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.