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. 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.
Unfortunately such graphical complacency is commonplace in PSU, somewhat stunting the effect of its stylish manga-esque aesthetic. There’s less individuality to the character creation side than most similar titles, with few choices of hairstyles, facial features and wardrobe options, meaning that within the space of a few hours online you will likely meet your character’s double – an example of lazy art direction which fans seem to simply grin and bear.
Likewise, despite the PSU hardcore seeming to accept it without protest, there’s an unmistakable sense that monsters in different areas often don’t differ anywhere near drastically enough to feel genuinely threatening. Instead, they tend to come down to one of a few select types, advancing with predictable and overly familiar attack patterns. Bosses are even worse, downright lazy rehashes of each other, and lack the variety and challenge of PSO’s superb end-of-area battles.
That’s also a trait which could easily be levelled at the areas themselves – which, while doing their best to offer a living, breathing world, never truly get past feeling derivative of those in the Dreamcast original. There’s certainly nothing here to match the pulsating, mysterious sinew of PSO’s Ruins or Dark Falz Boss fight. There are also frame rate issues aplenty, making this a slightly underwhelming visual update of a once-iconic franchise.
Yet, despite the obvious failings, the underlying dungeon trawl and item collection aspects of the Phantasy Star games remain as unerringly appealing as ever. This is thanks in large to two additions which help bolster PSU’s longevity factor to ridiculous degrees.
Synthesis is the big one. Instead of finding ‘rares’ as in PSO, you’ll now have to make them – using a hovering robot called a Partner Machinery, and various ingredients, all of which can be mixed in different amounts to produce different items. Thankfully, it’s never as dauntingly freeform as it sounds, with the basis for each item, a Board you slot into your Partner Machinery, dictating the specific ingredients needed for Synthesis in all cases.
And that’s where the shops come in. Every player on PSU has their own room which can be lined with expensive (and completely cosmetic) decorations, or, for a fairly hefty price, can be turned into their own eBay-style shop. Here your partner Machinery acts a shopkeeper, storage device and till combined, meaning you can leave your shop unattended and go about your business elsewhere, earning money as you do. The real addictive quality, however, lies in scouring other players’ stores for rare items and Synthesis ingredients, and using the results to modify, customise and generally cool-up your character.
And PSU, like PSO before it, hinges on that item-driven premise. The initial hook of the pacey combat is fuelled by the hunt for newer, rarer, more expensive items – or Meseta with which to buy them – and new items, in turn, help you out on the field of battle, ensuring the grind to fresh scenery, more dangerous enemies and the use of even more collectible gadgets continues.
Unfortunately, Sega has actually locked much of the disc’s content from the beginning, meaning limited missions, no challenge modes and a level cap of 50, which all bottoms out pretty quickly, with the plan currently being to siphon it into the gameworld one weekly update at a time. It’s a frankly ludicrous decision, but one, given my previous experience with the billing situation, I wasn’t surprised by in the slightest.
And that’s a shame, because, despite the obvious drawbacks, I’ve enjoyed my time on PSU immensely. Sadly, Sega’s laughable online policy and faulty net code remains, but these are gripes PSO veterans like myself have lived with throughout the series’ various iterations. Even clearly noticeable repetition and developer laziness can’t fully erase what is in essence an almightily addictive and emergent base structure. In the end, Phantasy Star Universe suffers from a few wayward aspects, but remains more than the sum of its parts.