When Sonic Team originally announced that it was developing a third installment in the Phantasy Star Online
universe, fans were ecstatic. Phantasy Star Online Episodes I & II
are among the most addictive online games on the market. A stunning phenomenon considering that the play mechanics are that of a rather simple hack n' slash. You run through dungeons to collect rare items and to level up -- just to run through the same dungeon again...and again. While the gameplay sounds repetitive, the social element combined with competition to see who could collect the rarest items or strongest character brought the game to life.
Naturally, the prospect of a third episode that refined the three hit combo, magic system, or even offered a revolutionary new dungeon crawl element was more than welcome. But, the PSO revolution isn't quite what fans thought it would be. As soon as Sonic Team announced that Episode III would be a card battle game, fans were in uproar. Why did Sonic Team discard a well known and loved formula? Why a card battle game? The developer didn't want to offer just another hack n' slash affair (especially after the rather poor usage numbers of Episode II compared to Episode I). Instead, Sonic Team wanted to provide a fresh experience to gamers that love the PSO universe. Enter C.A.R.D. Revolution.
- Final Chapter in the PSO saga
- Card battle play mechanics
- New emphasis on story
- Choose between the Arkz or Hero campaign, each with a unique play style
- Over 450 cards to collect
- Play offline in a fully fleshed out story mode
- Partake in tournaments or sparring matches online
- Interact with Hunters from PSO I & II in the lobby
- GameCube Hunter's license applies to all episodes (I, II, and III)
Card battle was an odd route for Sonic Team to take, especially since it was building a card game from scratch that has to compete against the entrenched Yu-Gi-Oh! (and the stigma in the US that card games are the devil), but the formula surprisingly caters to fans' complaints with PSO. The offline mode was practically worthless, the story is nonexistent, and the gameplay could stand some refinement -- which is exactly what PSO III provides.
C.A.R.D. Revolution continues where Episode II left off. Due to his inability to explain the destruction of Pioneer 1, Principal Tyrell has been replaced by Dol Grisen. Meanwhile, a new substance has been unearthed that can clone items and creatures -- dubbed "C.A.R.D. technology". Now Hunters can carry numerous weapons in a packet no bigger than a deck of cards. This new found weapon enticed Grisen with its power. He declared Pioneer 2's independence from the home world of Coral and has ordered the colonization of Ragol 2. As he dispatches engineers and scientists to exploit the planet, a faction known as the Arkz opposed to the rampant destruction rises up against the government.
This leads to a series of disputes between the rebel Arkz and the government funded Heroes. Each side is playable -- and the path you choose has an impact on your overall strategy. The Heroside, which is beginner friendly, is primarily weapons based. You'll have a range of hunters, rangers, and forces that will have to get close and personal with foes to deal damage. This influences how your decks should be composed and your overall tactics in the game. It's also a lot easier to be a strong player early on with the Heroside, but true card prowess is demonstrated by players that can master the Arkz. Arkz can only use summoned creatures. Initially weak, you really have to know what you're doing to avoid being crushed by the initially more powerful Heroes. But, proper exploitation of cards and tactics, especially by out maneuvering the Hero, proves Arkz as the more powerful of the two. This makes the game seem unbalanced at the outset, but Sonic Team has done a great job equaling the playing field. Since the online mode is where the disparity between teams could cause a lot of problems, the studio has instituted a ranking system. You'll be able to see both the rank and win/loss records of potential opponents to make sure you're about to enter a fair match. Also, due to the Darkside's steep learning curve, only the more advanced players will be able to use the Arkz effectively in tournaments -- which allows you to gauge your opponents. In terms of the offline mode, Sonic Team has structured it so that the beginning matches ease you into the game. As long as you adapt to each side's proper strategy, you won't encounter any serious problems in the story mode. Even if certain sides have advantages in battle, the war is determined by your skill with cards and strategy.
It's All in the Cards
PSO has a surprising amount of depth for a rather simple card game. Phases are very straightforward -- you roll for action points (similar to mana), cast the cards you want to use, move, attack, and discard (a full breakdown can be found here). After sitting through a rather helpful tutorial and a few hands of actual play, all gamers should be competent with the basics. This doesn't mean that you'll find fights easy -- there's still a lot to think about.
The first obstacle is constructing decks. You have to customize decks according to your different team members (you command them instead of fighting yourself). The cards you should choose are dependent upon your team's attributes. Some characters have more HP but fewer movement points while others have fewer HP points in exchange for status benefits like doing damage against aerial creatures or getting a DICE bonus for killing an enemy in a single blow. Once you've decided on the character, you have to alter the deck to his or her class while making sure you have the right mixture of attack, defense, and assist cards. You might decide to use a primarily offensive deck, or only choose a few powerful cards and depend on defense cards to guard them and assist cards to make them stronger. It's a give and take situation -- and all the while you have to remember that your card order is randomized.
Knowing what cards to include in a deck is only second to knowing how to use them. Since only a certain amount of card points can be in play at any one time, you'll have to decide between equipping a lot of weaker cards or a few really strong ones. Defensive items like shields and MAGs also detract from your overall points. Is it better to equip the weak weapon you were dealt in your first hand so you can attack/defend yourself or should you wait for a better card? You'll have to plot out your moves a few turns in advance and anticipate your enemies' moves to avoid being toppled.
