"Imagine playing a console game online with a bunch of friends that are named after DBZ characters. Imagine playing a game where you can communicate with just about anybody in the world. Imagine playing a game that is so incredibly addictive, you forget to eat and sleep for a three days straight. Imagine all that, and you find yourself Sonic Team's innovative installment of the old Phantasy Star series called Phantasy Star Online. "
Imagine playing a console game online with a bunch of friends that are named after DBZ characters. Imagine playing a game where you can communicate with just about anybody in the world. Imagine playing a game that is so incredibly addictive, you forget to eat and sleep for a three days straight. Imagine all that, and you find yourself Sonic Team's innovative installment of the old Phantasy Star series called Phantasy Star Online.
The story for PSO is shallow and does not have to be followed for you to enjoy the game. After facing the imminent destruction of your home world, a large-scale evacuation plan called the Pioneer Project is engineered to find a new home planet. Unmanned probes that are sent into space discover a planet suitable for life, and this planet is named Ragol. The government of your home planet constructs a transport ship dubbed Pioneer 1 and sends it to Ragol to establish a colony. On this new planet the initial colonists begin the construction of Central Dome, which is the building that the colony will be built around. Seven years later your transport spacecraft, Pioneer 2, makes its way to the planet, but when the ship enters orbit and opens a communication link with Central Dome, an enormous explosion occurs. Now you begin your adventure as a hunter that is employed by the government to investigate the lost communication between the two transport ships and find any survivors that may have some answers. The story doesn't have much to do with the old Phantasy Star RPGs on the old Sega systems, but there is a little bit of tie in if you have played those games.
There are nine character types, and each can be classified as three different professions or races. The three professions are Hunter, Ranger, and Force. Rangers are the easiest class to play with because they use gun-type weapons, so they excel in long-range combat. Hunters are proficient with bladed weapons, excel in close-range combat, and are middle of the road when it comes to difficulty. The hardest profession to start with is the Force because they specialize in using techniques (spells), and are generally suited for combat support rather than taking on everything. The three races---Human, Newman, and Android---determine the attributes for the character type. For example, Humans tend to have more attacking power than Newmans but have less mind strength; however, Androids generally have higher attacking power than Humans but lack the ability to cast techniques.
The first order of business when creating a new file is to customize a character. You choose between the nine character types and then head into the character creation screen. If you choose a Human than you will be able to modify the face, hair/hat style (along with color), costume, skin, and proportion. Androids are a little different when customizing because you will choose head type and body color instead of face/hair and costume, respectively. If you don't want to go through all those options, then you can choose the Auto option and use one of the many designs that are preset. After finally deciding on a character model, you can finally create a name for your character. This name will determine which Section Identification your character receives. Basically, the Section I.D. determines which items will drop from enemies or pop from boxes, how often these items appear, and which rare items you will be able to find throughout the game. Some I.D.s are better suited than others depending on your character type, so a bit of strategy does come into play even when you are deciding on a character's name.
After Principal Tyrell of Pioneer 2 sends you to Ragol's surface, you will become acquainted with the battle system of the game. PSO offers non-random enemy encounters which are fought in real-time. On your screen is an Action Palette, which can be toggled to show your second Action Palette by holding the R trigger. The A, B, X, and Y buttons on your controller correspond to the colors on the palettes, and can be assigned battle options. You will be able to assign up to six battle options because the Y button is always configured as the on-screen keyboard. Basic battle options include attacks, techniques, and tools (items). All weapons have a standard and heavy attack, but some have extra attacks which can yield a special effect such as draining health or technique points. Techniques will use up TP, and Tools are used whenever the situation allows. The battle system is simple: go up to an enemy, hit it with whatever weapon or technique you have, and repeat until all the enemies in the room are dead. When the enemies are dead, the next part of the level unlocks, so you can progress in the level. Battling tends to be too easy because enemies can't leave the room they are in and retain the amount of damage they had before you left the room. Leaving the room will also cause the monsters to return to their starting positions, so you will be able to walk in a room, hurt the monsters, walk out, heal, and repeat the process. The enemies are not exactly on par with Steven Hawking's thinking capacity (or your own for that matter), so gameplay can become monotonous after a short time.
There are basic types of items such as weapons, shields, and armor. However, this game introduces a little something called MAGs. MAGs are basically the little floating sidekick above your shoulder. They can be fed various items every few minutes to level up four different stats: ATP, which is attack power; MIND, which is your mind strength; DEX, which is your attack accuracy; and DEF, which is your defense. Strategy comes into play when feeding your MAG because the type of item you feed your MAG will determine which stat increases. For example, Hunters will generally feed their MAGs monomates and the like, so their POW increases and they can attack for more damage. After MAGs level up, they can evolve and learn attacks of their own called Photon Blasts. A meter at the top of your screen called the Photon Gauge will fill up as you take damage from enemies and deal damage back to them. After the bar fills up to 100, the MAG can unleash a Photon Blast, which can either deal damage to monsters or support you by healing you or temporarily increasing your stats.
