Phantasy Star Online: Episode 1&2
Developer: Sonic Team
Released: April 2003
Genre: Online RPG
Capabilities: Memory Unit, USB Keyboard Adaptor, X-Box Live Online Multiplayer, Content Download, Voice Communicator, Friends Lists
Review Written: May 6, 2003
Sega made history when they released the first online RPG console title in January 2001 with Phantasy Star Online on Dreamcast. It proved to be a hit that spawned over half a million subscribers. PSO then made its way on the GameCube last fall, now the smash hit debuts on Xbox making full use of the ultimate online service that is Xbox Live. That means for the first time ever the series now has voice chat via the Xbox Communicator for an all new gaming experience.
First off, I want to get out of the way you must own Xbox Live to play this game. There is an offline mode so you and up to three friends can go through the PSO story mode together, but you must have the X-Box Live save files to access the offline modes. I have no idea why Sega made it like that, but you just have to deal with it. Also, the online play is free for the first two months, but after that it will carry a $9/month fee. If you don’t decide to pay for the online play you can still play offline if you desire to do so.
Phantasy Star has been around for ages ever since the first installment landed on the Master System way back in the 1980’s. It spawned three sequels on the Genesis, and wasn’t heard of again until the online edition graced the Dreamcast. The storyline for PSO is that two ships (Pioneer 1&2) were traveling though space, seeking a new home. As they approached the planet, Ragol, the Pioneer 1 vanished. You then create a character aboard the Pioneer 2 and they are transported onto Ragol to find out what happened to the Pioneer 1.
There are three main classes to create your character from: The Hunter, The Ranger, and The Force. Each class specializes in certain areas such as melee, ranged, and magical attacks. They all also contain their own strengths and weaknesses such The Force having a low amount of hit points and The Ranger being immune to spells like Poison, Paralyze, and so on. After fully customizing the look of your characters (you even get to create your own voice mask too!) you are then free to venture out onto Ragol.
I found the offline mode a perfect way to learn the ropes of PSO. Getting the hang of combat is a synch. All combat is done in real-time. For melee attacking, your character can do up to a four hit combo with their weapon, which all comes down to timing the button press of the next move in the combo. Magic is learned through “discs” which can be found throughout your journey, or bought from the shops on the Pioneer 2. Finally, each character has a “mag” that is attached to them whenever they’re on Ragol. The “mag” has attributes for strength, defense, and what not which can be leveled by “feeding” it recovery items such as monomates (health potion) and monofluids (magic potions). As you and your mag absorb hits from enemies during game play, a meter builds up; once it is topped off it can unleash a devastating photon blast.
The only troublesome issue about the gameplay mechanics is the targeting system. It, combined with the equally poor camera can make combat very confusing quite frequently. The camera stays set in the third perspective and it doesn’t follow you as you turn and strafe in the environments. Instead, you’ll have to center the camera with a quick flick of the L trigger. You automatically lock onto foes, but as they maneuver around you, the targeting is lost as you re-center the camera. Also proceeding through tight corridors and hallways in some levels such as the temple gets a bit cumbersome, and you’ll be relying more on the mini-map to spot enemies and traps more than the actual game. After a good chunk of time I barely managed to adapt to the shoddy camera/targeting mechanics, and I suggest for all you PSO novices to spend some time getting use to it in the offline mode first before hopping into the online play.
The online play is a blast, and I found myself addicted instantaneously. After selecting a server, and a block to play in, you’ll find your character in the lobby. Albeit a lobby you can actually walk around in and converse with the other players there, weather it be with the voice communicator or the on screen keypad (interestingly enough, this version of PSO comes packed with a mail away coupon for an Xbox USB adaptor if you for some damn odd reason desire to use a keyboard more than the communicator). From the lobby you can either organize a party to start up your journey in PSO, or join a game in progress. Notice how your character has to be at a specific level (level 20 for hard, level 40 for very hard, and so on) to gain entry into the higher difficulties of play where the far better weapons and items are to be found.
Aside from the awesome online play, the split screen offline play is just as enjoyable. Playing through PSO with four players was just fantastic! My buddies and I spent hours leveling up our characters as we ventured throughout Ragol. However, if one person in your party dies and they select to go back to the Pioneer 2 ship, then the whole party must go there! This can make things get a bit tedious at times, so make sure you have enough healing and potions and resurrection items on hand. It’s also worth noting that whatever levels gained and items collected in offline mode are also utilized in online play, and vice versa.
Both online and offline can be played in three different modes. First, there is normal where it’s the standard quest on hand. Then, there is battle which is just like normal mode, but this is a free for all where players can harm each other and steal all their possessions if they kill them. The final mode is challenge, where if one party member dies, they cannot be restored to life until the stage you’re playing on is completed.
While this is a two year old Dreamcast port, don’t go assuming that these graphics can’t hold their own. While it’s obvious the character models and environments are a couple generations behind, they do get the job done just fine. The diversity between all the foes is amazing, and each one has their own unique feel to them. The special effects for the magic spells are what stand out the most, especially the mag-powered Photon Blasts look simply beautiful. There are some pop-up issues, and even though they don’t affect gameplay that much, the fact that they exist is a disgrace to the Xbox name. I have no idea why the developers couldn’t have ironed that out with all that development time. Another bad flaw is during split screen offline mode, where when three or four people are playing there is noticeable slowdown during big battles. These two glaring flaws give me the impression that this port was rather rushed.
The audio is a lot more polished than the graphics. All the sound effects are right on the money with all the attacks, spells, and everything else having a convincing tone and sounding how you expect them to be. I love the soundtrack in PSO. The set of futuristic tunes set the mood for gameplay and immersed me into the world of PSO within moments. I don’t think I’d classify it as a part of the audio score, but it’s worth mentioning here that the voice communicator does make an impact on gameplay. Saying your commands on how to attack, trade items, and what not is a lot more effective (and faster) than typing it out on the ‘ol keyboard. And if you’re afraid of what others think of your voice, than just monkey around with the voice mask feature until you find one that justifies you.
Episodes 1&2 featured within PSO take about 15 hours to complete individually. That doesn’t include the many side quests each one contains. There’s also downloadable quests promised also to keep the adventure going indefinitely. Hell, one was readily available on Xbox version’s launch day. The game is mighty addictive and don’t be surprised if you find yourself wasting most of your days away trying to top off your character at level 200. The offline split screen also opens up a new dimension of gaming. I know playing this with my friends was a blast and I already had several late night gaming sessions of PSO as a result.
Replay Value: 9.2
Phantasy Star Online is a great installment to the Xbox Live library. The first console online RPG continues to grow at an amazing rate. While there were a few nasty Dreamcast leftovers in the graphics department and a couple nasty bugs with the game mechanics, this is still a very satisfying game and is an excellent title to belong in your Xbox collection.
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