Remember playing Phantasy Star Online back in the Dreamcast era when Sega brought addictive loot-mongering with friends across the country to consoles? Remember finally getting that rare loot drop after an epic battle, cultivating your mag, and wrestling with the camera? No? Well Phantasy Star Zero for the Nintendo DS, a hack-and-slash action role-playing game with loot drops galore, offers a remarkably faithful representation of what you missed out on--warts and all.
Phantasy Star Zero places you in the role of a "hunter," a for-hire warrior carrying out missions for the city in which you reside and generally protecting its denizens. You choose from one of three main races: humans, the elflike newmans, and the androidlike CASTs. Each race boasts proficiencies in different offensive and defensive areas. Once you confirm your race, you select further specialization in melee combat, ranged combat, and spell casting. With the town acting as your central hub where you can access different combat environments, you build up your character's abilities and inventory through the single-player story mode in preparation for good old-fashioned multiplayer loot runs.
In fact, you might be tempted to skip single-player altogether and jump right online because when you're playing alone, some of the game's problems are more noticeable. Missions take you across seven different environments, with some missions requiring you to revisit areas you've already seen. This isn't a problem in and of itself. However, even though the missions ask you to do different things--hunt down monsters, find plants, and escort citizens--the progression is the same every time. You'll call your band of merry hunters to arms, slog through randomly generated combat areas, collect randomly placed keycards to open gates, and ultimately fight a boss battle consisting of one huge enemy or several lesser enemies. If a mission dictates that you have to revisit an area, you end up fighting--you guessed it--the same boss monster(s) you already beat. Even when one late mission teases a little variety by asking you to track down imposters, you never actually interact with them; the only time you see them is during talking-head dialogue scenes.
Combat is decent for the most part, but if you're a discerning Phantasy Star veteran, you'll immediately notice--even with quicker weapons, such as daggers and short swords---that it feels more sluggish than in the past. You can pull off three-hit combinations with a mixture of weak and heavy attacks, but more often than not, even weak strikes come with a slight but noticeable windup. You also have to time your button presses within a very small window to successfully pull off a combo, though in general, the lesser enemies aren't too difficult to take down. The end result is approachable combat that does feel satisfying when you connect, but it lacks the fluidity of every action-oriented Phantasy Star before it, up to and including the recently released Phantasy Star Portable for the PSP.
Navigation doesn't feel as elegant as it could either, for a number of reasons. Most of the time, the camera is zoomed in a bit too closely to provide you an effective view of the battlefield: Enemies in your periphery are almost impossible to see. Turning to see enemies and objects of interest requires constant massaging of the L shoulder button to re-center your viewpoint. There's the option to hold down the X face button, which allows you to swivel the camera independent of your movement, but this is only really useful once you've cleared an area of enemies because your right thumb isn't available for combat commands. The camera does zoom out and up a little to make some boss battles easily manageable, but had this angle been used throughout the game, the clunky camera mechanics would be far less of an annoyance.
Boneheaded AI makes the camera and the combat even more contentious because it's nigh impossible to actually ask your partners to form some kind of strategy. You're offered tactical commands, such as, "Safety first!" or "Attack all-out," but even when you tell them to stay close to you during a boss fight, they'll sometimes firmly plant themselves opposite of where you stand and forget that you ever issued that command. At other times, party members will follow you to hell and back or, at least, right through spiked floors and laser traps without performing an evade roll to avoid taking damage or triggering the traps. If a gun turret in the distance is taking potshots at your crew members, they'll stand there and continue taking the hits until you start moving.
Multiplayer is the way to play because you can compensate for the mechanical shortcomings with teamwork and communication and focus on snagging loot. Every time you clear a room of enemies, a treasure chest drops that yields money, items, weapons, and armor. Phantasy Star Zero offers a cavalcade of different weapons--well over 300 in fact, including a pair of ketchup dispensers for pistols--that drop with an appropriate amount of frequency. Your bag will quickly fill with generic driftwood; the occasional useful weapon; and if you're lucky, a rare, ultrabeefy sword or scepter. Because weapons drop so frequently, you always feel that there's some chance that you'll come across something great, and this fuels the addictive nature of Phantasy Star's loot collection.
Augmenting the weaponry is a plethora of monster parts, stat buff items, and element drops with which you can enhance your weapons to stun, poison, and inflict elemental damage to your enemies. Curiously, armor seems to be missing out on the party: There are only a handful of different robes and frames you can wear in comparison to all of the other items and weapons you find. However odd this seems at first, it's mitigated by how customizable each piece is provided it has open slots into which you insert upgrade gems. These upgrades can reduce elemental damage, activate health regeneration, and more. Finally, everything you pick up can be fed to your Mag--an artificial life form that augments your base stats and can unleash a screen-filling special attack. Choosing what to feed to your mag becomes a minigame all on its own because items will both increase and decrease its attributes and change its elemental affinities.
After getting past the ever-cumbersome friend code system, you can play online with up to three other hunters. You use the touch screen to write and communicate with friends, but should you choose to forgo the friend code system to team with random folks across the globe, you're limited to only a few preset phrases. Network connectivity is iffy: It frequently takes between two and three minutes to get into a game, and on one occasion five minutes of waiting yielded a lone partner whose connection dropped the instant we teleported from the town into the field. If you're lucky to maintain a party for a full run, however, the approachable combat and abundance of loot drops provide for an enjoyable romp. There are even environments exclusive to the online mode, which you can visit solo to level up your character even though they're designed primarily for multiplayer.
The amount of enjoyment you'll get out of Phantasy Star Zero hinges largely on how readily you can get together with your friends--either online or locally--to go searching for loot. Even then, you'll still have to contend with a temperamental camera and clumsy combat. On the bright side, if you can get past its issues and come to grips with the fact that it feels a little old, it's the only worthwhile game on the DS that has the accessible gameplay, simple action, and vast catalog of items that made Phantasy Star Online a hit in the first place.