Phantasy Star Online

    From the early 90's to today, Sega has been the console company most dedicated to online games, whether via the TeleGenesis (a modem peripheral for the Genesis), the Saturn NetLink, or the Dreamcast's SegaNet. It was Sega's own Phantasy Star text adventure that was one of the more notable games for the TeleGenesis, and now after years of absence, the series has returned as the first full-fledged online RPG for a console.

    Yuji Naka, main programmer for Phantasy Star 1 and 2, returns to Phantasy Star Online, but the series' signature setting and intricate storytelling have been jettisoned for online adventuring. And while the story isn't deep or powerful, it makes a decent framework for the groundbreaking gameplay: a world facing destruction forms the Pioneer Project, a plan to evacuate and find a new habitable planet. After sending probes into space, a planet called Ragol is found and Pioneer 1 is sent to prepare the world for settlers. As Pioneer 2 approaches Ragol seven years later, a violent explosion shakes the world and leaves no contact with Pioneer 1.

 Pioneer 2
Stunning locales

    What PSO lacks in story, it more than makes up for in innovative and arguably the most enjoyable gameplay systems in an RPG to date. The game begins by choosing a character class from the Hunters, experts in melee combat, Rangers, proficient long-range gunners, or Forces, who use Techniques (magic) and can hit multiple targets. Classes also have varying subsets -- Human Hunters can use magic, while Android Hunters sacrifice magic for overwhelming power. Players can also choose faces, hair style/color, armor, and body dimensions. All characters also come with a sidekick of sorts, known as MAGS, who evolve in shape and power by feeding them healing items. As your MAG evolves it gains stats to supplement your own and special photon attacks that act like summon-type spells.

    The game starts in a disappointingly small, one-town area in Pioneer 2. PSO's three pronged gameplay options encompass either the actual game dungeons, Hunter Guild missions, or an online option that encompasses all three and adds downloadable missions. While the nature of the game is somewhat repetitive due to the limited number of areas, things such as puzzles and routes change with the three options.

Shop and trade with your online buddies

    PSO takes a more focused gameplay approach than similar PC RPGs by avoiding massive multiplayer in favor of four-player parties. Once online, players enter the game's lobby and interact with other adventure seekers, start a new group, or join an existing one. Players then appear in Pioneer 2 and can go shopping, trade items, sign up for guild missions, or go through the actual dungeons. For those who lack a keyboard, chatting can be done via the standard controller by using an onscreen keypad or customized chat bubbles. Pre-customized chats are automatically translated into other languages, allowing for some incredible cooperation across the language barrier.

    Once in battle, gamers aren't obligated to follow the group leader or other players. Should you get lost, you can seek aid by making a chat bubble appear for others to see, and for the extremely lost, other players can open portals in dungeons that appear in town. Keeping tabs with your online buddies is easy thanks to the in-game Card and mail system, while time zones are managed through the game's use of the Swatch global time format, called "beats".

    The Hunter Guild missions and dungeons are what provide the piecemeal storyline of PSO. Despite only four main dungeons, each have distinct levels and are not only massive in size, but brilliantly designed. There's enough exploration to satisfy most diehard adventurers, especially when most online quests requires a great deal of teamwork. Online players will often need to simultaneously step on platforms to open a locked door or fight together to defeat certain enemies, including a screen-filling Dragon who has to be seen to be believed.

    The game discards the series' turn-based battles and moves to a real-time engine. Enemies appear on the area in which you travel in, akin to recent installments of Zelda. The new formula makes for somewhat of a hack-and-slash feel, especially with hunters, but the varied and difficult enemies keep this feeling to a minimum. Offline, the game boasts one of the more difficult experiences yet seen in RPGs. Different characters are given a hodgepodge of attacks, and some customization is allowed as well through assigning buttons. A simplistic combo engine is also included that is based on the timing of the weapon equipped. Players who get killed can also beg to be revived, though other players aren't obligated to do so, and can even steal the recently departed's money and main weapon.

Battle chaos

    Technically, the online aspect of the game is masterfully done. Even with the system's 56K modem, any lags, framerate drops and disconnects were negligible, even in a battle with four players and more than a handful of monsters. The only noticeable pause occurs when a new player joins the crew. SonicTeam should be commended for designing an incredibly complex game that works online without a hitch.

    Graphically, PSO is impressive, though not to the level of Shenmue or Skies of Arcadia. The game benefits greatly from well-modelled characters, detailed textures, and a believable high-tech world. The soundtrack is somewhat disappointing, as the series' legendary reputation for music is not lived up to despite fitting the action well. A mix of decent ambient music and well done orchestral songs, the score manages a few memorable moments, including an the opening medley that gives tribute to Phantasy Star II.

Epic boss battles

    There are some gameplay issues that crop up occasionally, especially during battles. The control and camera scheme closely resemble Zelda without the polish one would hope for. Objects can block the camera, and the fixed camera doesn't allow multiple viewpoints and gives players a choice of rotating the camera only based on the direction one is facing. Targeting can get confusing, as the cursor will sometimes switch to a treasure box instead of an enemy.

    But nitpicking aside, PSO is simply one of the most addicting RPGs to grace a console. Whether its for the pure joy of leveling up, acquiring better and stronger items, or showing off to other online players; Phantasy Star Online brings a never-before-seen angle to console gaming. Beating the game, which takes about 30-50 hours, also opens up a harder mode where one can continue level building and get new equipment; making the game virtually endless. Phantasy Star Online is a breakthrough game that wonderfully fills the role of hybrid RPG with online mechanics. If this is the future of RPGs, you can count me in.

Review by Jeff Davis, GIA.
Phantasy Star Online
Developer SonicTeam
Publisher Sega
Genre Multiplayer RPG
Medium GD-ROM (1)
Platform Dreamcast
Release Date  12.21.00
PSO to not be broadband compatible
33 environment and shop screens
Characters relaxing
U.S. box art