Ahhh Phantasy Star. For fans, SEGA's sci-fi action role-playing series is the greatest thing in the world. The devourer of hours, afternoons, days, weeks, months... even lives. It takes no prisoners and, for all its flaws, has an iron grip, an unwavering bite that, once hooked, never lets go.
Phantasy Star also gets about. From its 1987 debut on the SEGA Master System, through Phantasy Star Online, which made wonderful use of the Dreamcast's underused online features, to Phantasy Star Portable on the PSP, the series has, in one way or another, reared its head on almost every available platform over the last 20 years. Now, it's the turn of the Nintendo DS to receive the Phantasy Star treatment, with Phantasy Star Ø (pronounced "zero"), due out this winter.
Comparisons can be misleading, but in this case it's useful - Phantasy Star Ø is most akin to Phantasy Star Online. We know because a lovely chap from SEGA says it's so, almost as a disclaimer, before we begin our hands-on with the game at this press event in London. Why? Atmosphere and the job system, apparently - both are designed with PSO firmly in mind.
We're here though to give the game a test run in what will undoubtedly be the best way to play it - indeed what it was designed for - classic four-player Phantasy Star co-op. The big problem with handheld co-op games is that they normally don't support online play. More often than not only wireless play is supported. In Japan, where playing games in public is almost as common as playing them at home, this isn't a problem. Over here though, it's a death knell. It's why Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Portable and their ilk will always struggle on western shores. Well, perhaps until now.
That's because Phantasy Star Ø supports online play through Nintendo Wi-fi, using Nintendo's very own servers to make the magic happen. That's right kids, you'll be able to get a group together online and play like it's the year 2000 and your Dreamcast is the greatest thing in the world. Because Phantasy Star Ø supports online play, it instantly moves up ten places in our most anticipated DS games list (this list doesn't actually exist).
The first thing we're shown is the new touch screen-based Visual Chat interface, which is basically the DS' inbuilt PictoChat software cribbed to make communicating with team mates easier on the battlefield. It works as you'd expect - you use the stylus to draw something, then it's sent to everyone in the group.
When played online, you'll have to have the appropriate Friend Codes (sigh) traded in order to communicate with the Visual Chat system because, well, the potential for sending random ten-year-old strangers crudely drawn nobs and other private parts is just too great. Hell, as I sit here in among four complete strangers, one a lovely chap from SEGA and the other three video game hacks like myself, it's the hardest thing in the world not to do exactly that.
If you can't be arsed with Friend Codes but you want to play online with random matchmaking, you'll have to make do with the pre-set text messages. Hello, goodbye, that sort of plain old stuff. While there are loads to choose from, I can't imagine it'll have anything on actually communicating with stuff you've drawn. Like nobs.
In this wireless situation it's not an issue because there's no need to fumble about with codes. It's a simple, intuitive process to get into a group. From the town headquarters, where you buy items and weapons and talk to quest-giving NPCs, one of the group is able to pick a mission from the Quest Counter. In this case, our lovely SEGA chap picks a quest called "Dragon's Roar". Let me guess - we need to go into a dragon's lair and kill it? Thought so.
Now this I didn't expect - dungeons are randomly generated. That means they'll always be different - the game actually crafts the layout of the battlefield on the fly. This is great - much more than we expect from Nintendo DS games. Good stuff SEGA.
Out in the field, we're shown how to make proper use of the Visual Chat interface. Say, for example, you're getting slapped about by a nasty enemy and your hit points are approaching the point where they might run out. You're too in the thick of it to heal yourself, so need some help. Normally you'd probably just die, because actually calling for help in these group situations is a clunky, cumbersome process. In Ø all you'll have to do is tap on the bottom screen to bring up a pre-drawn HEAL! message, which everyone will see displayed in a bubble above your head. Hopefully, then, someone will heal you, keeping you alive and the group soldiering on.
Beyond this, Ø is typical Phantasy Star fare, third-person hacking and slashing and laser gun firing forming the bulk of the gameplay. The action palette is based on the DS' face buttons. You've got a heavy (Y) and light (A) attack, as well as a dodge (B). Combo execution is based on timing, not button mashing, and combo suitability is dependent on whatever weapon you're using. Light attacks are faster and more accurate, so they're good to use at the beginning of a combo string in order to make sure you don't hit fresh air when trying to attack a fast moving enemy. I find, with Tails, who's packing a slow but powerful double-handed staff, that two lights followed by a heavy works best.
Holding R brings up a second action palette - you can map whatever you want to this, but it's best reserved for healing items. The item's we've got are Difluid, which restores Photon Points (PP), used for special attacks, by a large amount; Dinate, which restores hit points (HP) by a large amount; and Moon Atomize, which revives a fallen ally.
The art style is, predictably, slightly more cartoon anime than in previous versions, but it's still impressive. The 3D environments are lush and the character detail is impressive, all rendered on the top screen with the menu at the bottom. Tails, my level 33 character, is a large enough to admire but small enough to allow an adequate view of the battlefield.
As with most portable 3D games, the camera is an issue. There are a decent number of camera controlling options: Tapping L centres it, holding L lets you strafe. But you never feel in complete command of what you're looking at. You're able to hold the X button and then use L and R to rotate the camera, but this induces a serious case of claw hand after about five minutes. If there's one frustration with the game, and it's shared by many similar games on the DS and PSP, it's the camera. Why don't these games include a lock-on feature?
So, Phatasy Star Ø is definitely one DS game to watch. The inclusion of online play is what's most exciting about it, of course. Hopefully it'll work well - SEGA's working on letting American, Japanese and European fans play together, although Mr. Lag might have something to say about that.
Of course there will be a main single-player story mission for those who don't fancy getting their Phantasy Star freak on online, which we're told is set on Earth and will offer between eight and 15 hours of gameplay, but, if we're being honest, that's not what the series is about. It's about dungeon crawling in a sci-fi anime setting with more loot than you ever thought possible in a game. Apparently there are over 350 weapons in the game, divided into sixteen categories. Should keep everyone busy.
Phantasy Star Ø will be out for the Nintendo DS between November 2009 and February 2010.