Version tested: Xbox 360
For a while, at least, Phantasy Star Online was perfect. Stylistically it was Dungeons and Dragons made over with neon-pink harajuku dyed hair, eyes twice underscored with black pen and a lipsticked mouth blowing cherry gum bubbles in outer space. Ideologically it was an avalanche of firsts: The first console-based MMORPG; the first major genre departure for an ancient and venerable Sega franchise; the first Dreamcast title to show what was really possible with its emergent online service; the first international software to successfully implement a bilingual text mechanism that allowed Americans, Europeans and Japanese to communicate near indistinguishably with one another.
But, above all of this, for those first few months at least, it offered an arresting glimpse of that unique redemptive jewel hidden somewhere deep within the murky definition of online gaming: people working together and helping each other for fun. It was zeros and ones threaded into a warm blanket of community through a winking 56k loom. PSO, that big bang from which this newest Universe has grown, taught console gamers for the first time to think about somebody else; it kept us up to the small hours tending a digital Petri dish in which comradeship, camaraderie and companionship multiplied and evolved with each shared adventure.
Experts helped newbies; items and knowledge were freely shared; Ragol was conquered time after time after exquisite time; Naka-san smiled down from the watching stars as we played in his unfurling dream. It was hard to imagine how the future of gaming lay anywhere else other than in the warm co-operation of millions gaming strangers made inpixellate.
But then, so quickly, Phantasy Star Online taught console gamers another new first: distrust. Player kills, hacks, forged items, a ruined economy, the ‘white screen of death’, remotely erased character files and so many text-based, shouty children tore the world apart cheat by childish cheat. The dream became a nightmare and its Sonic Team visionaries realised that, while they had created a place of beauty and potential and wonder, they forgot to make fences high enough to contain man’s selfishness and crime. And so, having seen what online gaming was really about, we retreated into private rooms, played private quests with private conversations amongst private friends; the jewel of cooperative adventure was sullied, spoiled and sunk to unsalvageable depths. For many, it’s never been seen again.
So Phantasy Star Universe arrives, a bright new hope for the series aged and weary lovers≠ - still sporting all those elements in the first two paragraphs that made its predecessor so brilliant - but no longer a game of firsts, rather one scrabbling to catch-up with all the competitors that saw its failings, learned its lessons and built new worlds with higher fences and meaner police. It’s still quintessentially Phantasy Star and its forefather’s fingerprints are all over the online element of the game: you still start by creating a character stretching and configuring your identity to within a pixel of your desired likeness. You still gather parties of mixed adventurers (although headsets and microphones have pushed most back within their linguistic boundaries) to undertake simple adventures. Together you clear the room of monsters, collect the key, clear the next room, pick up the items, defeat the boss and return to the lobby in a dungeon crawling action RPG set in a futuristic world populated by four humanoid races. The gameplay is still MMO-lite, more Guild Wars than World of Warcraft, the emphasis on being able to dip in and out, joining and leaving parties with ease while never feeling like you can’t enjoy the game this side of 100 hours investment.
But there are changes here too and they aren’t all minor or successful. Of most immediate concern is the decision to deliver two games for the price of one. While both online and offline modes were included in the previous title they were essentially the same game: the items, money and experience your character earned in either place contributing to your overall progression. PSU, however is two distinct games. The offline mode has you control a single protagonist, Ethan Waber, in a distinct story arc where, crucially, things you do have no bearing on your online character. The only thing the two modes have in common is that they share the same engine, graphics and mechanics - otherwise they are wholly separate. So, in a sense then, this is three reviews in one: firstly of the framework of the new PS universe, and then of the offline and online RPGs that fill those girders.
On the first two counts, things don’t look good. Presentation is rudimentary, menus awkward to navigate, the graphics outdated to the extent that they look like an HD first-gen Xbox game (understandable as this game was designed primarily for the Japanese PS2 version - but Sonic Team have still clearly been lazy here for 360). Environments are linear, the map system several presentational leagues below Final Fantasy XII’s near identical functionality. Monsters are generic, central characters bland and the invention of a crowd generator - where cities look well-populated until you get near other pedestrians and they fade away like ghosts in a kind of reverse pop-up - utterly ridiculous.
If your first stop is the single player mode then these problems are exaggerated. The blandest of stories, pancake-thin characterisation and levels that are far too easy to get lost in create an overall wash of frustration that tempers any enjoyment the by numbers role-play might engender. The lack of lock-on makes combat a tussle of awkward cameras (despite the new strafe move) and hit-and-miss single button mashing (despite the dual wielding) just like it so often was in the original. The painful loading screen that interrupts every cut scene bursts the balloons of suspended disbelief quicker than you can inflate them and, the most convoluted save system we’ve seen on any system actually makes you think twice before bothering to save your game just because it’s such an ordeal. Knowing that everything you’re doing counts for nothing in terms of the MMORPG you bought the game to play leaves just the achievement points to drag you through the plot; a tragedy when we think back to the Megadrive single player Phantasy Stars that coloured our younger years so brightly. Indeed, if this were a standalone game or, if for some inconceivable reason you bought the game without an internet connection, you will be sorely, 4/10-style, disappointed.
But play the game as Naka intended and forgiveness for this world’s flaws is far freer flowing. That’s because, as an MMORPG, the game becomes a playground for friendship and questing. The simplicity and rudimentary presentation becomes a bonus as it makes it very quick and easy to dip into and out of games painlessly. The scenario of Japanese space robots with short skirts, photon blasters set against infinite oceans of space outside your room’s porthole becomes beguiling rather than sterile. Player costumes (ranging from underpants to full on Rappy outfits), customisable rooms and personal shops add depth and width to the original vision suckering you in quickly. The four basic character classes can later be mixed and hybridised to create more complex characters as the game progresses and, as such, the game has been expanded in many of the right places.
But, in many ways it’s also a regression. PSU, at the moment, costs £6.99 a month and, arguably scandalously, Sega are currently holding content ALREADY ON THE DISC back from players in order to release it to paying subscribers at a later date. Even if some areas of PSO were hard to unlock at least they were attainable right from the start with perseverance, here you are kept out of areas of the game online - areas you know are available on the disc because you can visit them all in the offline quest. It’s a shocking decision and we really, really hope that EA et al are currently too busy with something else to have noticed.
Also downgraded is the online sense of purpose. It’s devoid of story or narrative to draw you in; no drama links the lines of online play and even the most basic guild principals of PSO are here removed to promote the offline story. Remember when your character killed Falz in PSO and your avatar was put in flashing lights on the screen? There you were the hero. You visited the principal to gather clues; your missions were tied together by a narrative thread - no matter how simple your purpose was - you had a purpose. In PSU your online character is a mere statistic in the census of an online world; your character will never be master of this universe.
But then, despite all this, as we adventured with Kyoko, a Japanese girl playing from her college in America on our television near Brighton, the magic of Phantasy Star was rekindled; the memories came flooding back and we found ourselves wishing that this had been released five years ago so that the sparsely populated corridors would be full and framework around us would be fresh. For the persistent there is a magical world of friendship and adventure to escape into in Phantasy Star Universe. But for most, while the hacks and cheats may be gone, they have simply been replaced by new chaos and a design disorder that does everything in its power to dissuade anyone but the keenest of sentimental subscribers.
6 / 10