Review by Morpheme
"Come for the loot, stay for the party: PSU is back and better than ever!"
Imagine, if you will, a time before Xbox Live and the Playstation Network. When Nintendo's Gamecube was merely rumoured about as being some sort of
Dolphin-thing and the original Playstation was at the height of its power after introducing twin analog sticks. The world hadn't truly understood the potential of the Internet, much less the power of the internet in its ability to bring people together. It was the start of a new millennium; the founder of Facebook was a mere 16 years old, and SEGA of Japan had an absolutely nutty idea: they were going to do something that had been done before on a console: take a game (which would have been a standout breakthrough of a game on its own), and put it online, where yourself and other players could take on the world. This game still stands out as the game in which I have single-handedly wasted the most time; this game was Phantasy Star Online.
Six years later, the spiritual successor to PSO was released: Phantasy Star Universe. Boasting an (arguably) more robust story and a new battle and item system, the fans were torn: some were absolutely up in arms, and some tried their best to love their silver medal as much as they could. PSU seemed to have lacked that special Ragolian flavor that fans of the original had loved so much and so long. Noticing this, Sega continued to make their game better, both by improving the original game and by slowly making PSU a bit more like PSO. After one portable edition and an expansion, it seems that this time SEGA has hit the sweet spot.
Gameplay: 10/10 (For Solely Gameplay; The Story and Multi Mode are Reviewed Lower)
As I was saying, Phantasy Star Portable 2 (hereto referred to as PSP2) is essentially a crystallization of all the lovely things that make both PSU unique and with a healthy addition of some old-fashion PSO addictiveness.
Firstly, the battle system is about as perfect a one as I've seen in this series. PSP2 is essentially a hack-and-slash RPG in which yourself and (hopefully) three other players wander throughout a chosen level and battle monsters. Over and over. But before doing any of this, you will have to create a character.
Now, PSU has the greatest character building system I've ever seen in a game. Modern classics like Monster Hunter and Demon's Souls pale in comparison to this monolith of a system, and even AAA titles like the recent Halo: Reach simply lack the absolute depth of the character creation. The system allows you to pick a face, customize hair style and color, and then eventually choose from a wealth of possible outfits for your warrior. At first, you must to pick between one of four races: Humans, the Renaissance Men, Newmans, the squishy magical types, Beasts, the RAWR SMASH types, and CASTs, the accurate calculative and logical ones. They each excel in their own specialty area, and there are varying classes for each character to tackle; these are Hunters, Rangers, Forces, and Vanguards. These classes all specialize in Close Quarters, Long Range, Magical Support, and a bit of everything, respectively. Any good party will need a well-balanced setup of these varying classes to reach success. These classes are simple, well-defined, and offer lots of incentive to level up and allow for party dynamics to be easily established online.
Now that we have our characters, it's time to head off into the fray. At it's basest level, the battle system is simple: you have an attack and a Photon Art ( which is essentially a finisher or an anime-esque super death move). However, your normal attack has a so-called rhythm to it or timing. If you manage to hit this, these attacks will increase in power. This system has the same addictive coating that PSO had, and it feels just as great as ever.
There are a several gameplay improvements in PSP2, some related to combat and others to the way loot is distributed. The battle fixes are chaining, dodge roll, and blocking. Chaining has drastically changed the way party dynamics work by improving damage based on how the team fights, and the dodge roll has allowed the devs to make more deadly enemies who can truly challenge the player, due to your newfound ability to avoid and defend. The added challenge is great for making parties work together (if only for sheer survival) and for making even the most grizzled of veterans (like myself) still get a nervous rush at the sight of a difficult opponent.
Now, about what we're all in the business of Little Wing for: the loot. The improvements to loot are twofold; one is the ability to access your personal storage bin at any time, allowing you to hold onto any and all good loot you find. The other loot-related change is the fact that all items are now instanced; the rares you find on the field are yours, and so goes it for all your party members. Sega has managed to basically eliminate a good portion of the theft and conflict found online, allowing players to simply play in peace, focusing on the game and not their deserved items.
