Phantasy Star Online Ver. 2


   When Yuji Naka's magnum opus Phantasy Star Online was released earlier this year, it accomplished the ambitious goal of being the first online RPG to make its way onto a console platform. However, PSO was more than a breakthrough title, it was an enjoyable experience not to be missed. Now, with the arrival of Phantasy Star Online ver. 2, SonicTeam adds a bevy of new material to the core of the original.

   PSO ver. 2 isn't an upgrade or expansion disc, per se. It's a completely independent title that builds on the first installment, meaning ownership of the original title is optional. At the onset, players can either convert their existing PSO saves or start all over with a new character.

   Possibly PSO ver. 2's most controversial addition is the pay to play online feature. Accessing the online mode now requires gamers to purchase a Hunter's License through the "Website" option at the title screen. The license needs to be purchased in 3 month blocks at $5/month. For a measly $15, gamers get 3 month unlimited access to version 2's online modes. However, the stingy gamer can still opt for either the fully functioning offline mode or the original, which will retain its free online modes. Like its predecessor, connecting to PSO via 56K is near flawless. Lag and frame rate drops are usually most noticeable during four player matches on the very hard or ultimate modes where enemy droves come at you fast and furious. Overall, in terms of lag, playing online and offline is virtually indistinguishable. Despite publicly available work-arounds with the North American version of PSO, the fact that it didn't support broadband from the start was an annoyance for many. This major issue is finally addressed, as version 2 fully supports the Broadband Adaptor.

  Ice Dragon
Icy cool breath

   As with the original PSO, the heart of the game lies in its exceptionally deep gameplay system. The same quests from the first version -- every difficulty mode both offline and online -- have all returned. Thankfully, Sega has not forgotten those still playing the original -- except for version 2's new modes, both versions have complete cross-compatibility and interactivity. