Game Description: The realm of Phantasy Star Online has increased. Phantasy Star Online, Version 2 includes all the original content from Phantasy Star Online, but expands the world with more levels, more features, and more evil to combat. You can import your existing character or create a new one as you strive to reach level 200 and master the game's new ultimate difficulty setting. Players from around the globe can now compete in Battle Mode as they face each other in deathmatch-style combat. Play Lobby Ball with up to 12 players while you chat and get a game going. Discover new and more powerful monsters, unearth rare items, and experience the passing of time as day turns into night in this persistent online world. Phantasy Star Online, Version 2 continues the evolution of the original revolutionary gaming experience.
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.
For starters, Phantasy Star Online seems more like a first step in establishing the framework for an online world, rather than a fully-fleshed game. It's a very bold first step forward, and it gets much respect for that. There's a seed with a lot of potential here, but the game in its current form isn't very much fun.
While Chi seems to have enjoyed the various chat portions of the game far more than I did, that's all the game really is—a chat. Avatar based, which definitely adds some novelty, but still a chat. Anyone who has a computer and an ISP has access to the same type of core entertainment available here. Sure, it's supposed to be a game as well, but if the game itself isn't fun, then all that's left is a good way to get online and meet people. While this definitely has its charms, it's not really a fun "game." I'd much rather be playing something more satisfying when I'm in the mood for a game, and be chatting somewhere online without having to put up with people begging for the game's rare weapons when I'm in the mood to chat. Call me an extreme nationalist, but I didn't think it was very interesting to spend much time with the pictograms in order to talk to international players.
While it's true that the game's "Guild Card" and "Simple Email" systems help to make connections between players and expand the social aspects of the thing in a very positive way, when you get right down to it the game is extremely simple, monotonous and boring. With the basis of the game being "kill monsters, level up, repeat" I found little reason to keep playing no matter who I was chatting or playing with. Sure, it was fun to get together with people that I knew and kill a few beasties for a while, but the game is repetition incarnate. Even worse, there's not a whole world to explore here—only four major areas and a tiny central hub. Dungeon design is incredibly straightforward and plain (nice graphics aside), and team tactics for any kind of puzzle-solving never come into play except when all four members of a team need to stand on an equal amount of circles to unlock a door. PSO may have drawn some of its inspiration from Blizzard's seminal hit Diablo, but I'll take Diablo over this game any day.
As I've already mentioned, gameplay is as simple as could be. Create a character, go out and kill some monsters to level up, buy items and repeat. That's literally all there is to it. Nothing else. The game's main draw of finding better items and leveling up is a very a hollow pursuit, since the end goal is to basically enter dungeons and kill some more. In Diablo, while the goal was essentially the same, the game got quite frenetic at times and had a very rapid, arcade-like pace in addition to the countless weapons and spells available to you. Gauntlet Legends, a similar title, didn't have nearly the amount of customizing options that Diablo had, but it still retained the fast-action feel and got the adrenaline pumping. In PSO, things move much slower (to help avoid lag, probably) and never gets your heart racing the way being surrounded by hordes of enemies in the other games did. The pace is just too slow for an exploit this simple and basic, and there is far too much emphasis on leveling up—one of my least favorite things to do in any title.
In addition, the game's single-player mode is a joke, being comprised of the exact same gameplay as featured online, only disguised as a series of "quests." While on one of these "quests," the goal is always—surprise!—go into dungeons and kill monsters no matter what the plot of the mission is. The lack of any compelling story or world elements outside of a few shops really hurts the game, in my opinion. I fully realize the disc is called "Phantasy Star ONLINE," but the tacked-on single-player mode is a joke for those gamers who aren't taking their Dreamcasts online, and there's no goal for playing online except to level up, chat and collect items. I suppose some people would find this appealing enough, but for something that's supposed to be an RPG—online or not—I need more motivation.
Finally, the game's actual controls need work, which is surprising considering that the majority of the game is spent in dungeon-hacking. The camera is often less than optimal, requiring more manual adjusting than I care for. While the characters usually control just fine, for classes who use ranged weapons it's tougher than you'd think to get a bead on enemies. No incredibly major complaints here, but it's not as polished as you'd expect from Sega.
I think PSO has a very admirable goal in aiming to unite people worldwide, but once the people are there, there's not much to do with them. Like other Sega releases (most notably Seaman and Shenmue), Phantasy Star Online is a game which garners instant respect, and a lot of it, but is difficult to fully embrace due to the nature of the actual gameplay. The big "S" has created an extremely innovative game that blazes new territory and breaks new ground, yet again it's more concerned with advancing the field than making a game which is actually fun—a necessary and vital role, but sometimes a disappointing one. However, all complaints aside, PSO is only a first step, and if Sega continues on the path it has created, it could lead to something truly special indeed. Hopefully their recent shift to becoming a software-only company will help them focus on sharpening up their already strong development skills and create a sequel which is closer to being a full-fledged and well-rounded game than Phantasy Star Online currently is.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Blood, Animated Violence
Parents who might be concerned that their children will be exposed to all kinds of foul language will be relieved to know that the game has a built-on profanity filter that screens out most offensive words. However, just as in any online forum, the threat of sexual predators preying on the naïve is still a possibility. Since players can interact and communicate with people all over the world, parents should be very aware of their childs activities while allowing them to venture out to the virtual world that PSO offers. Other than that issue, the content in PSO can be described as family-friendly (meaning no overindulgence in sex, profanity or violence).
One other thing that should be noted by all gamers is the you cannot pause the game in PSO at any time due to the hindrance it would cause for persistent online play. While understandable, this makes life tough when you have to answer the door or pick-up the phone during intense battle situations. And finally, as a word of caution, most stores that sell Phantasy Star Online who usually accept returns will not take PSO back if you don't happen to like it. The reason for this is that the game uses the individual identification number of your Dreamcast when registering online, and once it's been online the game won't work on the network with another Dreamcast unit. Once you go on the network, there's no going back to the store if PSO isn't to your taste.
Long-time fans of Phantasy Star and fans of more traditional console RPGs might be a little bit disappointed in the new online incarnation. While PSO shares some graphical-style similarities and the presence of a Quest Guild, the game is a far cry from old-school turned-based RPGs that saw its finest moments on the 16-bit Genesis console. The combat is fairly simplistic, and there's no epic storyline to speak of either. However, those same fans who can keep an open mind and like new experiences may appreciate the bold new online multiplayer approach, which is a first for game consoles.
For console fans yearning for a PC game experience along the line Diablo II and Everquest, your prayers have been answered. Not only does PSO deliver the same kind of addictive gameplay, but it is also visually arresting, has some nice console touches and an amazing communication system that allows you to team-up with gamers all around the world.