Speaking of items, there isn't a mere two or three weapon types. There are sabers, guns, twin guns, twin sabers, dual sabers, FF7-esque gigantically proportioned swords, axes, wands, rods, cute little mascot things that shoot for you, cute little mascot things that you can order to shoot ridiculous spells of death, spears, bows, rifles, crossbows, and so many more that I've forgotten. There's enough weaponry in this game to make Master Chief and Gordon Freeman cry, while still having enough left over to make Cloud and Diablo II feel inferior in their masculinity. And that spiel was simply about weaponry! That isn't touching on the hunt for Photon Art disks, armors, armor modules, and evolution items for your Partner Machine. All in all, the core game is the greatest it hass been in this series, and I am overjoyed.
Online Mode: 9/10
Online mode is a special feature to this portable edition of Phantasy Star Universe; it allows the player to connect to the internet and play with anyone, anywhere, at any time! And this is without the usual subscription fees that come with the larger console-based games in the series proper. This mode is essentially the same game as you see in the solo release, with the exception of having live people to play with. It seems small, but this is what the game is all about and the ease of access to other players is remarkable.
However, this does not come without its flaws, as SEGA could have made a bit more effort in this place. Two things truly stick out: one is having the only means of communication being a single virtual typewriter. This gets the job done, but the lack of support for the microphones on the PSP 3000 and other supporting software is really almost negligent. The other issue I found is that, although the main series PSO and PSU games had fully designed virtual lobbies, where one could interact with and meet other players, this game has only a perfunctory screen with a selection of open games. However, this small point is more than made up for by the fact that games are very easy to find and stable, and the community is for the most part very congenial.
Story Mode: 9/10
The story in this game managed to impress me and surpass my expectations, turning them on their head as I went alot. As I first expected, you find yourself as the standard faceless, voiceless protagonist who joins an organization (Little Wing, nice Hendrix reference there, SEGA!) and eventually decides to save all creation. However, you ARE asked questions to interact with your partner and your responses will greatly change the ending. Also per my expectations, we met the following JRPG tropes: a spoiled, magical girl with an important destiny; a seemingly aloof boss with a heart of gold; a sexy CAST receptionist; an evil villain with emo hair bent on destruction of all life. These are all common tropes, however, the way in which they are characterized and these character's interactions make the plot much more personal and meaningful than that which we've all seen in previous entries. The story made me care, and having that sort of personal motivation made what is usually an arduous slog into quite an enjoyable story mode.
This game runs like a luxury Space Cruiser. One wouldn't truly expect such a small online game to run this smoothly, but it's there and undeniable. Even with a full party of 4 and god knows how many different weapons, armors, and faces to load, not to mention calculation so many damage variables at once, the game simply DOES NOT quit. Very rarely do I discover lag in my PSP2, and usually I find that as a result of strain on my own internet connection. Solo mode sees hardly any slip-ups, and that is only due to extreme graphical duress.
The one complaint I can levy at this game would be the fact that, although lovely, there are occasional issues with draw distance and weapon load times. The game itself runs beautifully, but there are times when your equipped weapon won't show for a second or two, and there are other instances of trees popping up out of nowhere, but for the most part the graphics are lovely and display the onscreen nuttiness perfectly and precisely.
I've always been a fan of this series' music. Being a longtime fan, it seems to me that the music of PSU is amazing, but I've found that some of the tracks made exclusively for PSP2 are rather forgettable and simply exist to serve their purpose as filler. However, hearing the old favorites from the original game really makes it up to me, and I can forgive mediocre bgms when the opening theme song is (In my own horrible opinion) so damn catchy and beautiful.
The sound effects of this series have always been amazing, and SEGA knows just how to design sound to make it feel powerful. The swing of a sword is sharp, crackling, and lovely, whilst the sound of a rifle hitting an enemy is satisfying and-dare I say-rather awesome feeling. Even the magical zap of a Zonde spell or the icy chill of Barta is well-conveyed and very well done.
FINAL RECOMMENDATION (Or, tl;dr version)
Sometimes it seems that SEGA has purposefully messed with us. With PSU, they made an action RPG with only a little of that old-school PSO charm. With each new improvement, they have slowly given us what made PSO so amazing while staying true to that original vision of a bright Phantasy Star Universe. Even though they took the long way around to awesomeness, this is the definitive PSU experience, and portable to boot! Any fans of the series, or just fans of loot or action RPGs in general MUST try this game. It's an amazing experience that anyone can enjoy. See you in Gurhal, kiddos.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 09/24/10
Game Release: Phantasy Star Portable 2 (US, 09/14/10)
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