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Phantasy Star Online

Score: 90%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Media: GD/1
Players: 1 - 4
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:

Whenever playing any game by Sonic Team, a question arises: 'How the hell do they do that?' Phantasy Star Online is no exception. Every environment, from the forests to the caves, is lushly detailed, with lots of extra graphical 'stuff' that does nothing but add atmosphere. In short: be prepared to feast on some eye-candy. This comes at a price, of course -- the game has some quite annoying load times. But it's certainly not unbearably long.

And, trust me, the gorgeous environs are worth the wait.

The sound in PSO is quite solid as well. The music is top-notch, with lovely blends from battle music to 'adventure music'. I still feel that Septerra Core did that little trick better, but nonethelss it's used in far too few games nowadays. The special effects are rather run of the mill, with slashes and bangs and growls and other such sounds you've heard in real-time RPGs a hundred times before. It's not bad, but it's no Samba de Amigo. (Of course, who am I fooling -- what is?)


Gameplay:

So Phantasy Star Online has a solid presentation. The real question is -- does it stand up in the gameplay department? The answer is yes, but it's a guarded yes, and one that must be explained. While Phantasy Star Online is an absolute blast to play online, it is rather, too often, despite the core game mechanics rather than because of them.

Now, before I have legions of fans descending on my head, saying 'd00d PSO r3wk3s', let me say that I enjoyed my time with the game quite a bit. But there are quite a few niggling issues that kept it from being all of the experience that it could have been. Besides all of this, though, Sega must be given mad, mad props for making the first Internet multiplayer console RPG.

The first steps in PSO consist of creating your character. Choosing from three different classes and three different races, you have a nice variety of playability offered to you. There's an important point to be made here, though -- if you're not planning on playing online much, you may want to go for a Ranger straight out. The solo battles with the other two classes can become frustrating to the point of irritation, and they really only shine when in groups with other players.

Once you've entered your serial code and created your character, you're given a choice of going online and playing or playing offline. Although they're the same game underneath, they play like completely different beasts.

First is the offline play. You'll find yourself running back and forth between the Pioneer 2 -- a spaceship sent to colonize the planet Algol, where, of course, something has gone Horribly Wrong -- and whatever dungeon you're delving into. The game consists of very sporadic 'plot' (I use the term loosely here), and many jobs from the Guild. These Jobs have you running back to the dungeons, doing various quests for various sums of money. The money isn't as important as the experience gained in the quests, as many of the battles that you'll face while playing will beat you senseless until you gain enough experience.

If it sounds a little rote, well, it is. This is basically a rehash of the old roguelike game, most recently seen in titles like Diablo II and Darkstone. The difference is that you always explore the same dungeons -- their door-opening arrangement changes, as does your starting location, but the core conceit stays the same. If you tire of looking at the same few environments all the time, you'll tire quickly of PSO.

And, unfortunately, that's just about all there is to the single-player game. You can get new stuff to use, raise levels, and power up your Mag, which is a little floating beastie who helps you much as you play the game. Think of it as a Tamagotchi with teeth, and you'll have an idea of what purpose it serves.

The offline experience is merely a precursor to the online experience, which is where PSO really shines. You'll find quests that are solely online, and you get to group up with one to three others and take on the dungeons together. The groups don't have to stay together, but it's highly advised -- some of the battles require a large amount of teamwork. And the ability to talk with people from around the globe with a language-neutral methodology really helps. Be prepared to waste hours playing this game online.

There are issues here as well, however. The camera is downright atrocious at times, forcing you to hit the trigger button often to get a bead on an enemy. People joining a game can cause the game to pause for a while. And PSO doesn't officially support the broadband adapter, which is a bummer.

But it's still too damned much fun.


Difficulty:

The single-player game is devilishly hard if you don't pick a Ranger, simply because almost all of the enemies are nearly trivial to pick off from a distance yet will love to give you a sound whomping when you have to get up close and personal. Prepare to die much when you're a Hunter in single-player mode. The multiplayer mode, on the other hand, is made much simpler by teamwork. By finding a good group of players to work with, you will find the game much more enjoyable, and quite a bit easier to boot. It's a warm and fuzzy feeling when your party of four wails through an area like finely oiled machinery.

Game Mechanics:

Controlling your character is simple enough, with configurable face buttons that let you put all of the important commands where you want them. Combat is pretty straightforward 'point-and-click', with basic combos added for some variety. You'll be doing a lot of circling in the game, reminding me inordinately of the old King's Field games -- just much, much prettier. The online features of the game are quite nice, although it would have been really nice to see official broadband support as well. And the menus are clear and simple to navigate.

While Phantasy Star Online has its issues, and ties in very little with the Phantasy Star mythos, it is nonetheless a massive time-waster. Chances are good that you'll eschew the single-player campaign as much as possible, opting to jump into multiplayer action. And that is where PSO really shines. Problems aside, Sega and Sonic Team once again show that they can do it better than pretty much everyone else -- not to mention before the rest as well. If you've ever been interested in online RPGs, you should pick up PSO.


-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

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