What is completely the same as the last one but also utterly different? I will give you a clue, it also happens to be the game I am currently playing and reviewing. To say I was addicted to Phantasy Star Online (PSO) back in the Dreamcast days would be a slight understatement. I spent hours and hours leveling up, finding hidden weapon, raising my cute little mags and playing online to do more of the same. To me PSO pretty much started the online console movement and even though it was on an aging 56k connection, the lag was pretty minimal and the fun was in bucket-loads. Since then things have moved on - having a console that cannot go online is considered odd and with things such as Xbox Live all the rage, how would an inevitable PSO sequel manage in this online age?
I would love to say that it was amazing and I am playing it non-stop until I faint but gaming has moved on now. I still love the PSO music and with Phantasy Star Universe (PSU) comes more of the same - lots of classical music and haunting vocals, all wrapped around some old school techno-cheese perfect. Maybe that is the problem with your favourite old games, it is difficult to imagine anything coming along and being better and when your assumptions are correct, it is hard not to feel very disappointed and let down by it all. Like I mentioned at the start, PSU is exactly the same as PSO yet it also happens to be utterly different at the same time. Let me explain.
Many things have changed from PSO to PSU. The combat has had a overhaul and now instead of the standard 3 combo, you can do 5 or 6. Try not to collapse with excitement now. While the combat is now longer, gone are the days of timing your combo's - now button bashing is the in thing. Combo timing was great because it would make you learn combat, you made a mistake and would get punished by getting hit. PSU tells people timing your combat sucks and battering buttons is cool. While it starts off fairly easy, this endless button bashing now makes you feel like you should be playing Dynasty Warriors. One neat addition is being able to carry a weapon in each hand, maybe a flashy sword in one and a tasty pistol in the other. This would make for some interesting combinations of weapons to fight with and coupled with the quick bar feature to get to your selected weapons faster, PSU does manage something new from PSO.
One thing I found tough to get used to was the changes to control. PSO had a very simple targeting system and PSU has the same but it involves pressing shoulder buttons which can get a tad difficult when you are trying to run around a monster in order to target it. Most people will feel at home with the controls but the changes to button layout and functionality can make it annoying for PSO purists.
One thing I remember from PSO was the enemies and the theme carries on to PSU. Take a monster, make it jump around, get stuck in random objects, give it a brain of a watermelon and randomly change it's colour and you have a perfect PSU monster! While the AI has improved now it still feel very silly having to fight the same dumb enemies. First seeing them dodge your attacks and avoiding getting a kicking was funny but then knowing you could stand one side of a fence and they would all just run at the fence and get stuck was just plain dumb. At this point my thumbs were hurting from all this intense button bashing but I did remember the most redeeming feature of PSU which was the fancy boss battles. Sega did a good job of borrowing a few PSO ideas and shoe-horning them into PSU. Your first major dragon battle reminds you of the first one from PSO. The boss encounters have increased in difficulty so it is more taxing to figure out where the weak points are and the amount of attacks they do is also increased but in all honesty, once you have figured out these, pretty much every boss is a walk over. Most usually revolve around battering at set points on their otherwise untouchable body or just battering all parts of the body until they give in or your thumbs start bleeding, your choice.
Enemies are fairly varied but the variety of weapons is also a great plus for PSU. Between daggers, double-ended light sabers, bows, pistols, shotguns, rifles and all manner of magical looking staffs, PSU does have a nice variety of weapons to suit all manner of play styles. Many of the weapons can be duel wielded to add a little spice to your combat and I did have fun playing with double sabers. If people had played PSO they would have remembered that most of your weapons would be found or purchased from your local vendor. PSU still has the famous S-Rank weapons but these are even more rare. Now you collect random parts on your travels which you can then make into selected weapons and this is were I started to dislike PSU. One of the most fun parts of PSO was raising your Mag. Just in case people have no idea what I mean, a Mag was a little robot pet that floated over your shoulder. You could feed it a variety of different items and it would grow and level up and as it hit certain level's it would evolve into another type. Starting from your basic looking Mag you could also find rare evolution parts which would turn your mag into cool things such as a little Sonic, or a Dreamcast that flew over your shoulder, even the Chao's from Sonic Adventure were there.
