Version tested: PSP
Our hobby is full of forgotten worlds. Cities whose streets and structures were once as familiar to us as New York to a Brooklyn cabbie, in time become as slippery to recollection as last month's dreams. Hills and valleys and forests previously understood as pieces of geography, defining landmarks en route to Rabanastre or the Imperial City, soon become no more than context-less clumps of polygon and texture. It is almost every game-world's fate to be forgotten, sunk as archaeological remains in the overburdened memory of the seasoned, universe-hopping gamer.
For many explorers, however, Phantasy Star Online, the Dreamcast's electric blue blueprint for all console-based multiplayer RPG space quests, is gone but never forgotten. The memories of fighting with friends and strangers for the first time through its purplish corridors and crimson caves remain so vivid we could retrace our virtual steps blindfolded. SEGA may have switched off the servers, but this world will always have its players, those Hunters and Rangers and Force who roam its turf by memory alone. As such it seemed certain that PSO's next-gen follow up, Phantasy Star Universe, would be a surefire hit.
Perhaps it was World of Warcraft's fault. Perhaps it was the sheer petrifying range of choice for the contemporary MMORPG player, or perhaps we mistook the fact PSO was the first and only console-based game of its sort for the illusion that it was the best. Either way, PSU failed to ignite the passions of gamers, its labyrinthine corridors walked by just a hardcore few after the first influx of prospective immigrants left unconvinced of its merits.
But Phantasy Star Universe nevertheless did a great many things well. For those players who could look past the idiotic decision to isolate its single-player and online campaigns (where progress in one had no bearing on the other) and its reliance on subscription-locked disc-shipped content, there were a clutch of neat ideas and elegant tweaks. These built upon and even improved the PSO template in some regards, especially with regard to matchmaking, the job of forming and maintaining a party of likeminded questers.
For that reason Phantasy Star Portable is still a notable release. It is essentially PSU in handheld form, a shrunken port of a forgotten world, but a game, which, in trying to fix that world's problems, has great potential. On paper, the signs are good. The game incorporates all of the PSU tweaks and amends introduced in the recent (and much overlooked) expansion, Ambition of the Illuminus, returning the player's character to the forefront of both the multiplayer and single-player experience.
The previous emphasis on item crafting is gone, refocusing play back onto the random drop system while maintaining all of the weapon and armour customisation that allows higher level players to show off to their peers. The game flow follows PSO's lead, offering a slew of Story and Free missions of varying length and complexity across a wide variety of planets, completion of which nets loot of varying degrees of usefulness. So far, so Sonic Team.
However, Phantasy Star Portable's minor victories threaten to be overshadowed by some ostentatious shortcomings from early on. Principle amongst the game's problems is the lack of online multiplayer: an oversight that, for the Western gamer at least, will seem indefensible for a game seemingly built for communal questing. The problem, as 14 million Japanese Monster Hunter fans will tell you, is a cultural one. While in Phantasy Star Portable's homeland, gamers will often gather at a location - a school hall, a bus stop, a shop corner - to play multiplayer RPGs with one another for hours, Western gamers prefer their handheld multiplayer gaming to be experienced remotely, across an internet connection.
This cultural discrepancy works doubly against Phantasy Star Portable, as the game appears on a relatively niche system in a niche genre. For many Eurogamers, the chances of finding another PSP owner who lives nearby, who enjoys multiplayer RPGs, who owns a copy of Phantasy Star Portable, who is of a similar experience level to your character and who is also free next Tuesday afternoon are so slim as to render the game's strongest selling point irrelevant.
There are two ways around the problem, neither of which are as effective as playing the game how the developer intended, with friends sat together in close proximity. Firstly, the forthcoming functionality that will allow online multiplayer games to be played via infrastructure mode through the PlayStation 3 will solve the problem (although at time of writing we were unable to test how well this works). Secondly, for the single-player it's possible to augment your team with three A.I.-controlled players, teammates who provide back up and healing to your character.
This is a welcome addition but, with atrocious path-finding (which creates real frustration when negotiating certain winding-corridor areas of the game world) and poor decision-making when it comes to healing and reviving fallen comrades, the feature falls far short of the ideal. While it's still preferable to take CPU-controlled teammates into battle with you rather than going it alone, your team is nevertheless burdensome, often at times when you have enough difficulties to contend with without their without their failings exacerbating your problems.
Other obvious concessions to the handheld format may put off PSU veterans. The world hub is now rendered as a 2D overhead map, while the NPC characters that you can interact with in these areas are now shown as static portraits, stills of the 3D models. Gone is the customisable aspect to your space station apartment, as is the item-feeding evolution system for your 'Partner Machinery' (PSU's version of MAGs), which is replaced by straightforward upgrades that customise your virtual combat pet's behaviour during battle.
But sometimes less is more and these features of the fully-fledged PSU did not make up its primary appeal. Instead, Phantasy Star Portable's reduction acts as a streamlining, reducing the amount of time it takes to explore the inter-battle world, making key NPCs quicker and easier to find, dropping load times to acceptable levels and removing much of the deadweight that clogged its immediate forebear.
What's left then is a snappy action-RPG with a huge amount of quest content, a diverse range of environments and enemy types and a selection of lead character types each with huge and engaging development trees (from Hunter to Fightmaster to Acromaster, for example): all the ingredients that made PSO such a compelling proposition and then some. This is a game for players who love to collect, who find thrill in the unpredictability of item drops, and pleasure in customising the minutiae of a character's appearance in order to show off to fellow players.
It's more accessible to Westerners than that other Japanese item collect-'em-up Monster Hunter, yet still deep and wide enough to warrant tens of hours worth of investment. The combat is fast-paced and often enjoyable, encouraging careful timing of inputs to build up powerful combo hits, and the game's solid strength in this area helps to paper over its obvious shortcomings in storytelling (which has always been a series weakness).
Judged in isolation as a PSP title, Phantasy Star Portable offers recurring glimpses of the unforgettable RPG multiplayer baby steps we first experienced with Phantasy Star Online on SEGA's Dreamcast. But today, with a wealth of multiplayer action-RPGs on the market for other systems, most of which are far easier to set up for multiplayer sessions, only committed players will have the tenacity to get the most from the game. For that reason, it's destined to remain a niche product in Europe, even if, for those who do fall for it, its depths as a handheld multiplayer RPG ensure it may never be forgotten.
7 / 10