Getting online with the Dreamcast just became a necessity.
Sure, it could be argued that games like ChuChu Rocket and Quake
III Arena were as good an excuse as any, but with ChuChu, the lag
was quite silly (and ultimately it was more fun offline with
friends), and as for Quake III Arena, well, the only reason it's
fun these days is because of Rocket Arena, and you can't get that
on the Dreamcast.
Phantasy Star Online though, offers hope. Its offline game is dull
and drab but it's pretty much lagless, and it invites gamers from
literally all over the world to join together against a common foe
-and who better- pure evil.
PSO is not only the first online RPG on a console, it's the
best online RPG for a long time. As an individual, the game
can get tiresome, because the storyline itself isn't that terrific,
but online, especially when pal'd up with a few friends, it goes
beyond the old "one more go" adage - stuff outside the game stops
I didn't play the original Phantasy Star games, but it doesn't
really matter, because the sense of story in PSO is virtually
non-existent once you progress beyond the first hour or so. The
idea is that your homeworld is dying, and "Project Pioneer" has
been conceived in its death throws to continue life offworld. The
first ship, Pioneer 1, was sent out quickly to find a new home to
colinize, Ragol. Pioneer 2 has now arrived, packed with refugees,
and contact has been made with the settlers. Everything's looking
But then there's an explosion, and contact is lost. In classic RPG
style, you are one of a scant few on the ship in a position to
help, and are sent down to discover just what the heck is going on.
That, however, is about as gripping as it gets. One had hoped for
an Event Horizon-esque multi-dimensional thriller, perhaps
combining elements of Resident Evil and Final Fantasy, but it's
just a trek through dungeons looking for the bad guys, really. The
game has more in common with Diablo and its sequel than with
The game also differs to other MMORPGs (you only get that once,
kids) because it is actually a finite tale. You can "complete" it.
The ending is a severe letdown, but then it was always going to be
with such an epic game (in terms of scale and longevity anyway).
The thing is, and this is the crucial part: even when finished, you
continue to play.
It's almost as if Sonic Team engineered the tale to end on a low
note. It doesn't really matter that you know what happens - you
just go back and continue on with your mates. The reason being,
obviously, that PSO is more about gameplay, character development
and interaction with friends than it is about uncovering this
The most important part about Phantasy Star Online, gameplay wise,
is the scope for individuality. When I first envisaged PSO, I
thought of hundreds upon thousands of little identical Lockes from
Final Fantasy, running around thieving and killing off bad guys in
packs. Not so.
There are nine different characters and classes to select yours
from (so there is plenty of scope for replay anyway), but each can
actually be edited to make them look unique based on your own
preferences. The game uses a clever universal translator system
that allows people all over the world to play using common phrase
translation and "emoticons" for simple communications. You can
customize your own emoticons to reflect your individuality, and
these will be the most obvious way of getting communication across,
and marking your contribution.
Granted, the system as it stands is hardly a Babelfish, but it's a
start, and it's functional enough to get you by amongst a world of
foreigners. The sort of thing one would kill for in the real world,
You can bind specific phrases to the Dreamcast's gamepad buttons
if needs be (you'll quickly learn which phrases and icons are most
important), or you can just buy a keyboard and use that. I found
the latter was the best way to avoid trouble in the long run.
One of PSO's other big coups is the "MAGs" system. MAGs are
basically little creatures that twin up with your character, and
are essential to your progress. They are not unlike the legendary
Tamagotchi, in that you do feed them (with cure items, abilities
and the like), as much or as little as you want, but they also
reciprocate your kindness by increasing your abilities.
MAGs actually "evolve", into different shapes and sizes depending
on what you feed them and the frequency of doing so. MAGs are all
different from character to character, depending on your
customisations, and at the end of the day (and certainly beyond
about level 15), you should have quite a unique duo at your
disposal. And yes, you do get attached to the MAG, just like the
Tamagotchi. I still remember when someone decided to dunk my
Tamagotchi in the local river. It never really got over that - I'd
feel similarly hacked off if someone killed my beloved MAG.
So the game is mostly about building your character and fighting
evil, but it's also about collecting stuff. A staple
requirement of most RPGs, collecting stuff extends the life of PSO
way beyond where it should be. There's always some item you
don't yet have in your inventory, and there's also some reason to
keep on playing. Hell, even if you find a new and interesting item,
you aren't satisfied until you're experienced with it. Turning off
the Dreamcast at the end of the evening becomes painful.
That's what makes Phantasy Star Online so brilliant though. It's
complex through its simplicity, and addictive like Diablo was. You
know the game isn't technically speaking that great, but there is
always something to do, some goal to achieve and you are almost
always just having plain ol' fun. It's the purest form of
entertainment - it's not really addictive per se, it's just so good
that you feel withdrawn when you stop doing it for a while. Okay,
so maybe it is addictive. Sue me. No wait, sue Sega!
In my haste to extol PSO's many virtues, I seem to have left out
some other important parts, so lets go over them. Forget ye not the
technical aspects, as they say.
The visuals, for starters. Trading off visuals against constant
frame rate (and of course in PSO's case stability of Internet
conditions) is a difficult task, but PSO does look stunning
nonetheless. The intro sequence is the best part, and again, it's a
shame that it hasn't been matched by a similarly spectacular exit
movie, but the bits in between make up for it.
The level of detail on your characters (particularly after
customisation) means you never really get tired of looking at them.
The shear vibrancy and sense of life that dominates the game
makes it hard to detach yourself from, too. You do feel as though
you're moving through and exploring a world, with friends, and not
just walking through blocky pre-designated tunnels in groups with
pretty pictures splashed up and down the walls. That would be quite
a harsh appraisal of any game, but with an online RPG on a 33.6Kbps
modem you could have been forgiven for suspecting the worst.
Oh, and since I'm trying not to miss out important details, how
about the bosses. They are just utterly huge. Skyscraping, so to
speak. The first boss you meet is at least ten times your size, and
by the end you give up looking for the top, and just step back with
your party members and hope to hell that you can overcome them. If
you thought Sephiroth in FF7 was a git, you try topping some of
As I've said, the online aspect is really the only side of PSO
worth bothering with. There are four UK servers or thereabouts,
split into different arenas and you can usually track down mates
easily when you jump on for another game. Lag, as I've said, isn't
an issue that you should be bothered with, and as for cheaters -
don't worry about them either, Sega is warning and banning people
who try to fiddle the game using an Action Replay or similar
device. The unique key system for each copy of PSO makes it easy to
pinpoint and block troublemakers.
Ultimately, PSO is a masterpiece. There's just so much to it. I
haven't even had a chance to get stuck into the game's sprawling
locations, control system and all the fun you can get up to with
fellow players. Needless to say, it's all just pretty much perfect.
Get some mates involved and you will need no fixative to help keep
you glued to the seat.
Growing MAGs and building up your character becomes religion, and
although you can play offline, you really won't want to. The only
thing that one can really take issue with is the Dreamcast's
inability to support external Internet connections. Ideally, I
would like to plug PSO into my ADSL line, or at the very least a
modem or ISDN using an unmetered connection. Paying by the minute
is going to get very expensive.
If you can stomach the costs though, do it. This game deserves the