In the realm of science-fiction, a reoccurring theme that has been explored countless times is man's relationship with technology. The popular consensus seems to be that machines will either be utilized to elevate our existence, or they will eventually rob us of our humanity and lead to our downfall. Films like The Matrix, The Terminator and Star Wars seem to exemplify the bleak latter. However, films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek seem to favor the optimistic former, in which there's a sense that technology will eventually unite the human race and expand our horizons by exploring the cosmos—perhaps leading to our evolution. The new role-playing game (RPG), Phantasy Star Online (PSO) for the Sega Dreamcast, makes a case for itself being among the more optimistic category.
PSO is videogame with grand ambitions of uniting game players on global scale over the Internet for the purpose of entertainment. This isn't a new concept since the Internet was commercialized, but it never became a reality for a number of reasons. Technological hurdles such as low bandwidth and lag time have limited users to keeping within close hops of local regional servers, which basically meant that you were more likely to be interacting with local neighbors than international citizens. Then there's the language barrier. Just because you can reach out to anyone around the world doesnt guarantee that you'll be able to communicate with them.
PSO changes all of that. Not only has Sega managed to breakdown the barriers that bind us in terms of technology, but they have also resolved the linguistic issue as well by utilizing a combination of different communication systems. Aside from a typical on-the-fly chat feature, there's also other two methods that function universally. First, there's the customizable icon-based system (think emoticons on steroids), that allows for the basic expression of feeling through the use of symbols. Second, there's a word-select feature that is basically a macro-like universal sentence builder that automatically and seamlessly translates a sentence or phrase from one language to another. Conversation between a total of five different languages is possible.
In theory, this is all sounds well and good, but does the communication system actually work in application, and is it woven effectively into worthwhile gameplay? The answer to both questions is a resounding "Yes!"
To go into more detail, PSO is the successor to the acclaimed Sega-created RPG franchise, though it bares very little resemblance to its predecessors. It has been several console generations since the franchise has seen the light of day, so understandably, a few transitional updates were made. Most significant of those changes is the change of focus from a single-player to an online multiplayer experience. The game still sports a bare-bones single-player mode, but the real attraction behind PSO is to log on to the Internet with the Dreamcast and team-up with online gamers around the world. Other remaining changes include the visuals, which have been dramatically updated to an entirely 3-D representation, and the background story now involves players investigating an anomalous explosion that takes place on a newly-discovered, soon-to-be colonized planet in which earlier settlers are strangely missing.
Played entirely from a three-quarters perspective with a manually-adjustable behind-the-back camera angle, PSO unabashedly takes many of its gameplay cues from the PC hit series Diablo. Both games have a similar approach to extensive character personalization/development; both feature segmented stages that must be played through in a linear fashion; and both games are light on narrative. But to think of PSO as nothing more than a consolized clone of Diablo would be a gross mistake. PSO's foundation may have been largely inspired by Diablo, but that doesn't mean the developers were limited by it. Quite the contrary, the developers have incorporated their own unique touch to the overall game design.
The first major difference between PSO and Diablo are the visuals. While Diablo utilized sprite-based, 2-D graphics in a medieval setting, PSO finds itself on the opposite end of the spectrum. PSO is fully realized in a real-time 3-D environment and incorporates a futuristic sci-fi spin. Admirably avoiding many of the cyberpunk clichés popularized by movies like Blade Runner and the art of H.G. Giger, PSO is a visual knock-out. Simply put, few games look so fine. I was infinitely impressed at how the game manages to balance out the contrasting styles of high-tech, magical and alien themes. The consistent presence of neon-glow colors is used effectively, and the transparent monitors constantly churning out endless amounts of digital read-outs also help to solidify the look and feel of the game. Being essentially a dungeon-crawl, landscapes are often simplistic in layout to a fault, but I'll be damned if I didn't admit that many of the game's faults are so much more tolerable thanks to the lush visuals and wonderful art direction. Visually, PSO is a remarkable achievement that should be remembered for a long time.