While offline you will be able to traverse between Ragol's surface and Pioneer 2. Playing through the main, although shallow, story is the primary reason for playing offline. You can also follow a side quest that involves Principal Tyrell's daughter, Red Ring Rico, by reading messages she has left throughout the four dungeons of PSO. Each new dungeon will be available after defeating the area boss and talking to the principal. One of my favorite parts of this game is that you can redo a dungeon as many times as you want because the area's monsters will regenerate after you save and quit. You can always go back to one of the earlier levels if the later ones are just too hard for you to finish. Side quests are manifested in the form of Hunter Guild Quests, which are available in the Hunter Guild. These quests take place in the same dungeons as the main quest, but the level will be altered just a little bit as an attempt to provide a different experience. Guild Quests offer money for completing an objective such as finding people on Ragol, and escorting them back to Pioneer 2. Some of these missions add just a little to the main story, but they can also be done to level up your character or gain rare weapons such as the Soul Eater. After beating missions, more missions will become available for you to tackle. You can become a Retired Hunter by beating all the Guild Quests, and by doing so you can redo any mission you want, as many times as you please.
The offline mode can become tedious because there isn't enough interaction to keep the game interesting. However, this game is called Phantasy Star Online for a reason, and this is where the game truly shines. After you connect to the world of PSO by choosing "Online Mode," you will be able to select from many ships and blocks to select a game to play. When you go into the lobby you can either join a team, create your own team, or socialize for hours on end. The online component is basically the same as the offline mode, but you can now have up to three more players with you to take on Ragol's monsters or take on a challenging Guild Quest at the Hunter's Guild. While playing with people online, you can see how different character types are meant to help each other out through their basic tactics: Hunters dish out major damage in close-range combat; Rangers keep their distance and shoot their enemies; and Forces deal damage with techniques and help out other players by using healing and support techniques. You can even download content such as more Hunter Guild Quests and VMU icons through the Download server.
Playing online is the most fun you'll get out of the game, but there are a few problems that I've come across while playing on the servers. First of all, there is no security while playing online. The lack of a trade window obliges players to drop whichever item they are trading, so you can easily be ripped off because all you can see is a colored box until you actually reach the item you are trading for. My friends and I have been shafted too many times while trading, so our trust in other players has gradually decreased over time. Guild Quests are fun online, but they don't allow people to join after a quest has been started and force players into the lobby after the quest has ended. There can be some lag while playing online, but that doesn't happen too often. Finally, the amount of hackers online is innumerable. Because players drop their weapons and money when they die, people called "Player Killers" are rampant on the servers. They use certain Gameshark and Code Breaker codes to kill players just so that can nab a rare weapon. The only way to counter these hackers is to play with friends and password-protect all the games that you play.
One of the greatest things about PSO is that it has a revolutionary communication system that breaks down language barriers. This game can be played in five different major languages. Players can communicate using a Dreamcast keyboard (sold separately) or the software keyboard. Players can set common phrases such as "LOL" or "Help, I'm dead!" to the F buttons on the keyboard or controller through the shortcut menu. Symbol Chat is also integrated into this game's communication system, and it is perhaps my favorite way of talking. You can customize your own symbols as faces, and place them as shortcuts for whenever you want to use them. Sometimes I sit around with my friends and have a "Symbol Showdown" to see who has the best symbols. While playing online, you could be playing with somebody who is typing entirely in German and you may not know it. The only problem with this system is that from time to time you will come across some characters that can't be translated into the language setting that you have programmed. I thoroughly enjoy talking to people online because it is one of the reasons that this game was made. Sometimes I'll just sit in a lobby and talk to my friends instead of playing the games because it's so much fun. One of my favorite additions to this game is the Guild Card System. Players can send business card type items to other players, and contact others through the mail system to see if they want to play. These Guild Cards make tracking down friends a lot easier and make the game much more fun to play.
When I first began playing the game, I found the camera to be a nuisance. PSO uses a third-person point of view, but when enemies move around quickly, you'll find yourself hitting the L trigger way too many times to readjust the camera. Amplifying this problem even more is the shoddy lock-on system. While trying to attack an enemy, a target symbol will appear on your screen and mark where you are aiming. The lock-on is a little loose and can easily move to a new enemy while you are still trying to take out your original target. While I believe that Sonic Team meant for this aiming system to allow freedom in attacking enemies, I find the system to be ineffective. Players will eventually get used to the camera and aiming system; however, when they are backed into a corner, all hell breaks loose.
Visually, PSO is enticing and colorful. There are excellent looking animations, monsters, and dungeons, which run consistently while playing offline. The only problems arise online because there can be severe lagging, and items that drop from monsters and treasure boxes magically pop-up on to the screen. The frame rate plunges to all time lows when numerous enemies decide to take on your party, and forces cast techniques as if there is not going to be a tomorrow. I found the music to be magnificent, but listening to the same track after being in the same area for too long can become tedious much like the offline gameplay. Sound effects are also high-quality as monsters, techniques, and weapons have unique sounds that can be stimulating.
PSO can last approximately 20 hours on normal (default) difficulty for beginners, but experienced players such as myself can tackle it within 8-10 hours. After successfully completing normal mode, hard mode will appear, and after that mode is completed, very hard mode will be unlocked. The higher difficulty modes are basically the same as normal mode except that the monsters have upgraded stats such as HP and attack power, but sadly the AI doesn't take a boost along with those stats. The replay value of this game is extremely high because of the higher difficulty settings, playing with friends all over the world, and the search for the most powerful weapons in the game. I've played this game over 1,000 hours because I love making new friends while taking out all the baddies of the game, and because I still can't find that damn 1975 Agito.
Overall, this game does have a few flaws that could have been worked out. However, the fun of slaughtering Dimenians in the Ruins with a few friends is more than enough to overshadow the lackluster story and monotony of the offline mode. If you're planning to play this game online, as is meant to be done, then I recommend buying Phantasy Star Online. Now you can experience firsthand the electronic crack that Sonic Team has successfully managed to develop.
Community review by vman (January 31, 2005)
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