Version tested: PSP
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.
But, out of the new tech, it's the trio of Chains, Dodges and Just Attacks which represent the most significant change. Similar to Monster Hunter, dodging affords the player a few frames of invulnerability as they try to avoid an oncoming attack at the cost of Photon Power. Chains, meanwhile, relate to how many consecutive hits you and your team combo the opponent, with the twist being that once you land a Photon Art, the chain multiplier is used to determine the Photon Art's strength before being reset to zero.
Add onto this the returning Just Attack system from Ambition of the Illuminus – whereby pressing attack in a set rhythm increases damage potency – and you have a combat system where spamming Photon Arts is significantly less effective than carefully chaining normal attacks together before unleashing a deadlier Photon Art. And although it's not in the same league as Capcom's superlative slice of portable adventuring (which, in contrast, highlights how it's preferable to have ten excellent weapon classes rather than 28 similar ones), this tactical overhaul is nonetheless welcome.
As a Phantasy Star game, Portable 2 has an inherent obsession with loot-hoarding and power-levelling which kicks off the instant you head into single-player. The structure of the Story Mode has been significantly improved from Portable, with the static menu system replaced by a 3D central hub – similar to the classic Pioneer 2 from Phantasy Star Online – which allows the player to wander about their business between missions. The rendering budget also stretches to a player bedroom, complete with a 1000-item storage chest.
The story missions themselves spin an uninspired yarn around a dead civilisation called The Ancients who long ago perfected subspace travel and are looking to reclaim the galaxy. While that may sound serious, most of its played alongside your ditsy partner Emilia who keeps proceedings predominantly light-hearted. But with only ten chapters and a 25-hour completion time, it won't be long before you have this new threat resolved.
That said, it's all about the four-player dungeon-pillaging and, as before, this is where the depth of the game lies. The returning ad-hoc mode means that with a few Portable players in the room it's just a simple case of setting up an Open Mission and then carving your way through some generic labyrinth before either double-, triple- or quadruple-teaming some fiendish dragon or monolithic boss.
Portable 2's biggest selling point, though, is undoubtedly the option to play online via the PlayStation Network. Although there were ways to simulate this in the last game – including the PS3's excellent ad hoc Party – this shouldn't overshadow a crucial feature that now allows anyone to play Phantasy Star online with just a PSP and a wireless router. There are some minor issues with host latency affecting the smoothness of play, but team up with UK gamers who have stable connections and it's hard to fault.
Amongst a slew of beneficial tweaks to the Phantasy Star formula – which are too numerous to list, but include subtle changes like the Action Palette now having six slots for armour – Alfa System's crowning achievement is that instead of a handheld port of Universe, Portable 2 feels like a Phantasy Star that was designed to be portable from the ground up. The missions are punchier and the ebb and flow of the gameplay is tighter and more refined.
Unfortunately, Portable 2's familiarity is also its weakness, because as much as it tries to shake things up, the combat feels archaic and stagnant after remaining largely unchanged since Phantasy Star Online. When compared to Monster Hunter – in which deep weapon classes compliment a multiplayer experience that epitomises teamwork – Phantasy Star's shallow gameplay just doesn't have what it takes to compete.
Nonetheless, if you find Monster Hunter too hardcore and are looking for something with accessibility in spades - or if you're just a Phantasy Star diehard looking to plunge the depths of a new 200-level cap - then Portable 2 has a lot to offer. At its best, it's arguably the most accomplished Phantasy Star yet, and undoubtedly the new king of loot-hoarding on the PSP. We just hope next year's Sega-developed Phantasy Star Online 2 does more to reinstate this classic series to its former glory.
7 / 10
Phantasy Star Portable 2 is available now for PSP.