your room with, create your own weapons, items, armors and add-ons, all the free missions, and just to walk around and talk to characters who don't really have anything to do with the story aside from living in the same world as you.
The story has its ups and downs, but when it works, it's cool story about a government conspiracy linked to alternative fuel sources and why it went to hell the last time someone tried to mess around with A-Photons (as the energy source is called). More on the story in the bad section though...
The music, however, is a big reason to play this game if you're a fan of PSO. The same mix of cold space sounds with warm string sections and the occasional splash of opera and gospel lyrics makes this a soundtrack I'd consider owning on CD. While not the the perfect 10 that PSO's music was, it still makes a very solid 8 in my opinion.
The environments you will see are diverse and with a nice sense of art direction, ranging from rolling grassy hills to underground city ruins and ice landscapes. All of them feel alive and real, with a lot of natural leveling, unlike the more flat look of PSO. And they made sure to add distinct differences between the 3 cities and the Guardians Colony in terms of look and feel. Neudaiz is a planet inhabited by Newman and has a clear cultural and architectural feel of feudal Japan (with added Sci-fi elements of course), while Moatoob is inhabited by Beasts and feel more like something from Mos Eisley in Star Wars carved into a big cliffside. The Guardians Colony and Parum feature a clean and somewhat sterile environment to explore, with metal, white and neon being featured heavily.
After a while you unlock the Extra mode, which basically lets you play all the extra missions you've unlocked so far in the game, but with a character you've designed yourself. The character creation is very similar to the one in PSO, where you first pick a race and gender (there are 4 races to pick from, all with different stats). Then you start doing the detail work like hair eyes, eyebrows, clothing and how tall/short and fat/skinny you want to be. So, if you want something that's totally free of story and just kill time with, this works out nicely. And besides, it's a lot more fun to play as a character you've created yourself instead Ethan in the Story mode.
The BadNow that I've gone over what's good about the game it's time to get started with the bad side of things, which while it didn't stop me from playing through the game, it sure did get me quite irked several times during the 30+ hours I spent with it.
Does anyone remember that period of time where the PS1 was still somewhat alive and well, and the Dreamcast came sneaking in? It was a time where you'd get great titles for the Dreamcast and the PS1 simultaneously, but the drawback for the Dreamcast owners was that it was basically the PS1 game with slightly higher resolution. Even though the Dreamcast could run circles around the PS1 in terms of how powerful it was you could tell right away that the game you were playing was designed with PS1 in mind. It hardly made the games worse, but it certainly didn't make them next generation either. It’s not hard to figure out that it was because of deadlines and production costs and all that... but you felt kind of cheated paying for a DC game and ending up with a high resolution PS1 game (where the PS1 version was a whole lot cheaper to buy).
The reason I'm dragging up this old story is because that same PS1 = DC deal that went on around the last millennium seems to have happened to PSU. It's pretty clear that this is a PS2 game they just ported and gave slightly higher resolution. And by that I mean they made the menus and text a whole lot smaller and harder to read. The rest of the game and the in-game cut scenes are all of PS2 quality. I'm not necessarily saying there's something wrong with that, but at the same time it feels like such a waste to not bother to at least try to give gamers any really good reason to pick this version over the PS2 one. Why spend the extra money on the 360 version, when it's exactly the same as the PS2 one? Come to think of it, it's actually even less of a game than the PS2 version, as the PS2 version came packed with the add-on. You have to buy it as downloadable content on the 360 meaning you'd spend even MORE money to get the same game as on the PS2. And that's just crazy talk to me.
Another thing that kind of clues you in that this is little more than a port is in the lazy achievements they added as an afterthought. If you don't own the expansion pack, you get 1000 points by just playing through the game once. There's nothing challenging or cool to get you to try different things, even though there are so many things to do in the game that could have made up little achievements. Instead they settled for "kill chapter 1 boss", "kill chapter 2 boss" etc. How about ”maxed out hunter level” or ”killed X number of enemies” or something? I know achievements aren’t really important as far as game play goes, but at the same time, they usually spur me to try those little odd things I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.
The game is also littered with slowdowns for some reason (which I can only assume is because of lazy coding). There were plenty of times when the game slowed down to slow motion just because of a couple of enemies on the screen at once. The final boss was like playing the entire battle encased in syrup, which made the entire battle way too easy, which was a shame and kind of an anti-climax.
While I said that the story had its ups and downs in the above section, I meant that while it's good, it's OK, and while it's bad, it's terrible! I think this might be due to the acting + dubbing at times though. When the game tries to insert some comedy, it does so in the typical Japanese slapstick way, with big gestures and exaggerated tones of voice. This wouldn't be all that bad I guess, if it weren't for the fact that the story is rather serious. It involves people getting killed and government conspiracies, so while comedy can be there, maybe not of the kind applied in the game (slapstick). The attempts at humor made me cringe in pure horror most of the time actually. Especially the Vol Brothers, 3 useless rogues, who are more or less just jammed into the game to be some sort of three stooges knock-off, which exceptionally poor results. I dreaded every cut scene with them, but I was at the same time equally thrilled each time I got to beat them up as part of the story.
