Review: Phantasy Star Online: Episode I and II
Posted 25 Mar 2003 at 02:50 by Paul
Phantasy Star Online : Episode I & II heralds the beginning of Nintendo's rather muted entrance into the wonderful world of online gaming, Gamecube being the first nex-gen console (except for maybe Dreamcast) to go online in a PAL territory and PSO being the first game.
After initially being released on the Dreamcast (as 2 separate games) PSO is a essentially a hack and slash, with modern weapons all powered by Photon energy. As you battle your way through forests, tunnels and caves, you slowly begin to discover what happened down on Ragol – a planet which Pioneer 1 (the predecessor to your ship, Pioneer 2) claimed to be inhabitable. The monsters have turned nasty; there are no life forms to speak of: what's a Hunter to do? Well, hunt things of course.
The graphics of the game vary in quality throughout. To get the worst nit out of the way : the characters. They have what looks like blank canvasses for bodies upon which pieces of paper with bad character drawings have just been glued on. The mouths don't move when they speak, characters are duplicated so it looks like Pioneer 2 encourages twins (and triplets, and quadruplets) and it, in fewer words, is rather shoddy. When you walk around with a partner in tow, which happens often, you'll notice you can walk through them and them through you. Not only that, but you can activate switches without even touching them and walk through some of the monsters.
However, it's not all bad. The terrain is luscious, fresh and full of beautiful greenery, with paths of soil and stone mapped marvellously onto the ground, whilst the caves have glowing cracks in the floor, huge pools of lava flowing freely and walls with huge metal doors leading into mysterious unknowns.The enemies are also highly detailed, even if they are also highly stupid. Each one was stunning facial contours and the colours are cleverly combined to make them seem very real, even when they are that : monsters. From ugly Boomas to the massive Dragon there is also lots of variety in the creatures. Even monsters which are simply a step up more powerful from their less evolved predecessors look, in the most part, completely different in terms of looks.
The Pioneer 2 is in a completely different style from the natural terrains down on the planet Ragol. Down there is the grass, the trees, the mountains and caves. Reminders of the planet they left. Up on board? A technological haven. Teleporters positioned everywhere, many a hexagon littering the area, modern suits on the soldiers, lights and lasers bouncing everywhere. Even though the Pioneer 2 (or at least, the areas you can explore) are quite small, it seems like there is so much to explore. With holography projecting symbols and signs, and huge doors splitting in 3 and sliding away, Star Trek-style, you'll notice immediately the superb contrast between onboard and the planet below.
As it is, in fact, Sonic Team developing this game, I worried what the sound would be like. Although Mega Drive Sonic games had trademark music, the latest outing on GC had some pretty abysmal tracks. But with PSO being in a completely different genre of game, I should have known better. The music (and some SFX) are excellent. On the Pioneer, the music changes seamlessly as you walk in and out of the main hall, to the health centre and to the Principal. The sound effects when you complete a task, or Quest, are more than noticeable but still deliberately subtle, just to let you know you've done well.
Down on the planet, the quality stays. The music cleverly intertwines between peaceful and calm into faster battle music when you're in danger or enemies are appearing, and when you're all done, it all returns to serenity before you know it. The sound effects, although generally well thought out and used sparingly, can sometimes sound a bit repetitive or thoughtless. The beep of a button, the groan of a monster, the buzz of a fly. After 100 of each, you'll soon get bored, and just remember that 'the music is good, the music is good'.
And if you really get to love the music? In the options menu, there is a BGM test, so you can play your favourite tracks from techno to orchestral without having to do a thing.
Ah yes, the biggie. Phantasy Star Online, as the name so cunningly suggests, is playable online (if you have the Gamecube Broadband or Modem adapter). But first: the Offline option. The story is this. You are a Hunter (the general term for all 3 types of character, Hunter, Force and Ranger) on the ship Pioneer 2, sent with 30,000 inhabitants all looking for a new home on the planet Ragol, as, of course, their planet is dying. A previous ship, Pioneer 1, landed on the planet 7 years before, and reported that all was essentially fine and dandy. But when a communication link between the 2 ships apparently causes a huge explosion on the planet, you are sent to investigate.
The 3 classes, as afore mentioned, are the Hunters, whom use weapons such as Sabres, Daggers and Handguns, the Rangers, who use weapons like the Rifle and the Mechgun, and the Force, who use Canes and Pistols. The weapons can all be upgraded in a variety of ways, including upgrading them so that they give you higher ATP (Attack Points) and making them +n, where n is any number from 1. Plus with each race having so many weapons to choose from, the variety is quite outstanding.
Also, apart from using weapons, are the 'Techniques', the magic of the world. You can perform offensive magic (such as Foie, a fire attack) and defensive magic (such as Resta, which gives you back some life). However, don't rely too much on these attacks : they use up valuable TP, and although levelling up does both raise this and your HP, consecutive techniques can bring you down to zero quickly, and that's also why Force characters are recommended only for advanced users, as their physical attacks are somewhat lacking.
In each of the 3 races there are 4 different characters, all of which can have their facial features, size, hair and more determined by you, the player. You can be a human male Hunter or a female android Force, it's up to you. The 12 are HUmar, HUnewearl, HUcast, HUcaseal, RAmar, RAmarl, RAcast, RAcaseal, FOmar, FOmarl, FOnewm & last but not least, FOnewearl. Of these, the first 2 HU's, RA's and FO's are human, and the last two are androids (excluding Force, as androids cannot use techniques). Whichever you pick, you will be limited, for example, androids use Traps (like grenades) instead of techniques, whilst the HUnewearl is better suited to daggers and the HUmar, who has no real speciality.
