Phantasy Star Online
Feed your MAG the remnants of your slaughter. - Review By XianMrtyr
Believe it or not, Phantasy Star Online snuck up on me. I know, there have been months of hype. Every single bloody gaming site has been posting previews, impressions, mad theories, insane rants, all in anticipation of PSO. I was as anxious as anyone to get it, but for some reason, I still thought it wasn't going to happen, it was going to be so much vaporware. Then, one day, there it is on the shelves. There it was, the first online console role-playing game. For some reason, I expected orchestral music to swell up in the background, a choir singing hosannas as I picked up my copy and walked to the register. Maybe I was expecting too much. After all, Phantasy Star Online deserves credit for trying something new and ambitious, for being the first multiplayer console RPG, for taking that risk and paving the way for a brighter online-gaming future, but could it possibly deliver on all those promises?
As much as I'd like to keep this review short so that I can get back to playing PSO, I need to detail all the reasons you should go out and buy this game right now. Just saying "this is the single most addictive console experience I've had" won't cut it, now, will it? Telling you I haven't had more than a few hours sleep in the past few days, that my work hours are spent daydreaming about what to feed my MAG next -- that's not going to be enough for you guys. We need facts, empirical evidence so that you will be so overwhelmed by details that you will not be able to stop yourself from buying this game.
To begin with the simpler things, Phantasy Star Online features amazing graphics and sounds. The characters are very detailed, and you have a lot of customization options when creating your own character. You can change his or her build, hair and skin color, and facial features, giving you enough versatility to create a unique in-game avatar. This game looks brilliant on a VGA monitor, too. Both characters and monsters are well animated, giving an added sense of life to the game. The bosses themselves are gigantic, intimidating beasts. When I first ran into the first boss, I turned tail and ran, sensing, somewhere deep inside, that I was doomed, that I should just go home now and take up knitting or something. The game's visuals are simply astounding. The forest levels are lush and vibrant, and the caves possess unearthly underground springs, claustrophobic passageways. Phantasy Star Online's artistic design is fantastically well realized.
The whole game exudes a wonderful 80's-esque science-fantasy style. The carrier itself has nice, strangely cyberpunk aspects to it: lots of neon and hovering vehicles in the distance, a great soundtrack, bounty hunters wandering the halls. The music serves the game perfectly, changing from a lush atmospheric piece to a more dynamic number when monsters are around. Unfortunately, there's just not enough of this great music; each level only has a couple of songs that repeat throughout the entire level, and you will simply tune the music out after you've been listening for a while. It sustains the atmosphere, but it doesn't do much more.
Sometimes it feels like a Star Wars side story, but in a good game.
Ultimately, Phantasy Star Online plays a bit like a dungeon hack: you run around in forests, kill monsters, get items, run through caves, kill monsters, get items. Even so, that description fails to capture the magic of the game. Let's face it, killing stuff is fun. Killing stuff with friends is more fun. In multiplayer games, you confront more monsters. This, of course, means better experience point rewards, giving you good incentive to play online. Let's not forget, either, that it's a blast. Playing online has two core aspects: simply connecting and hanging around in a lobby, and then creating or joining a game and whacking a few monsters. When you connect, you are given a choice of ships (servers, basically), and then a choice of blocks. You are then dumped into a lobby in that block, where you can start finding friends. You can move freely between ships and blocks, so if you are on a different server than your friends, you can meet up with them. The lobbies are essentially giant chat rooms. While you can use a keyboard (real or virtual) to chat with your team members, you may find yourself playing with someone who doesn't speak English, or you may not own a keyboard, and typing on the virtual keyboard is a hassle beyond belief.
Fortunately, Phantasy Star Online offers a wide range of pre-set dialogues, and you can navigate through them fairly easily (if not quickly). The pre-set dialogues are automatically translated into your companions' languages. (Of course, any message you type from scratch remains in the original tongue -- you didn't expect full auto-translation, did you?) The symbol chat system is infinitely more interesting, though, as it provides you with a means of communicating with players who can't understand your crazy moon language. Using tools within the game, you can create your own series of symbols or modify pre-existing ones to articulate your thoughts to other players. The symbol chat is amazingly versatile; given a little creativity, you can create a symbol to express some incredibly deep (and disturbing, if such be your bent) concepts. The symbol chat helps give players some individual expression within the game.
Enhancing this personalized experience is MAG, a sort of hovering sidekick-protector-thing that follows just over your shoulder everywhere you go. MAG adds an interesting sort of "digipet" aspect to PSO. You feed MAG items, which then increase its abilities. MAG takes a lot of effort and attention, but the rewards are pretty impressive. First of all, your MAG will never learn any Photon Blast abilities if you don't care for it. These are massive, area-effect attacks akin to summons from other RPGs, and they are a beautiful sight to behold. As MAG gains in levels, though, it gains the ability to heal you, cast defensive and offensive techniques on you, and even cover you against attacks. Oh, what a friend we have in MAG. MAG transforms as it increases in levels and becomes more and more unique from your individual feeding habits.
"l33t d00d" professes his love fo "UsEr6758."
As you no doubt have deduced, Phantasy Star Online is not limited exclusively to online play; you can play the game offline, as a standalone single-player game. While you can go straight into the main story in single-player mode, you can opt to accept a series of quests to boost your experience and flesh out the characters' world a little. When you accept a quest, you have to speak with the person sending you on the quest, giving the game some small amount of characterization. Most of the quests are pretty straightforward: go to the surface of the Ragol, find someone or something, return to the guild for your reward. The quests offer a little variety to the gameplay, though, in that each quest presents you with a slightly modified game field. Monsters will change depending on whether you are on a quest or pursuing the main story. Your starting position will also vary, and the map may be limited to certain specific areas, rather than allowing you to wander the whole of the level. This makes quests incredibly linear, though, and they quickly become repetitive. As you've guessed, this game shines online. Anything less is missing half the point.
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