The similarities are startling. Five years ago I had my life slowly devoured by the Dreamcast's seminal Phantasy Star Online, easily clocking up 500-plus hours on the game in six months. My only break in all that time? The few weeks I spent ploughing through Zelda: Majora's Mask on N64. Fast forward five years and my obsession with Phantasy Star Universe - PSO's fully-fledged successor - is developing to alarming degrees, but Nintendo's Wii is out in under a week, with Twilight Princess looking too tempting to ignore. History definitely has a habit of repeating itself.
My first stint in the Gurhal System may end up being short, but it's already proven memorable. Having said that, my first experience of PSU was far from positive; Sega's decision not to offer UK 360 users the chance to pay for the monthly Guardian's Licence subscription with Live Points (something that isn't a consideration with the PC and PS2 versions) seems frankly stupid - especially when American users can do just that. Get those Visa accounts in credit, folks, or you, like me, will find yourself unable to play online until you do.
If you can't, however, there's still the single-player mode; something I won't spend too much time on here, as it's largely the online mode's basic gameplay with a manga-style story. What it does well, to its credit, is present an accessible sci-fi tale with all the trappings of the best '80's cartoons; a colourful cast, a stylised future setting, cheesy voice acting and some impressive boss battles. The real draw here, however, is the episodic presentation. Each hour-or-so chapter boasts its own 'Next Time on PSU' TV-style ending, so those with less free time will be able to pick up and play in short bursts.
That's not something I'd level at the online game, which, (when you finally manage to access it) boasts the same addictive qualities as its forebear. That said, PSO is over five years old now, and online RPGs have certainly evolved. Indeed, World of Warcraft is a far grander proposition than PSU, while Guild Wars has had considerable success with no monthly fee.
'Phantasy Star Universe is far closer in format to Guild Wars than WoW.'
Phantasy Star Universe is far closer in format to Guild Wars than WoW. Both are instanced RPGs with an action-heavy focus. On PC the subscription may be the real sticking point, but on consoles there's really only the more expensive FFXI and Everquest to challenge Sega's latest online offering. PC and PS2 players can even play with each other, while Xbox 360 adventurers have to play amongst themselves.
PSU's distinct selling point is the speed of its gameplay. The fighting engine isn't the most sophisticated by any means, and the monsters themselves are amongst the dumbest you'll come across in a game, but when tens of the things fill the screen and you have a well-versed team to despatch them, the core mechanics come together to form a compulsive, addictive hack-and-slash boasting a surprising amount of depth.
Indeed, it's when playing in a team of six fully tooled-up players that PSU really comes to life. The three character classes, Hunters, Rangers and Forces, each boast respective specialities in melee, ranged and magic-based attacks, and therefore each plays a vital role. The Hunters are potentially the most devastating close up, the Forces are relied on heavily to heal compatriots, and the Rangers are almost exclusively responsible for taking out flying enemies. This separation of skills means that you'll really need to work as a team to get anywhere, whilst striving to improve your character's skills at the same time.
Areas also boast their own very individual feel, ranging from a very PSO-esque Forest-like Parum, to the oriental style of Neudaiz, and the forebodingly barren plains of Moatoob. You'll even visit a few unnerving technological fortresses reminiscent of later areas from Xbox and GameCube PSO - something which fans will no doubt recognise and appreciate.
It's sad, then, that the game's opening area, the Linear Line Platform aboard the Guardians Colony space station, is so bland and uninviting by contrast. The visuals themselves feel decidedly current-gen, no doubt because the PlayStation 2 was the lead platform. Other than some HD sheen on the 360 and PC, all versions look practically the same.