Full Review: Barely recognizable as a Phantasy Star game, PSO remains just as addictive and successful as its Dreamcast counterpart, only with double the content!
The Dreamcast saw the release of two Phantasy Star Online discs; the original PSO was followed up by PSO Version 2, which featured new areas to explore, new gameplay modes, a tweaked randomizer, and a significant upgrade to the level-up system. PSO Ep I&II for the GCN incorporates all of the original two versions as Episode I, then sets out to tell an entirely new story, with new quests, items, stages, and characters, called Episode II. You can access both episodes, and consequently, both sets of quests and locales, at any time, literally switching back and forth at will. However, it should be noted that Episode II is significantly tougher, effectively making Episode I the logical starting point for all newcomers.
Like in all good MMORPGs, you start by creating a character. However, there are still only three main categories of characters; you may choose from sword-wielding Hunters, the rifle-toting Rangers, or the (magic) technique-flinging Forces. Whereas the DC games had nine characters, the GCN game has twelve, four for each of the three categories. The new characters greatly help to create a comfortable balance between the different classes, as it is much easier to lock down a character according to your personal preferences. A Hunter that specializes in techniques? A Force with increased proficiency with weapons? Such possibilities are now available.
Once you have successfully created your character and customized his/her appearance, you are thrust into the principle's office aboard the Pioneer 2 refugee craft. Essentially, the Pioneer 2 is the second craft sent from your failing planet in search of a new home to colonize. Pioneer 1 found a suitable sphere and sent a message that they were beginning to colonize the world. In a few years time, the Pioneer 2 arrives, and just as it begins to make contact with the colony, a silent and unusual explosion wracks the planet. You, as a Licensed Hunter (the term doubles as a character class as well as a form of social status) become part of the manned investigations to occur planet side. Such is the beginning of Episode I, and pretty much the end of any significant story development.
PSO is essentially a basic dungeon crawl that focuses on real time combat, level gains, and rare and powerful item drops. Though the gameplay premise is relatively simple, by bringing this game structure online successfully Sega managed to create the first truly rewarding and gripping console MMORPG. PSO for the GameCube has lost none of the original's charm and instead gained a slew of new features, upgrades, and content. This appeases returning fans as well as attracts a new audience. As an offline game, even with the new 2-4-player offline multiplayer mode, PSO will wear thin rather quickly. It is quite innovative to allow gamers to create a character and interchangeably play with him/her both online and off, as the situation and the gamers' desires warrant. For instance, you can easily create a character, complete a few offline quests in order to accrue some meseta (money), levels, and weapons, and continue your journeys online, experiencing new quests, both built in and downloadable.
Actual set up of the online component is relatively painless, and can be accomplished within minutes for experts. Anyone who has managed to configure their own ISPs on their PCs will easily be able to get the game up and running without a problem, as many things are automatically handled by the software and hardware. The game supports both of Nintendo's modems, narrowband, and broad. However, those with a Broadband Adaptor will only benefit from slightly faster quest downloads and a lack of a dial up wait, as the actual gameplay is toned down to a 56k speed in order to keep things fair and the two online communities integrated. However, despite the ongoing action, lag is kept at a minimum, even in more crowded ships (servers) usually manifesting itself as minor graphical synchronization problems, and not actual slowdowns.
The online aspect of PSO is essentially the meat and potatoes of the title. Being able to create (or join active) games and form parties of up to four characters is what the game is all about. The gameplay is a mix of cooperative (battles) and competitive (item drops) gameplay that keeps you on your toes, even after completing the game multiple times. Keeping things fresh is new downloadable content, higher difficulty levels, and even new game modes such as Battle and Challenge, which allow you to experience player versus player games and other modifications to the core experience. When all else fails, there is always lobby soccer to entertain!
