Posted May 16th 2012 by Oliver Chen.
While I missed the boat on the original Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast when it released over a decade ago, I played preposterous amounts of the later three Episodes on the GameCube and PC. The novelty of a "true" action MMORPG and an addicting rare loot system was fair incentive for me to spend hundreds of hours grinding across Ragol with friends both online and offline. Imagine my disappointment a few years later when I played Phantasy Star Universe, the next major Phantasy Star title, and discovered that most of that great PSO gameplay had been almost completely eviscerated. It could have totally passed as completely different series if not for a few trademark IPs present in the game.
Thankfully, Sonic Team realized they had blundered and began incorporating more and more of Phantasy Star Online's gameplay back into the subsequent spinoff titles on the DS and PSP. Some fans even joked that the next game might as well be "Phantasy Star Online 2" if the trend were to continue. Imagine their surprise when, at an event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the series, Sega announced a true sequel to PSO.
I recently had the opportunity to play in the Japanese closed beta for Phantasy Star Online 2 on the PC, and after about a week of playtime I can say that PSO2 more than lives up its predecessor's name. Not only does the game evoke ridiculous amounts of nostalgia for the original PSO, it also cherry-picks the best gameplay enhancements introduced in the Universe games while adding a plethora of features new to the franchise. Could this game end up being the best action MMORPG gaming has to offer when it releases later this year? More than likely, I would say.
Suplexing a monkey with the Wired Lance.
Best new weapon ever? Best new weapon ever.
PSO2 is sure to dredge up more than just a few passing memories for series veterans. Sure, hallmarks like the race/class system, partner mags, and Rappies may stir up some sense of nostalgia, but many games could lay claim to a similar set of features. It's the little things that PSO2 does—the moveable starburst on the loading screen, the oddly familiar timings required to chain together weapon attacks, the subtle interleaving of Forest 1's theme into the background music of the first area—that establish the mindset that, "Yep, this is definitely Phantasy Star Online."
At the same time, Sega has addressed several issues that plagued the original: for example, spellcasters no longer have a crippling addiction to MP restoring items, instead giving them a quickly regenerating pool of photon points. Additionally, this game also introduces a bevy of new and reworked features that make the experience fresh while still feeling like a natural extension to the original game. Random events during quests break up the monotony of grinding, and precision aiming breathes new life into weapons and spells that previously selected their targets automatically. This is just breaking the tip of the iceberg of changes made to the game—I will touch on the more notable ones.
Most games that claim to be action RPGs tend be somewhat less so, ignoring the "action" part of the buzzword to varying extents. Sure, movement and combat may be in real time, but the lack of direct control over your character and attacks makes the genre a bit apocryphal. I was excited to hear that PSO2 completely does away with accuracy and evasion stats—if your attack connects, it deals damage. Dodge your way through a hail of enemy projectiles? Snipe an enemy's weak point from afar? Break apart a boulder before that gorilla throws it at you? All possible in PSO2. This also applies to enemies, who will now attempt to block and counter your attacks, and wisely stay just out of range of your giant ice vortex. Or at least they do on paper—this seldom happened often enough in actual play to the point where I had to be careful where and when I struck enemy monsters.
Go into third-person mode when you need
to be extra picky about your targets.
Parties consist of any combination of up to four human and computer-controlled allies. Meeting players, customizing skills and equipment, and completing client orders were for the most part easy to accomplish despite the language barrier. Missions in this game come in much greater variety than they did in PSO, no longer mainly consisting of "quest to end of area, slay giant boss." And unlike the purely instantized zones present in all of the previous games, certain areas in PSO2 even allow up to twelve simultaneous players to collaborate with each other, giving rise to amusing cross-party exchanges. Additional missions and maps open up after completing certain NPC requests, which were among the most difficult tasks to complete in the beta for one awful reason—they force you to collect a certain number of MacGuffins that rarely and randomly appeared during missions. I can foresee players being turned off by this type of content progression in the final release, especially if the experience grind ends up being slow and the content release schedule lacking.
The closed beta only featured eight weapon types, far fewer than PSO ever did, but many of these represent streamlined versions of previous weapons. For example, Sabers and Handguns were merged into the Final Fantasy-esque Gunslash, and nearly every weapon for the magical Forces now exists as the Rod (no longer useless for melee, as it now deals damage based on your character's magical prowess as opposed to physical strength). There might be a little too much streamlining going on—for example, the ranged class's go-to weapon, the assault rifle, incorporates elements from a veritable kitchen sink of armaments. Is it a mechgun? A sniper? A shotgun? The rifle is all of them, and then some. The end result is a weapon that excels in no situation—it is far too inaccurate to do any long-range sniping, but far too weak to deal enough damage at close range. The lack of compelling gunplay makes the class, well, a bit boring to play. Hopefully more gameplay variety will show up in the final release.
PSO2 will be free to play when it releases later this year, supported by a cash shop. Items for purchase include "premium" features such as the ability to trade items, a doubled experience rate, extra storage space, additional character slots, clothing options, and access to your "My Room" (to, presumably, fill up with bathtubs and pictures of your anime girlfriends). The double experience card, in particular, was a game changer—players who purchased the item easily hit the beta's level cap on all three playable classes, while I struggled to even max out one class without one. This may be a bad omen for the future of the game, but just how close to "pay to win" PSO2 will become will have to wait, as cash shop pricing had yet to be finalized in the closed beta.
Giant, angry bosses will occasionally crash your party
in the middle of a quest. I even had three show up at
the same time once—that was a real nail biter.
The PC is the main platform for the game and will be the first edition of the game to launch this fall in Japan. A smartphone app that will allow players to manage their shops and play a reduced version of the game will be released at some later time. Additionally, a Vita version with both feature and server parity with the PC game has also been announced, but will likely not see release until 2013. While PSO2 has yet to be confirmed for an English release, enterprising data miners have uncovered information hidden in the game's files that imply one is at least being considered. Hopefully a localization will be announced soon.
Sega has managed to make a compelling game that feels right at home in the new decade while still preserving that classic PSO feeling. The beta testing period, limited in content as it was, already managed to create plenty of great memories for me. Barely managing to survive scuffles against bosses, especially with the new hit detection engine, were exhilarating experiences. I am sure players will have myriads of similar tales to tell once the game launches later this year in Japan. You are not the only hero... again.
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