IGN Review of Phantasy Star Universe
When Phantasy Star Online came out for Dreamcast way back in 2001 we were treated to something new. It wasn't just a new direction for the beloved Phantasy Star series; it was a new direction for console RPGs. That was something special. It may not have been perfect, but it was a fun look at what many thought to be the future. In the time since we first partied up online to hack and slash our way through waves of alien monsters and now, the online RPG has gone through somewhat of a revolution. World of Warcraft has brought the genre to the mainstream and high speed networked consoles have opened the doors to what can be done with an online game. After all of the titles that have pushed the limits of the genre in the past few years, Phantasy Star Universe has come out with an offering that is largely the same as the one we saw so many years ago. The result is an unsatisfying and stale experience that feels like an update to an old game that has had its day rather than a new title.
Phantasy Star Universe is a dungeon crawling action RPG that takes place in a futuristic world where humans live alongside three other humanoid races. While the humans are have all around talents, the elf-like newman specialize in wield force techniques, android casts excel in gunplay, and beasts are the best at utilizing close combat weaponry. Combat is in real-time with the ability to do a standard attack with each weapon and then link several special attacks in the form of photon arts or force spells allowing for from two to four ways to attack the enemies with each weapon. Still, combat is largely done with a single button. Weapons, force techniques, character classes, special moves, and even your little friend the partner machine can all be upgraded and improved through sometimes confusing processes. Beyond that, character appearance, clothing and your little living space can all be customized. All of this together gives players plenty of frills. The main focus of Phantasy Star Universe is the network mode, in which you can explore the different areas populated by other players and join up with them to fight your way through missions. Additionally, there is a complete offline game complete with a story and an extra mode that mirrors the online game.
The story mode requires you to play as a human named Ethan Waber and takes you through his journey to join the Guardians, an elite group of hired guns tasked with maintaining the peace, and ultimately discover and destroy the source of the mysterious SEED outbreaks which have unleashed dangerous creatures across the network of human colonized planets. The story itself is fairly decent and is told through a series of cutscenes that come in three different forms, narrated in-engine sequences, in-engine sections with text bubbles, and full blown CGI. Unfortunately, the story mode falls flat when taken as a standalone game mostly due it being built using all of the tools from the multiplayer game. Technical decisions that were made with the network mode in mind end up hampering the experience in the story mode. For an in-depth look at the story mode, be sure to read our
impressions for the full scoop.
The story mode isn't up to snuff when compared to other offline RPGs, but the legions of fans that adore the new-look Phantasy Star series will be quick to tell you that the online game is where it's at. Like some other online RPGs, Phantasy Star Universe requires players to pony up $9.99 USD a month for access to the network game, so anyone thinking about taking the plunge should know that this title can cause quite a big hit on the wallet. The network mode allows players to create an online persona from one of the four races and customize their appearance and equipment to fit their individual style. When you do sign online, you'll be left almost in the dark as to what you're supposed to be doing. Although you can access little tutorials in your room, actually figuring out where to go and how to go about doing anything is very confusing. The first few hours of the game will probably be spent asking fellow gamers online just how you are supposed to do anything. Once you've figured everything out, you'll find that anywhere from one to six players can join up and enter the missions online where they will have to work together to fight through hordes of enemies for experience and collect money and items. The money and items can then be taken back to the hub worlds to upgrade equipment and purchase other items in preparation for the next battle.
Each player also has their own little bedroom which other players can visit at any time, regardless of whether the player is online. The rooms can be customized in appearance and can even be turned into shops where various wares can be hawked, presumably at below retail price, to other players. The rooms also contain a partner machine. This little guy offers up help on getting started, can synthesize new equipment from items found throughout the game, and can even be brought out into the battlefield to help you provided you've fed it enough to make it evolve.
These features for improving your character, equipment, room, and partner machine are the best reason to play Phantasy Star Universe. Although the gameplay and environments may be repetitive and drab, there is an oddly addicting quality to the game. In our experience with the game, we repeatedly found ourselves spending just a little more time to get that extra money to buy a new weapon. Or fight through one last mission to reach level 15. Despite its numerous shortcomings, Phantasy Star Universe still has that ability to hook you like its predecessors had.
Outside of the combat and upgrade portions of the game comes the final, and sometimes most enticing, portion to Phantasy Star Universe. This is, of course, socializing. Finding a group of friends online, or making new ones, and trading partner cards so that you can easily find each other later greatly improves the experience. While hacking through the same repetitive dungeons with not so intelligent AI on the story mode can become tedious quite quickly, doing the same thing with friends can be quite enjoyable. The old keyboard and quick phrase system also returns for Phantasy Star Universe and is adequate.
The online experience on the PS2 is spotty in some cases, but, in our experience, generally a bit smoother than the Xbox 360 version. As you run through the dungeons, other players alongside you sometimes skip around and move in jerky, lagged animations. It also takes too long for each online player's textures to load up so that each time you enter a room, you'll see blank generic outlines of the character which get filled in with the textures about five seconds later. Additionally, enemy locations don't always synch up with where other players are, so you end up seeing a fellow teammate facing a wall and striking thin air while an enemy that is on the other side of your screen takes damage from their attacks. Why exactly are you required to pay 10 dollars a month to play this game? The money clearly isn't going towards maintaining a solid persistent world. The online quality here isn't as good as many free games, the amount of data being stored with regard to your player and room is minimal and, as we'll discuss below, there really isn't a whole lot to see and do.
At Phantasy Star Universe's launch, there were only three areas to explore; the Guardian's colony, Parum, and Neudaiz. This is a far cry from a galaxy, let alone a universe as the title suggests. Although the latter two are planets, they can be thought of more as lobbies that act as a gateway to the online quests. Each of the three locales has a single city containing several shops to purchase equipment and a flyer base from which players can join parties and start missions. That's the extent of what you can do on the planets.
The missions are lacking in depth as well. Each planet only has a handful of missions and most of them are merely repeats of the initial ones with higher level baddies. What's worse is that the "missions" have no context and don't get any deeper than walking through an area with little to no room for exploration and beating on the waves of enemies that come in too few varieties. Dungeon crawlers can be fun, provided they are housed in a nice array of environments with a good assortment of enemies. Phantasy Star Universe provides neither of these and running through the same drab environments fighting the same dull enemies gets boring fast. This is made doubly so by the fact that many of these enemies are the same ones we saw on Phantasy Star Online over five years ago.
There is a third planet that is available in the story mode which is surprisingly locked online, supposedly so that new content can be "added" in the future to help justify the 10 bucks a month that you're required to pay to play the network mode. Even with this new planet and all of the missions present in the story mode that are missing online, there isn't nearly enough to see. With the PS2 being the lead SKU, adding significant content through downloads in the future is unlikely as anything that would be made available online would have to fit on a PS2 memory card. New weapons and enemies might appear, but any large environments to explore that aren't already on the disc likely won't happen.
Phantasy Star Universe was clearly designed with the PS2 in mind. Although the graphics aren't mind blowing, they aren't overly depressing like they are on Xbox 360. In fact, the game looks nearly as good on the PS2 as the next-gen version. The only difference is that the textures are a lower resolution and some aliasing can be seen.
The music of Phantasy Star Universe sounds decent the first time you hear it, but when the entire game is just a series of repeat runs through the same dungeons, you'll find yourself wishing that there was more variety. The sound effects are generic and do little to engross you in the fight.
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