As you progress through the 4 main areas, Forest with the gorgeous greenery and not so gorgeous Boomas, and the easiest overall enemies by far, the Caves, with weird sharks and odd Nova Dragons, the Mines, with darkness ensuing and nasty Snow Beats, and finally, the Ruins, with the highly dangerous Delsabers. 2 or more and you really shouldn't be there. In each area, the main idea is progress through set out sections of enemies, locking doors. Kill off all the enemies of hit a switch and you get to another battle square of sorts. Do this so many times and you'll get to a transporter to the second half of that area. Continue through the onslaught (much easier said than done) and you'll eventually reach a huge transporter, leading you down to the pits of hell that we generally call the boss. The first Forest boss is easy, but it gets harder. Much harder. The learning curve is steep, so you'd better get good quick.Apart from just exploring the areas and setting up Telepipes (teleporters between Pioneer 2 and a certain area in, well, an area) there is the Hunter's Guild, where you complete missions for various clients and get lots of Meseta in return. Go down to the planet and retrieve a wannabe land-owner, help a rather annoyed wife stop her husbands weapon fetish and let the public 'know the truth' about Ragol through the help of a cowardly journalist, yearning for the era of 'newspapers'. There are many quests to complete, some are complicated and exciting whilst others can be slightly repetitive, but doing all of them is essential, partly because you get some currency to go buy Techniques, weapons, armor and more, and partly because a lot of the quests tell the story of Ragol. One in particular, which leads onto something more mysterious than originally thought, sees you teaming up with another Ranger and trying to find 'survivors from a tourist boat crash'. But all is not as it seems.
As a little extra in the game is the Mags, little creature things that hover round the back of you, asking for items to increase their stats and one day eventually healing you and attacking things trying to destroy all it's good healing work on you. Feed all the Monomates (life recovery) you want to raise its Attack Power and also, even, IQ, and eventually it will all pay off when the little thing rips havoc amongst your foes.However, that's not even the best bit. Online, the game comes to life. Play on 50Hz, and once you've got the BB or Modem adapter hooked up to your PC or cable modem, you're up on the EU servers, talking to anyone you please. Play on 60Hz, and you can play on the global servers, Play with people from the US of A and Japan. And with the wonderful little language translator, which means whatever people say it will be in your default GC language, you can have long in depth conversations of tactics on taking down a Hildebear in 3.5 seconds and the current state of the Pioneers lobby.
You can arrange to play games online with friends, from 'reality' and from the net, and can also get to meet new people. Take on Quests in teams of 2-4 players of simply just kick some monster butt for a few hours. It's really up to you. And once you're done hacking and slashing, download new Quests to take on in Offline mode. With this tool, PSO can be made to last for many a week. It just goes on and on! Plus, even timezones don't make a different, because PSO runs time in .beats (developed by Swatch) which is an internet time (1000 .beats in a day) to make meeting up with friends easier.When you buy PSO, set-up is fairly simple, and once you're done, either use up your free 30-day Hunters License or buy a new one for £5.99 at playsega.com or from your PSO Homepage once Online. Just make sure that the month you buy for is one where you'll be able to play lots and lots : most people who will play this game don't have £6 to fish out for the occasional hour at the weekend.
The control system is extremely easy to get to grips with. However, there is unfortunately no 'Pause'. Pressing Start in game simply brings up the menu system. You can still attack and be attacked. So if you need to escape some particularly vicious enemies, you're better to get behind the nearest doors, as enemies stay within certain boundaries, not leaving one set. Another option is to hide behind a gate of lasers, the 'easy' option. Whilst the symbols and menus may take some time to get used to, you'll eventually get the hang of it, and levelling up yourself, your MAG and your equipment can all be planned out quite tactfully. With 6 slots for different attacks, items and techniques (B, A & X and hold R for another 3 slots, also B, A and X) you can get easily to the things you use most.
B: Monomote (recovery item)
X: Heavy Attack
L: Face Camera Forward
R: Switch between action sets
Z: Menu Screen
C-Stick: Move up and down menus
D-Pad: Move up and down menus
Control Stick: Move character around
This game has oodles of replayability. You could come back to this so many times, as you can always go for a quick fight with your friends in Battle Mode where you battle each other 4 player head to head, rather than monsters, and there will always be new downloadable quests. 10 hours? No chance. The game is pretty hard, and really never stops. Weeks, months, years of your life will go when you play this. Trust me, I'm an obsessive. So many levels to reach with your character, equipment and MAG will make you play this on and on and on. Once you PSO, you can't stop….no rhyme, I know. But you get the picture. Maybe.
The Phantasy Star series really has reached new levels. The gameplay has been improved, the music is as good as ever, the last ability has rocketed, especially as Episode 2 allows you to level up to Level 200, and more weapons are included. Double your money, however? Maybe not.
The best bit of the game is going online for the first time, it'll really be exciting, no matter what kind of cynic of online gaming you are. The first person you talk to might just turn out to be one of your best friends. However, the costs involved are high. The game costs £40 on the High Street, with the online adapters costing £35. Each month after the free first £6 must be payed and to get the best out of conversation when you're online a keyboard by Codejunkies will cost you £20. Want better? A GC controller plys built in keyboard costs around £65, but only available in Japan.
This, as you can see, is a bit costly. But even if you only go online with this game for a month or 2, it will be wholeheartedly worth it, and when the next online game comes out (oh please be the Karter) you'll be more than ready.
N-Europe Final Verdict
Get really into it and be willing to pay an online fee then this game will last and last...but will your cash do the same?
Excellent online play
Superb Ragol graphics
Costly online play