Lacklustre sequels and fierce competition have gradually eroded Phantasy Star's storied reputation for online role-playing on consoles - a reputation founded nearly a decade ago on the Dreamcast by Phantasy Star Online. The worst blow came with the failure of series reboot Phantasy Star Universe, which, although enjoyable to play if you were prepared to pay, failed to recapture those players who'd deserted the Gurhal System in favour of Azeroth.
But despite some baffling design choices - including an infuriating segregation between the online and offline game modes - Universe was to finally come good with last year's Phantasy Star Portable. This was effectively a scaled-down and free-to-play Phantasy Star Universe on the PSP which took inspiration from Monster Hunter (a game which, ironically, Phantasy Star Online inspired itself) by offering an ad-hoc multiplayer experience for four players.
It would have been a solid package if developer Alfa System had included an online Infrastructure Mode - because, as with Monster Hunter, this isn't Japan, and organising a Phantasy Star session down Wetherspoons isn't something that's viable for 95 per cent of European PSP owners. But despite this oversight, it was clear that the framework for a more accessible Phantasy Star was already in place, it just needed some fine tuning. Fortunately, this is exactly what Phantasy Star Portable 2 achieves.
Portable 2 is set three years after the events of Universe and focuses on the exploits of a freelance mercenary organisation called Little Wing. So rather than retread the traditional GUARDIANS career path, Portable 2 has your character start as a lowly grunt aboard the Clad 6 space colony.
All four Phantasy Star races make a return - the floppy-haired Humans, the robotic Cast, the grizzly Beasts and the "elves in space" Newmans - but rather than a basic Job Class which can later be upgraded to something more advanced, like a Gunmaster, in Portable 2 there are only four Job Classes which are all selectable from the beginning. These include the classic slashing, shooting and casting trio of Hunter, Ranger and Force, as well as the new multi-purpose Brave class.
This new system actually allows for significantly more personalisation. For a start, you can change Job Class whenever you want for mere pocket change – keeping everything about your old class intact while you try out something different. Furthermore, players are no longer restricted to certain weapon types. By earning Extend Points through completing missions, you can now unlock any weapon rank for any class.
Building a character capable of wielding many S-rank weapon types will take a great many hours, but in terms of the flexibility this provides – especially in those situations where you obtain a rare weapon you might otherwise be unable to equip – this new freedom feels like a tangible improvement. This can also be said of the revamped battle system.
By combining some of the best features from the previous games, especially Phantasy Star Zero, Portable 2's hack-and-slash combat, while still fairly basic, makes this the most satisfying Phantasy Star yet. While holding a melee weapon you still have access to a normal attack and a Photon Art special move, but instead of building up Photon Charges the old way, the number of Photon Arts you can perform is now dictated by a Photon Power gauge that recharges independently.
Other technical additions include a standalone block button which allows both two-handed weapons and the new shields to reduce damage, and a Perfect Block system which requires strict timing but negates all damage. But for players who prefer a more focused build – such as a Cast Ranger or a Technic-heavy Newman Force – the tweaks to the firearm and magic combat means Portable 2 is now more engaging for all types of player.