Phantasy Star Online - Review

Being first doesn't always spell success

By: Mikel Tidwell

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 5
   Originality 5
   Plot 3
   Localization 5
   Replay Value 9
   Visuals 8
   Difficulty Hard
   Time to Complete

30-45 hours

Phantasy Star Online

    Phantasy Star Online is the first-ever online RPG for a console system. Being first means, more often than not, that they get to be first to make mistakes. Phantasy Star Online does not escape this trend, but does manage to salvage some serious fun even with these problems.

    The game starts with a complete character creation routine. First a person chooses their class. Sega gave RPGamers an overall summary about the classes a few months before release, giving ample time to decide a class without ever touching the actual game. There is no class change in PSO, so changing class can only occur by starting a new character. However, since only one character can be stored on a VMU, unless one owns quite a few extra memory packs, they are locked to the one character they start with. This is not a bad thing, as it forces people to find the advantages and disadvantages of each class first hand.

    The next few screens will allow the player to choose outfit, skin and hair color, and physical size. While none of this is essential for gameplay, it gives the player the change to make their very own unique character. Again, once this has been set up, that appearance is locked for the life of the character, so take the time to do it perfectly. Phantasy Star Online is a game of patience, so there's no need to rush through the setup process.

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Come on, let's go!  

    Once created, one has the choice to play offline or online. Contrary to the name, you can play the game offline, but it is not really designed for that. Typically the monsters offline will outclass the character's current skills, making each battle tough, if not impossible. Typically, the first thing to do is build levels online with a pack of friends. Even if you don't have any friends online at the time, in general the people online are courteous enough and don't mind the extra help. Since Player Killing (PK) is not allowed, or even possible online, there is only a small risk of losing items online. The only time this is possible is when the character faints from 0 HP. When this happens, the character will drop all meseta, the currency of Phantasy Star, and the currently equipped weapon. Unless revived by another teammate, you will have to return to the ship to return to the game, thus losing time and the chance to lose your dropped items. While most players do give the items back if they took them, I have heard of occasions where a certain player refused. As a word of advice, unless you know most of your companions, don't use your best weapon in risky situations, and make sure to leave as much money as possible in the bank on the ship. In most places, the majority of the money will come from selling items collected, instead of actual meseta on the battlefield.

    Spending meseta is an interesting, but sometimes frustrating experience. Each time you enter the actual game area, the shops will be assigned a random list of items, based on your current stats. These items will stay for the duration of your visit, but if you leave, and return, even to the same team, the items will re-randomize the lists. As a specific example, one time there was this really powerful armor that I was saving up to buy. After finally getting enough meseta to purchase it, I had the unfortunate luck to have my modem hang up on me. I quickly reconnected, and joined the same team, but the armor was no longer there. To this day, I have never seen that particular armor in my list since then. What was special about this armor is it had 2 slots, meaning it allows two enhancements to be equipped. While I have armor that has that ability now, back then it would have been very helpful.

    While buying neccessary supplies, it is important to remember the character's companion. The first form the companion takes is called Mag, which is the name that it become stuck with during the game, even though later forms have different names. Your mag will store energy during battle, based on its stats. Its stats will depend on what items the mag is fed. At first, it will eat almost anything. As it evolves, each form will be more finicky about what it wants to eat. Buying items so your friend doesn't go hungry is very important to its growth, and yours. The stats of the mag in use will enhance your character's stats as well. Also, a mag will learn plamsa shots as it grows, which are masssive attacks of different types, based on the mag, and the shot chosen. Sometimes the mag's plasma shot can be the difference between life and death.

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True power of a mag  

    Once stocked up and ready for battle, the team teleports down to the planet. There are four areas to choose from, each with two or three levels each to work through, with a final boss at the end of each area. Monsters will come in waves in each section of a level. As soon as you finish off the last monster of one wave, the next appear and the battle continues. Typically three waves per room should be expected. The number of creatures per wave varies greatly, from three early on, up to more than 10 in the later areas. The creatures will try to surround the closest player to their group. The other players will need to assist in clearing a path for the surrounded player to escape. Since an attack will terminate if the player is hit before it executes, it's imperative to avoid being surrounded, as it is almost a guaranteed instant death. Other than boss battles, this is the only real threat in the game.