After almost two months online, PSO's community has swelled such that at any given hour, you may find thousands playing, so the possibilities for companionship and camaraderie are well established. Sega has already implemented two major new online quests (for Halloween and Christmas) and is now readying the reintegration of the American and Japanese servers, making the game truly worldwide for the first time since the Dreamcast games faded. The only thing that sets PSO on the GCN back a step is the lack of a domestic keyboard solution. While Sega could have made efforts to market the quality ASCII ?Cubetroller? / keyboard hybrid, Nintendo is at fault for not offering up a first party keyboard solution from the get-go. Whoever is to blame, it makes online communication, and the relaying of orders and strategies infinitely more difficult and cumbersome. Even with the clever implementation of a software keyboard, customizable symbol chats, 20 message presets, and a ?build-a-phrase? sentence construction scheme, communication is quite crippled. Importing a Japanese keyboard is also largely worthless, due to the ridiculous prices and the simple fact that most of the people you will be playing with are unlikely to follow suit.
It should also be noted that there are online fees involved with playing PSO on the GameCube. Whereas Version 1 on the DC was free, and Version 2 incorporated a $5.00/month fee, PSO Ep I&II on the GCN will require an $8.95/month investment, after the first free month. This means you will need to have access to a credit card in order to become a Licensed Hunter. One of the greatest benefits of participating in the pay-to-play plan, however, is that those with Hunter's Licenses are granted access to special quests (the first of which is now available in Japan) that grant you access to new content that can be downloaded to the Gameboy Advance, via link-up. Such content currently takes the form of a Tiny Chao Garden (actually available offline, and compatible with Sonic Adventure 2: Battle), and mini-game versions of Nights into Dreams and Puyo Pop. Sega has promised that they will add to these games should they prove popular in the end.
As expected, the graphics in PSO are a mixed bag. The game is essentially ported technology from the Dreamcast days. Granted, the textures have been greatly cleaned up, some wonderful new special effects were implemented and the main character models have been given a decent infusion of polygons. However, minor NPCs still look blocky, some wall textures still look blurry and unprofessional, and certain unnecessary glitches occasionally mar the game's presentation. Thankfully, the GameCube specific areas of Episode II are much improved, attaining ?breathtaking? status at times. Nonetheless, where the game falls short technologically, it succeeds aesthetically.
The one element of PSO that remains accurately ?Phantasy Star?-like is the art style. The game perfectly realizes the Phantasy Star sci-fi / nature blend of the classic RPGs, only in a much grander style, thanks to the addition of a third dimension. The new character designs, and costume possibilities for the returning classes all very well compliment the game's artistic direction and help maintain that Phantasy Star authenticity the oldschool fans crave. Phantasy Star lovers will avidly lap up the look and feel of Pioneer 2, the forests, mines, and ruins of Ragol, as well as some of the new areas included in Episode II.
Unfortunately, aside from a few brilliant exceptions, the soundtrack to PSO largely fails to encompass the scope and magic of the original Phantasy Star RPGs. While some of the Ep I&II boss tracks truly capture the feel of a Phantasy Star soundscape, the largely ambient tracks for the actual stages fail to grip, and merely drone on rather repetitively. The only two real exceptions can be found in the beginning VR stages of Episode II, the Temple, and Spaceship. These two stages feature magnificent medleys composed solely of inspired remixes of classic Phantasy Star, Phantasy Star II, and Phantasy Star IV songs. There are approximately a dozen integrated themes all in all.
I have always had mixed feelings about PSO. On the one hand, it is a successful adaptation of multiplayer dungeon crawling and drop hunting gameplay to the cooperative multiplayer online world. Yet on the other hand, it is not, in any meaningful way, shape, or form a Phantasy Star product. It pretends to be, in some shallow ways, but for all that it tries to be a part of the Phantasy Star mythos, it does not offer up anything even remotely approaching the splendor of the classic RPGs. Perhaps Sonic Team should have allowed Overworks (creators of PS, PSII, and PSIV) to develop the game. Despite its failings as a Phantasy Star game, and some oversights over at Sega and Nintendo, PSO is still an extremely addictive and satisfying MMORPG experience, one best enjoyed with a solid collection of enthusiastic friends, online and off.