Another thing that separates PSO from Diablo are the communication and social-dynamic elements. Despite playing with hundreds of different people over the Internet, Diablo is still very often a solitary and isolated experience. Outside of trading items, there's very little chit-chat and sense of camaraderie that takes place during and outside of quests because the action is so fast-paced. There's not much need for strategic collaboration, and there isn't any efficient method of keeping track of online buddies after one has logged off. PSO addresses these concerns in a big way.
Not only does PSO provide players with the means to interact with one another, but it also gives them a reason to do so. In order to access certain areas, escape traps or recover from death, the aid of one or more partners is usually required, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Keeping tabs on online buddies is a snap due to some really nifty features, like the "Guild Card" feature that is essentially a digital calling/business card. Players are free to distribute and collect Guild Cards among fellow adventurers, and doing so will allow players to determine if a player is online and search for their current location with absolute ease. There's also a "Simple E-mail" feature that allows players to send private post-it sized notes to one another as well. Finally, one extra feature also worth mentioning is the profanity filter. The game automatically masks any typed offensive words into gibberish. Ethically, this may sound like a bad idea, but in the long run it's a great feature because it discourages rude and crass behavior. Most players keep conversations more civil as a result and focus more on getting to know one another and teamwork rather than getting kicks out of being a virtual Andrew Dice Clay.
If there is one fault about PSO that also seems to mirror Diablo, it's that it's sometimes a little too simplistic and repetitive in gameplay. The game isn't really committed to telling a tale of any kind, and the game very often feels like a long, drawn-out scavenger hunt with too much emphasis on combat and little else. The battle system allows three different attack options (normal, heavy and special) that can be chained into a three-hit combos, but the whole process can still be very dry and one-dimensional (extensive and elaborate evasive maneuvers and tactics aren't available). A large bulk of the gameplay basically involves teaming up with others to fight hordes of monsters, find new equipment (some more special and rare than others), accumulate cash from selling items that you don't keep and retreading through the four main environments over and over again. There are voluntary side quests outside of the main quest, but while the developers tried to interject more story, variety and characters through these side quests, the whole thing feels overly tacked-on to the point of being an after thought.
So despite my lackluster description of the gameplay, why is my review of PSO still so overwhelmingly positive? There's two reasons. One, the character-building aspect of the game is still very fun and dangerously addictive. Like any good RPG worth its grain of salt, there are plenty of options for players to personalize characters through different types of job classes and customizable looks. To keep me continually invested, there's also a vast array of different weapons, armor and items that can be found and equipped to improve the attributes of my online alter ego. No matter how powerful I got, I always felt as though I could upgrade another piece of armor, find a better weapon or build up to the next level. It's the same never-ending hook that is popularized by PC games like Everquest and Diablo, and the experience can be hopelessly difficult to let go of.
Secondly, I loved the social aspect of the game. I honestly feel that the developers made good on their promise of uniting gamers worldwide in a persistent and virtual world. Technically, there's hardly any noticeable lag regardless of where or with whom you are playing, and the universal communication methods—while not deserving a Noble Peace Prize for the most ingenuous and effortless technologies ever created—still works effectively as intended. I was able to play with non-English speaking adventurers with relative ease and to that effect, there was also an unexpected bonus thrill knowing that I was playing with people halfway around the world and getting to know someone of a completely a different culture. How many videogames can you say that about?
It's very easy to look at PSO and complain that it's nothing more than a boring and repetitive take on Diablo, but I think those who do so aren't really taking advantage of the possibilities that PSO offers. To fully enjoy PSO, you need to soak in the visuals to appreciate it's glory. You need to become one with your alter ego. And most importantly, you have to embrace the social elements and make becoming a member of the global community a part of the experience. For the first time in Internet history, the international community is truly united in a meaningful way where time, space, and language have no boundaries. PSO is a shining example of technology bettering mankind, and we should enjoy it while it lasts because who knows when these machines will decide to turn on us.