Phantasy Star Online - Review

Cooperation on a Console

By: Jake Alley

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 4
   Originality 8
   Plot 3
   Localization 5
   Replay Value 9
   Visuals 7
   Difficulty Very Hard
   Time to Complete

10-40 hours


Phantasy Star Online

   Fans of the Phantasy Star series have eagerly hoped for a new installment in the series, adding to the overall storyline. While Phantasy Star Online doesn't deliver this, it is a very fun game sharing the same visual style as the earlier games.

   When played alone, Phantasy Star Online is an excessively challenging Action/RPG with a story that progresses a small piece at a time by way of a huge series of engrossing side quests. The real appeal is the multiplayer experience, which allows a group of up to four players to progress through the main game, with level designs and game mechanics making teamwork nessessary to finish and survive.

   The game begins with a very unique character customization system. After choosing from one of the three classes, each of which feature three variants, a unique and innovative system is used to customize your appearance. Each of the nine character types has its own wide selection of faces, hairstyles, skin tones, and seven different colored outfits, occasionally featuring some variety of styles. Additionally, RGB sliders allow for any hair color imaginable, and another set of sliders allow for virtually any height and build. Once in the game, still more customization is possible, through the very wide variety of weapons, strange robotic pets called Mags who add to your stats as you feed them healing items and allow special attacks under certain conditions, and the very innovative face communication system.

Beautiful scenery
Beautiful scenery  

   In addition to the ability to type plain text messages, either using an attached Dreamcast keyboard, or an onscreen keyboard, Phantasy Star Online features a question and conversation generator which can translate a wide variety of phrases into the selected language of all players, and the unique face communication system. Each character can create a dozen faces using a very robust tool kit and a pallet of icons and speech bubbles covering everything from "Help!" and "Low HP!" to dirty glasses and a need to use a restroom. Many players take advantage of this to create highly expressive and amusing faces for every possible situation. Combined with a great deal of controller and keyboard shortcuts, all this let's even those players without keyboards convey any possible message, although foul language is automatically replaced with "#$%@".

   While communication is as user friendly as possible, gameplay controls leave a little to be desired. While six buttons can be set to activate any variety of light strong or special attacks, spells, and items, targeting is entirely automatic, with spells and attacks hitting the closest available target directly in front of your character. While characters specializing in melee weapons should have no problem with this, gun and magic using characters will find themselves wishing for a manual crosshair occasionally. There is also a perplexing lack of a look button, leaving the camera forever in an aerial third person view, and quite frankly rendering the detailed faces almost always obscured from view. These minor flaws are made all the more irksome by the fact that a button does exist to center the camera behind your character. These missing features could easily have been added in here. Running is also activated in an odd manner. Rather than the traditional usage of analog sticks, with speed being a function of how far the controller is pressed at any given moment, Phantasy Star Online's speed controls more closely resemble shifting gears. To begin running, the joystick must be pushed to maximum, but once running must be brought almost back to center to walk again. It should be noted however that these problems are all minor annoyances that don't really hinder gameplay, and that everything else is smooth and intuitive.

Hectic Combat
Hectic Combat  

   Controls aside, the actual gameplay of Phantasy Star Online follows an old tried and true format. Players hack their way through huge beautifully rendered mazes, killing droves or highly detailed monsters and finding new equipment. Overall, the gameplay bears much more in common with Diablo II than the average console game, but the Dreamcast controller and moving camera make such dungeon crawling far more engrossing.

   While the basic gameplay and cooperation found in the game is fun enough to keep players busy for months on end, the game itself is surprisingly short. While each region of the game is a vast sprawling detailed maze spanning two or three floors and featuring enough randomized elements to make each visit a little different, only four such regions exist. Therefore, once players have attained a high enough level, the entire game can be played through in a single sitting. Reaching that point however is easier said than done, as Phantasy Star Online is easily the most difficult Action/RPG ever released, at least when played solo.

Get a haircut!
Get a haircut!  

   Oddly enough, while the game places such a strong emphasis on cooperative multiplayer gameplay, large portions of the game are only available when playing alone. Rather than a straightforward story told in forced scenes, the plot unfolds a small piece at a time through optional side quests only available when playing offline. Additionally, when bosses are defeated online, no record of doing so is saved, forcing players to start from the beginning of the main story unless bosses are first beaten alone. While this doesn't seem too strange in and of itself, the solo mode is so difficult that players will be inclined to play through in a group to gain levels and equipment, then go back alone for the story.

While the story may be a far off concept to less experienced players, Phantasy Star Online does convey a good sense of atmosphere through its graphics and music. Everything in the game conveys the blend of game bears the look of anime inspired fantasy blended with technology the series is famous for. The music meanwhile opts not to follow in the style of the earlier games, but does a very good job of following the current trend in game music of underlying gameplay with complex, blended, nearly subliminal, atmospheric tracks. While this means the music always fits the action, with the exception of the introduction, not a single piece is memorable.

While it may be short, and even somewhat simple, Phantasy Star Online has an amazing amount of replay value. Not only does it offer the sheer novelty of cooperative online play on a console, and three unique classes to try, but there are also higher levels of difficulty for the daring to attempt, more types of weapons to discover, and an option to download new side quests for future adventuring.

Simply put, Phantasy Star Online is a fun, addictive multiplayer game, emphasizing challenge over story. Players looking for this should enjoy the game immensely. Those looking for an RPG by the makers of Phantasy Star featuring a strong story and well developed characters should pass on this and pick up a copy of Skies of Arcadia.

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