Although the Phantasy Star series boasts an extensive and rich history, it was only in 2000 that the game really stepped out of the shadows. Basking in the limelight of the Dreamcast and its dazzling 128 bit graphics, SEGA took the series in a bold and exciting new direction: online. Where the MMORPG was previously banished to the realm of PCs and keyboards, Phantasy Star Online brought the experience to the home console, and RPG fans opened their eyes to a whole new world of gaming. For many, PSO was their first foray into online role playing - to character creation, real-time combat and team communication - and is therefore looked back on fondly, even if the vision is impaired somewhat by the mists of nostalgia.
With Phantasy Star 0 on the Nintendo DS, SEGA has used the original Phantasy Star Online as a framework, tinkered with the interface so that it works on two screens, scaled the graphics down a tad, and swapped the massively-multiplayer components of the game with WiFi multiplayer. The result is a baby version of Phantasy Star Online that bears an uncanny resemblance to its predecessor. Those who played the Dreamcast version will revel in the familiarity of PS0, which captures the feel and underlying atmosphere of the original with great success.
Before getting stuck into some good ol' fashioned dungeon crawling, a character must first be created, and PS0 has three distinct races to choose from: The Human Race, which offers good all-round skills and attributes (why is it that regardless of the game, the human race is always the good all-rounder?); The CAST, artificial life-forms that can use traps, but not techniques; and the Newman, elf-like beings who are skilled with techniques but low on defence and health. With a race chosen, players then specialise their approach to combat, where further proficiencies in melee, ranged combat and spell casting can be assigned. With all that mundane stuff out the way, you can customise the most important aspect of your avatar : his or her appearance.
With your avatar tailored to your liking, he or she is dropped into the hub city, where all the action is orchestrated from. The first thing you're likely to notice is that the game looks fantastic - the 3D visuals and soft colour palette impress on the DS' small screen. New characters and important boss battles are introduced through anime cut scenes, giving the game a polished feel to it. Once you've finished looking around and talking to the residents of the town, it's time to acquaint yourself with the Hunters Guild.
In the Phantasy Star universe, players assume the role of a Hunter: a hired warrior who is sent on errands organised by the town. These quests add structure to the feeble narrative that otherwise drives the game. Although there's choice in which quests you choose to accept, a difficulty ranking shoehorns your character down the appropriate story-related path. Completing these quests yields money, as well as experience you will have accumulated on the quest itself.
Combat is slow, at least in comparison to other Phantasy Star titles. My CAST character takes about half an hour to swing his (admittedly large) sword, and stringing together a combo can take the best part of a day. This sluggish pace to combat is the result of a cumbersome chain system that requires precise timed button presses in order to link attacks. Where most hack 'n slash titles rely on furious button tapping in order to string together combos, the lethargic button pressing of PS0 gives the game a clunky and disjointed feel.
The camera is frustrating too, following your character with such intimacy that much of the environment is relegated to outside your field of vision. Your eager team mates follow you so closely that they often end up getting in the way, frustrating even further. Being able to pull the camera back just an inch or two would have given you a much better idea of what's going on.
Gameplay quickly slips into a familiar cycle: accept a quest, kill monsters, collect loot, kill boss, get stronger, rinse and repeat. Those with obsessive compulsive tendencies will find the routine comforting, but more adventurous players might find the lack of variety boring. There are seven environments to plod through, but latter quests recycle these with little alteration to the original mission. Although the environments consist of randomly generated floors, it fails to save the game from quickly descending into mindless tedium.
PSO finds some redemption in its expansive selection of loot, with literally hundreds of weapons and armour to furnish your avatar with. After clearing each screen of hostiles (monsters), a treasure chest appears, full to the brim with money, items, weapons and armour. Sifting through the riffraff for that killer sword or rare piece of armour is as addictive as ever, and selling anything unwanted will help free up your inventory while giving you some extra cash to spend at the shop. Weapons and armour can be improved through augmentation too, and with the right items, you can add a plethora of stat buffs and advantageous side effects to your equipment.
Fans will be pleased to see the return of Mags: little robotic partners that loyally follow your character into the heart of battle. As well as increasing your stats, they can unleash devastating screen-filling attacks or heal your dishevelled character should you find yourself in a tricky situation. Mags can be improved by feeding them items you find along your travels, and help you develop your partner to your liking.
As a solitary experience, Phantasy Star 0 is hard to recommend. The once pioneering gameplay of PSO now feels tired and dated, and there's little incentive to play by yourself for any considerable amount of time. If, however, you are lucky enough to have a couple of like-minded chums, the game is a far more satisfying experience. After overcoming the headache of Nintendo's fundamentally flawed 12-digit friend code system, Phantasy Star 0 allows players to team up with three other hunters for co-operative monster slaying frolics. Although online play is plagued with numerous connection problems, local WiFi works well.
No longer burdened with mentally challenged AI team mates, real strategy can be employed using the excellent communication system integrated into the bottom screen of the DS. The PictoChat-esque interface allows messages to be sent quickly and easily, allowing for spontaneous changes in strategy. Competitive loot collecting with friends is great fun, and showing off a rare new weapon or shiny piece of armour to real players never loses its charm.
The success of Phantasy Star 0 is largely dependent on how you play the game. If, like me, you prefer to play games like this by yourself, then it's probably best to steer clear of Phantasy Star 0. The mechanics haven't aged well, and there are far better games out there deserving of your hard-earned cash. If you happen to have friends who are eager to play with you and don't mind overcoming the hassle of online play, there's a surprising amount of fun to be had with the game. Whichever camp you find yourself in, Phantasy Star 0 doesn't quite live up to the memory of Phantasy Star Online from 2000, which if nothing else, highlights just how far the genre has come in the last ten years.