It's a deep system that's really open to experimentation. The only problem with it is you'll need to invest some time with the game to really get the hang of it. Combat is slow -- a jarring contrast with PSO Episodes I & II. But, if you're willing to invest the time (there's a steep learning curve), you'll find it a rather rewarding experience. There's also added incentive for mastering the card battle system because each fight is ranked on a letter scale from F to S. The higher the ranking, the better cards you'll be awarded. Much like Episode I, half the fun is collecting rare cards, which can be traded off or online.
This is the biggest PSO surprise. The offline mode is actually worth playing. Not only is it the best way to practice for online matches and build up your card library, but you'll also actually find a fully fleshed out story (something that hasn't happened since Phantasy Star). Much like Episodes I & II, you'll receive missions from the government and then transport down to Ragol to carry them out. Unlike previous adventures, you won't be wandering through environments. Instead, missions are always duels between Hero and Arkz (although they vary between 1 vs. 1 and 2 vs. 2).
While this adds up to a lot of battles against the computer, things remain fresh because you're constantly fighting against different characters in different arenas. Some areas are huge, some are small, some are shaped in bizarre geometric patterns, and others have obstacles set in the middle of the arena. It keeps you on your toes because some maps or opponents will force you to use different decks and tactics. The best part about the offline mode is how well it's designed. You can switch between the Arkz and Hero campaigns at will. The difficulty increases at a steady pace to fit your gradual understanding of the game. If you're looking to simply play a card game and get a basic array of cards before heading online, then you can cruise through the offline mode by only playing the government missions. However, if you're looking for a story, you'll have to talk with your NPCs. In simple conversation they'll tell you about their individual goals and a few connections between the characters -- and they'll occasionally give you character specific quests. These character quests are where the majority of the story unfolds -- and where you see most of the beautiful manga-styled storyboards.
If you're a fan of PSO, the offline mode is worth playing simply for the story elements. With the option of playing through the Heroside or the harder Darkside and playing quick matches with friends or against A.I., PSO III's offline mode is a complete game in itself.
With so much focus placed on the offline mode, it almost seems like online was a secondary concern with PSO III. The online mode barely resembles Episodes I & II. There isn't even the pretense of a story and you won't be going on any missions. Instead, online is all about competition.
There are three things you can do online besides for chat with your buddies in the lobby. You can watch matches, a good atmosphere for learning some tricks or cheering on friends. You can coax one or three players to hold a quick battle. But, the meat of online is participating in solo or team tournaments, which take place every 10 to 15 minutes. To join, you simply have to register at the counter (although you might want to check the skill of your opponent).
While it might not seem exciting, there is a certain amount of exhilaration associated with defeating a human opponent --primarily because you've beaten another thinking being. PSO III is definitely more fun when played with friends, but the ability to travel freely between American, Japanese, and European regions means that there's always plenty of competition to be had.
PSO III is really a departure from the familiar, and its slow-paced strategy based gameplay isn't for everyone. But, Sonic Team has built a very well designed game. It's as flexible as possible -- hundreds of card combinations, Heroside or Darkside play differences,and a choice between streamlined missions or detailed story mode. The biggest problem PSO III faces is that the online mode doesn't have as much emphasis on community as Episodes I & II because Episode III isn't about cooperation. But, those willing to invest the time will find a game that they can sink countless hours into online or off.
Sonic Team's artistic vision has been passed from PSO I & II to Episode III. The artwork looks noticeably similar, whether you're looking at the design of the Morgue, arenas, or character models.
While the style is similar, PSO III looks noticeably sharper and cleaner than the previous episodes. This is no doubt due to the primarily static environments and that animations don't have to account for human spontaneity (since you're using cards instead of directly controlling your character). Vast improvements have also been made with lighting and shadowing. Sonic Team has also included several subtle touches to help bring the environments to life. Some areas have dust particles blowing across the screen, while others have waves lapping against the shore. There are two stages that are really impressive, one has flowing water moving underneath the playing field and the other looks like plasma is bubbling underneath your feet. The arenas themselves are diverse in design, ranging from ancient temples, mountain vistas, and the seashore to flooded plains and the innards of buildings.
While any fan of PSO can appreciate the small improvements Sonic Team has made in the game's graphics, the cut scenes are the real visual draw. Sonic Team hasn't included FMVs, but there are detailed manga-styled storyboards. While it might seem like a cop out, the story boards are really beautiful and show a surprising amount of emotion. If you're a fan of PSO art, then you'll really appreciate Sonic Team's presentation. Sound
Episode III features a slew of orchestral pieces crafted for the Phantasy Star Online experience. Some will be familiar to PSO veterans, but there are plenty of fresh tracks to aurally please you. The music is a perfect match for the PSO world. While the tracks are switched frequently -- they're usually linked with a certain arena -- over the course of hundreds of matches you'll eventually grow sick of them. The other nice music feature is that you'll be able to change the lobby music by visiting the jukebox. These host a wide array of SEGA music including tunes from Sonic and Jet Set Radio.
There's a pleasant assortment of sound effects. You'll hear your feet hitting the floor of your base, wind whipping through an area, and waves crashing against the shore. A little more variety in the fighting effects (every weapon sounds the same) would be welcome. It also would have been nice if Sonic Team had finally included voice acting in PSO, but over all Episode III offers a tight audio package.
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