While the music in the game is great, the voice acting is quite the mixed bag. Most of the actors do an OK job and I guess do what they can with the script given to them. But then you have our main protagonist Ethan... He's the person you'll hear talking the most, so you'd think that they'd look extra hard for an actor who'd make the character believable. Instead they ended up with someone who's idea of good acting is to sound like you've just ran up 10 flights of stairs and where punctuations after every word is a good way to get your point across. "OK. Headmaster. Nav. I'll. Get. Right. To. It!"
While the game uses a pretty working controller setup I'd like to know who came up with the inventory system you use in battle. To switch between weapons and items in your inventory you have to hold down the B-button while flipping around the inventory with the D-pad. This means both your hands are occupied with that, making it impossible to reach the left analog stick to run away from enemies while trying to find that healing item you so desperately need. This means you usually end up taking even more damage as you try to heal yourself which, in my opinion, is totally counter productive.
The entire premise of the Story Mode is to basically teach you how the game works when you play online. This means that all of your team mates are 100% AI. Poor AI... really poor AI. If this is supposed to mirror how it is to play online with other (real) players, then you won't see me playing online much. Here's how the poor AI usually manifests itself; You'll be running along a corridor with your three team members, and all of a sudden you see a speech bubble pop up from behind saying "Where is Ethan?" or "Where did Mr. Waber go?". You turn around and find that your entire crew is missing somewhere. You think to yourself "hmm... I wonder if i took a wrong turn somewhere and they're waiting for me where I'm supposed to go?". So you backtrack through the corridor and there they are! All of them facing a wall and running into it, as if they're stuck. When you come close enough to them they let out a sigh of relief like "Oh, there you are Ethan!", like I'd freed them from some sort of prison or something. If the AI can't handle a straight corridor, imagine how often you have to run back and get them in the more labyrinth like locations.
The next problem with the AI is that since you can't give them orders, you have to trust their judgment which, it turns out, isn't something you should ever do. If you're attacked by a ton of enemies it usually takes you attacking first for them to even bother lifting a finger to help. They do an OK job of bashing enemies once they understand to do so though, so once you "trigger" them you're usually in good company. One of your partners have the ability to heal, but that's something she does when she feels like it, not when you need it usually. You can be in the middle of a fight and doing really great, and she decides to heal people all of a sudden. As often as that happens, she also decides that you're not worthy of her healing when you're almost dead. I once stood next to her for 5-10 minutes just waiting for her to get the point... but she didn't.
Speaking of healing... you have all these healing items and revive items that you can use to aid your team if they're down on their luck or dying like flies around you. But why would you? A revive item brings them back to life, but their life meter's maybe three fourths empty. But if you instead just leave them on the ground for something like 30 seconds without doing anything, they come back to life themselves... with a full health bar! So, why would you waste money on healing items for them when you can just let them die instead? It's not like you’ll miss them in battle, since they come back to life in less than a minute.
The Extra missions I mentioned in the Good section can also fit here in the Bad one, since they are ALL timed, giving mission points according to how fast you get through them. None of the free roaming fun of PSO to be had here if you just want to walk around and mindlessly enjoy the scenery, while slaying hordes of monsters. And they also tend to get quite repetitive after a while, since you have to play them over and over to make money and enough mission points to upgrade your class. You'll have maxed out your class skill halfway through the game anyway, even if you don't try. This is because you need money more than you need those levels, so after you've beaten the same mission a dozen times you'll have one powerful character on your hands.
There are three different classes in the Story mission, and the tutorials tell you that "different classes are better suited for different missions". I never needed to try the other classes, as I breezed through the game as the first class (ranger) without any problems whatsoever.
One good thing about PSU is that to play online you won't need a Gold membership, but the bad side is that Sega will charge you a monthly fee to play. So if you only play this game online it's all fine, but if you already bought a Gold membership you'd just add on one more fee that you'd think would be included in the Gold membership to begin with. The cost is actually about as much as the Gold fee is, so you'll be paying twice as much as you'd normally do just to play this one game. Sounds like a really poor decision by Sega and Microsoft in my mind.
The Bottom LineI guess this is one of those games that won't win over any fans to the Phantasy Star world, and it'll most likely make a whole lot of the current fans angry over how there's so much wrong with this game. But if you're like me, and just needed another PSO fix, it'll work out for one play through... but no more. It's an alright hack'n'slash game, but it feels more like one of those games you'd kill some time with, trade it in when you're done, and forget about in less than a week.
I'll file this one alongside PSO Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution as a "good attempt Sega, it's a real shame you messed it all up".