    With a good four-person team, the game can be pretty short, less than eight hours from start to finish. The length of completion comes from the time it takes to build up enough levels to complete the game on the normal setting. There are then hard, and very hard settings to continue level building for those who want to max out characters. In my experience, a level is gained about once an hour, but will take even longer if you are working with an efficient team.

    While wreaking havoc on the planet is enjoyable, it would not be complete without the abundance of well designed environments. You can almost feel the heat in the caves, and the cool waterfall as your team breaks for a minute to feed the ever-helpful mag. more than once I had to stop to look around, with a quiet "wow" escaping my lips. The dreamcast has the capabilities of astounding graphics, and Phantasy Star Online takes full advantage of it.

    Like I mentioned earlier, there are some flaws in this game. The main flaw is the lack of targeting on a non-melee attack. Especially with a gun, there seems to be very little vertical range the weapon can use. Most enemies will be on the same plane as the character, there are many times that one may be above, and it is impossible to lock on until they land again. Magic is less hindered by this limitation, but it can still occur. If an enemy is not in range of the magic attack, the Technique Points are used anyway.

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Gazing at the beautiful planet  

    Another problem is on the servers. When a character joins your team, there is a small pause, up to a minute. If your player is in danger, there is the tendency to press a direction to move as soon as the action continues. The problem is, on two separate occasions, my character warped through walls and other objects to a different place on the level. One time it was all the way back to the entrance of that level, and the other time my character ended up trapped inside a hill, with no way to escape except to quit the game and return. This is a fairly frustrating bug, but one that can be fixed since it appears to be on the servers, and not in the game itself.

    Another low point in my book is the lack of memorable music. After playing over 40 hours since its US release, not a piece of music stuck in my head, not one. While I was pleased with the sounds of the weapons and spells, the lack of notable music makes the game feel a little empty. Of course, online it is hardly an issue with all the chat, spells, and weapons going off almost non-stop, but solo it becomes more noticeable. My attention span for playing offline was decreased partially for this reason.

    Phantasy Star Online was released in five different languages. For the sake of this review, English is the language for the localization score. Except for a few typos, the localization was average. None of the NPCs have any real roles, and most are only in contact with your character for a short time. Each person has a unique character, but overall come across with generic characters with overemphasized emotions. Since the story is weak at best, with a few unexplained issues, and the small fact that the story doesn't fit into the series in any way, the plot suffers a great deal. There is always great potential for action/RPGs to develop a full story, which makes me feel that are a bit unfinished.

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So many people online  

    Finally, the heart and soul of any true online game, communication. This is another thing Phantasy Star Online excels at. Each player has options to make up custom messages for battle, greetings, and other general conversation. While it can't replace a keyboard if you don't one, it goes a long way to making it bearable. With a customizable symbol chat, players can create their own symbols from multiple objects. Symbol chat can be used for greets, goodbyes, emotions, emergency signals, and anything else the player has in mind. A custom greet symbol is like a calling card, and almost everyone has one.

    Speaking of cards, another type of card is the other useful communication tool. Each player has a Guild Card when they create their character. With this card, they can add a custom comment, and then give the card out to those they meet online. The purpose of this is for sending messages when not traveling with that person. With the Simple Mail system, short messages can be sent to anyone who has given you their card. Also, one can search for anyone on their card list by choosing specific cards, then asking to search. If any of them are found online, it will tell you where they are, so you can join them if possible. A very handy tool, considering being online with the Dreamcast uses up that precious one phone line many people have.

    Like other online games, Phantasy Star Online is made for the multiplayer aspect more than anything else. The unfortunate lockout of the Broadband Adapter is a disappointing move on Sega's part, but the modem play is fairly speedy nonetheless. For those who have the adapter, and can't use an import copy to set it up, don't despair. Sega has assured RPGamer that the adapter will work "soon". The problem is how to patch a console game, and most likely will have to do with Sega's version 3.0 web browser out in March, approximately.

    Overall, Phantasy Star Online is a fun, simplistic game. Fight off a few thousand monsters, gain experience, spells, and if you're lucky, some new friends. There is no reason to play for the plot, because it is not truly there. If monster whacking is what you are craving, this game is right up your alley. If you're looking for an in-depth story with well developed characters, check out some of the other Dreamcast RPGs. Phantasy Star Online is tons of fun, as long as you know its limitations.

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