Phantasy Star Online Episodes I and II
Phantasy Star Online has always been a game that you either develop a social-life threatening obsession with, or toss to one side after a couple of hours of play after finding it repetitive and shallow, wondering what all the fuss was about. Coming to this Gamecube update as a veteran of Phantasy Star Online versions 1 and 2 on the Dreamcast, I myself wondered if I would be just as hooked third time around as I was that first time I telepiped down into the sunny forests of Ragol and set about solving the mystery of Pioneer 1’s disappearance.
Well after I clocked 500+ hours in less than a month it’s safe to assume I did. Not only is Phantasy Star Online Episodes I and II as addictive as its Dreamcast predecessors, it has actually been improved massively and expanded into an altogether more rounded game, offering much more for the solo offline player and new surprises for the online player.
The basic game remains the same in Episode I, after loading up the game you create a character using one of the default designs as a template. After tweaking their features, skin colour, costume, head and body colour and proportions, you name them and then enter the game proper. You are a Hunter – a sort of mercenary/detective – you have arrived at the planet of Ragol on the colony ship Pioneer 2. Your task is to beam down to the surface and explore the remains of the first colony brought there seven years ago on the ship Pioneer 1 and who all appear to have been killed in a massive explosion. There are four areas to explore. The Forest, Caves, Mines and Ruins, each with their own distinctive look and enemies to face. Combat is very straightforward. Monsters rush your character in the manner of the old arcade game ‘Gauntlet’ and you must methodically clear each room to unlock the next room until you finally reach the end of area boss.
In single player mode you face the horrors of Ragol alone. You can also undertake fetch quest style missions at the Hunters Guild, which advance the plot somewhat. Once you defeat the final Boss you unlock the next difficulty level. Levelling up is done in an RPG style fashion; you start at level one and gain experience points for each monster killed allowing you to level up. The higher the difficulty level you play in, the more experience you get. Episode II is the new adventure added for the Gamecube version. Although you can freely switch between Episodes, episode II assumes you have knowledge of events in Episode I. You are now contracted to look for a missing war hero and discover the dark secrets of the Gal Da Val island laboratory. The difficulty curve is steeper in this Episode and you are recommended to spend some time levelling up in Episode I first, even if you have played the game before.
Graphically Episode I is unchanged from the DC version apart from some new style menu screens, however the fact it still looks so amazing just proves what a ground breaking game it was lookswise on the Dreamcast. Episode II cheats a bit in that it is not entirely new. The first two levels reuse the Battle Arena’s from the Phantasy Start Online V2. Its not until the final two levels that you experience Ragol designed purely for the Cube. Although there is a lack of downloadable missions at present, new areas have been created for the game solely for online players with new monsters that challenge even the veteran PSO gamer. The new areas both off and online are certainly very impressive, with hazy swamps, gloriously sunny beaches and a half flooded undersea research centre amongst the new areas to explore. Reflections on walls and ripples on the water show off the polygon pushing power of the cube while the enemies show more intelligence and more elaborate attack patterns than those of Episode I.
The main object of the game is basically to level up your character to 200 (though most people find around level 120-140 is more than enough) and amass a collection of the best armour and weapons you can find. There are plenty of basic weapons, but for most players it is the discovery of the best rare “special weapons” that keep people playing avidly. The excitement of seeing a red special weapon box drop from a fallen enemy never goes away and there is always a sense of anticipation as you take it to be “tekked” (told what it is). Is it something you already have? Or a new super cool weapon with great online bragging rights! This version of PSO has greatly increased the number of special weapons in the game and they can be found from much earlier on. One of the main problems with the Dreamcast iterations was the lack of decent weaponry until the final difficulty modes; many people just gave up long before they started finding the really good items. The increase in availability is another welcome change as is the more frequent appearances of the ‘rare’ monsters, which were so rare in the DC versions you were lucky if you saw one in 200+ hours of gaming!
There is much flexibility in how you can approach play. There are twelve character types split into three races, Human, Newman and Android. And three jobs, Hunter, Ranger and Force (although all are referred to as Hunters when on missions). In each group two characters are male and two are female. Humans and Newmans both have the ability to use magic “techs”, android can’t, but they can spot the invisible traps that can hamper progress in the deeper levels. Hunters excel in close melee combat with daggers, swords and sabres. Rangers are masters of guns with a range of rifles and shotguns to choose from. Forces are the magical powerhouses, casting both offensive and defensive magic. Each one plays very differently and much fun can be had from experimenting with various characters.
Further customisation is found in the form of the characters “MAG” unit. This is a small protector that floats behind your character; you feed it with healing items to increase its levels and statistics. These are added to your own allowing you to improve areas you are deficient in and power-up areas of strength even more. These mags have different abilities depending on how you raise them and what character type you are. In the Dreamcast version there were nine character types, for those who have played previously the three new characters are RAmarl, a female human Ranger. HUscaeal, a female android Hunter and FOmar, a male human Force.
