Posted January 31st 2010 by Oliver Chen.
I clocked over 200 hours playing Phantasy Star Online for the GameCube. Despite never actually going online due to the need for a monetary subscription and the lack of a GCN Modem, I spent plenty of time plumbing the mysteries of Ragol with my friends and family. So when Sega announced Ø (or Zero, depending on how willing you are to open up Character Map) with the promise of portability and free online play through Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, I hyped myself up for the game immediately. Were my expectations met? Only partially.
Zero borrows nearly all of its action RPG gameplay from Online. Players have direct control over their characters' movements, and can unleash attacks and spells on baddies after assigning them to one of six possible palette buttons. Timing subsequent attacks rather than furiously mashing buttons rewards players with stronger and more accurate hits. Meanwhile, holding down an attack button charges it up for a greater effect – techniques gain area-of-effect properties, while physical attacks launch your avatar into a sequence of attacks known as a Photon Art. Borrowed from Phantasy Star Universe, these acrobatic displays of athletic ability hit multiple monsters for tons of damage and are reminiscent of stunts from big-budget action films.
Zero has some of the best graphics available on DS.
After choosing a race, class, and gender for their characters, players are sent to the hub town where they can buy items, talk with NPCs, accept quests, and teleport to one of seven stages. Stages consist of interconnected rooms containing waves of enemies and occasional treasure. Defeating all enemies unlocks adjacent rooms, and eventually, a portal to the boss. Phantasy Star Zero's bosses lean towards the action side of the action RPG spectrum, with attacks that will quickly finish off players unable to learn their cues and patterns. Killing the boss rewards players with boxes of treasure and a portal back to town, where the entire process repeats itself.
Veterans of Phantasy Star Online will instantly recognize several returning elements in Zero from the enemy and weapon types to the Mag companion pets. Many of these old features have been improved since Online – material usage can be reset if you screw up your character, weapon synthesizing is no longer restricted to online players, and items can be shared between characters on the same DS cart. On the other hand, the portable nature of Zero introduces some limitations: the stages themselves are much smaller and less labyrinthine, there are fewer rare items to collect, and the difficulty and level cap is much lower than Online.
Boss fights are the most enjoyable part of the game.
Unlike Online, this game places a greater emphasis on single-player and storyline. This includes fully-voiced anime CG cutscenes, three possible plots depending on your character type, and AI computer players to assist you on your quest to beat up the entire world. Unfortunately, the story mode is completely unremarkable – the cutscenes last for five seconds each at most, the cheesy plot features enough Power of Friendship™ to power a small city for months, your NPC friends have pathetic attack power and seldom heal themselves even when directed to focus on "Safety first!", and the main game takes only about 10 to 15 hours to complete.
Fortunately, as a game designed for online multiplayer, Phantasy Star Zero's post-game is much more substantial. Harder difficulty levels become unlockable after Story Mode is completed, which feature stronger mobs, more complicated boss fights, and rarer weapons to seek out. Players can grind together over local wireless or through Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, which can be played together using Friend Codes or with random people over Free Play. To this end, the game is completely networkable with foreign players, where preconstructed phrases along the lines of "heal me" and "goodbye" can be selected and displayed in users' native languages. Playing with friends removes this restriction, allowing fellow adventures to doodle to their hearts' desires.
Much like PictoChat, the game's unique built-in chatting feature will be used for nothing other than drawing pictures of genitalia.
Clumsy camera controls, coupled with the digital nature of the D-Pad, make moving around and fighting a gigantic pain. Too often I found myself unable to hit an enemy because my character turned from facing directly right to straight forwards, or because the camera did not pan quickly enough for me track a moving enemy, or because the L-button enemy lock-on suddenly and inexplicably lost focus on my target.
Phantasy Star Zero feels like a bite-sized version of Phantasy Star Online in nearly every way – for better and for worse. The gains made by improving the rough edges from Online are canceled out by a lack of weapon and stage variety, and the camera responsitivity is frustrating to the point where it hinders the playability of the game. While some players new to the series may find Zero enjoyable, the people who will get the most out of the game are previous fans of Phantasy Star Online.
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