Mags could also be taught Photon-attacks which as you got hit they would store energy and unleash a big special move to wipe out your enemies or to even heal you in danger. PSU has a Mag but they stay in your room pretty much all of the time. Mag's are also now known as PM or Partner Machinery which is pretty odd why Sega chose to drop the Mag name since it was so popular. You give your PM random parts and depending on what you want made and also how good it is, your PM will take it's time as it produces the weapon. PM's can be fed too and they do evolve in time and later on you can equip them with items and take them out with you. This is where Sega made some good changes to PSU. Your Mag..sorry, PM does not have the fancy photon attacks but they can be taken out on combat with you and they can also use a variety of weapons to help you out when your thumbs hurt.
Back in the day of Dreamcast it was the best looking console around, graphically I mean. PSO was still good looking but even back then it was not really amazing. Functional graphics but nothing over the top. PSU also joins this party and managed to improve the graphics from PSO but not really making a huge jump to the next-gen as many were expecting. This was going to happen since PSU is a PC and PS2 port thrown into the 360 mould. Graphically it is pretty average and while Hi-Def does make it look very nice this does tend to show up all of the graphical glitches. Character models are fairly poor from their no lip-syncing, always pointy-up manga hair and their terrible pointy fingers, PSU shows it's PS2 heritage a mile away. Hi-Def just increases the fact you are playing a port of a fairly old PS2 game. Maybe Sega would have been better off to sit back and just make a PSU game for the 360. If this game had stunning graphics, then the fairly simple combat would not be so bad. I could imagine the super detailed character models and the weaponry models all powered by 360. As it is, the graphics are fairly average and the standard combat can become frustrating when the graphics glitch and look so rough in the bountiful, overly annoying cut scenes.
PSO did have one feature that did rock and that is where the online part of the game came in. The world was very small and simply structured but you could go adventuring with 3 other people and batter the monsters to death with pointy sticks and guns. PSO had a useful lobby system where you could go in and find a team to join. You could travel to different sections to try and find the ideal partners and then it was quick and simple to get into combat. PSU has kept the lobby system but with the world now being huge it can be a little annoying to meet up with people and start hunting. PSU has the usual voice chat and text-chat system but also has a nifty keyboard chat system where you can select various words and phrases and link them together to talk. Just in case you are too bored to use a keyboard or the mic around your head. PSU is great fun online once you have worked out where you are going and have met up with a few friends. The world is much bigger than PSO so there are lots of different quests and missions for you to do. One of the odd things changed from PSO was in PSU you make an online character and you can only level them online. In PSO you could make a character and level them offline until you were happy that you were strong enough and had enough fancy gear to go online. It may make it more enjoyable to create a character for online only but starting at level 1 can be tough on first timers. While the singleplayer does have a big, if a little pointless, story behind it, online has all the same thing but no plot or cut scenes to blend them together. This can often lead to "Where the hell do I go now?" moments when you are on your own.
PSU is by no means a terrible game and maybe it is just me coming from a PSO background that makes it harder for me to accept this impostor to the PSO crown. What it does, it does very well which is trying to be PSO but improve on things. It does manage that on so many levels but also manages to drop a few points for just not trying hard enough. Any online game that comes out now will always be subjected to the World of Warcraft test and so many fail. I wanted this to be the return of PSO but I am left pretty happy with some of the changes but disappointed with others. Combat is increased in complexity but is now boring due to the endless button-bashing, enemies are smarter but have also been eating dumb-ass sandwiches, PM's are in and try to give us Mags but do not really capture the joy of Mag's, online is fun and growing as long as you can find friends which can be hard because the world is a bit too big to find people and single player is long and interesting but also manages to be pointless, annoying and dumb in one fell swoop.
Originally Written By: Barrie Rogers