The main concept behind Phantasy Star Online is teamwork. Online the aim is to meet up in the lobbies and open a game up. Then up to four of you can join the game and play through the levels together. The idea being that Hunters go up front to engage the enemy and keep the weaker Forces from being physically attacked. The Rangers also push the enemies back from the middle with their powerful guns and the Forces cast healing and stat raising magic before laying into enemy groups with powerful fire, ice and thunder spells. Battle Mode allows players to pit themselves against each other in fast and furious combat. Challenge mode introduces teamwork at its most hard core. All players are set at level one and if any of the team die, its game over forcing everyone to look out for each other as you play the game through in sections.
Offline the Gamecube introduces split screen multiplayer allowing players to bring along a memory card with their own characters on it to be loaded onto one machine for Battle Mode and Challenge Mode fun as well as just playing through the game as normal. This also allows item trading to be done between your own characters, a must if you are running more than one character. If your Hunter is finding lots of useless Wands and Rifles you can easily trade them to your Ranger and Force without having to go online as was the case in the Dreamcast version.
Gameplaywise it is still a simplistic game, the combat is hack n’ slash with a target lock like the N64 Zelda games. The Gamecube controller is very similar in layout to that of the Dreamcast one, and so veterans of the first two games with have no troubles adjusting. The real joy of it comes from watching your character grow and become powerful. It becomes quite easy to identify with who you are playing as the locales of Ragol are rendered so beautifully they really suck you in. Lush graphics, especially in the two new Gamecube levels and atmospheric music mean you still get a shiver of anticipation as you beam down to hack your way through the Forest for the 100th time.
Sonic Team also deserve credit for one thing that to my mind also adds a lot to the enjoyment of the game. First of all it’s nice that six of the character types are female. Secondly, the non-android characters can be created with any skin colour you like. Considering the prevalence of white western style heroes in videogames, being able to design a black female hero or a male Asian is very refreshing. The fact this is a science fiction based Role player is also a nice change as to many online rpgs stick to the Orcs and Goblins fantasy model. It’s nice to be able to get stuck in with magic, swords AND bloody big guns!
Its not all good news however. Nintendo’s very unenlightened online policy means that in Britain at least, finding Gamecube modems can be a tricky task. Once you have bought and fitted your modem at a cost of about £35 for a dial-up modem (more for a broadband one), you must ensure you have your own ISP that is compatible (which excludes AOL users, one of the largest online communities in the world) and then you need to have a credit card so you can sign up for the monthly playing fee. This compares very unfavourably with the Dreamcast era with a console that was net compatible out of the box and with PSO v2, Europeans were given free access to the game as a thank you from sega for being the most enthusiastic users of Dreamarena and other online Dreamcast services.
So if you are thinking of getting Phantasy Star Online with the intention of playing online a lot, you should be aware that you’ll be paying as much again to get a modem and set up and registered online, not including the monthly players fee. The other downside of online play is something that bedevilled the Dreamcast versions. Many idiots like to try and corrupt and hack your online characters resulting in lost inventories and at worst an entirely ruined memory card save with all character data lost. Many people hack weapons and spread them around, helping to destroy some of the fun of finding good weapons legitimately. This has resulted in the game becoming very cliquey to play with many veterans suspicious of new players.
Having said that though, if you behave politely you quickly find the people worth playing with and once you have a regular team to go online with the game becomes hugely enjoyable. There is something indescribably great about watching your motley team of androids, humans and Newmans take on everything Ragol can throw at them especially if you all have some of the funnier weapons available like the Frying Pan or Broom or Samba Maracas!. Conversation can be had via a software keyboard or via one of the unofficial third party Gamecube keyboards. Dialogue appears on screen like cartoon speech bubbles and adds to the light-hearted atmosphere. As you become more experienced under the wing of an expert player, so you to will find yourself taking lower level characters into the dangerous areas and protecting them so they can learn to fight and gain experience safely. The good feeling you get when an ‘apprentice’ levels up and begins to take on monsters head on rather than hanging back and running away to heal all the time is immense and made all the more sweeter when they remember your help and return it by giving you a cool item they found.
That’s what makes Phantasy Star Online special. That feeling of identification and attachment to the characters you are raising. They are an electronic extension of yourself and the simplicity of the games plot and mechanics gives you much more freedom to express yourself through your style of play. Even if you cannot afford, or don’t wish to play online much fun can still be had from developing your characters for split screen multi-player or even just for your own solo satisfaction. But the game IS repetitive, it IS simplistic and it is very, VERY time consuming. You can spend over 200 hours getting one character to break the level 100 mark. If you are playing more than one character then it gets even more extreme. This is not a game for the casual gamer; this is one for the hardcore rpg gamer who likes power levelling and item collecting. If that’s you, then prepare to fall in love. This is one game for whom the cliché ‘not so much a game, more a way of life’ is an apt description.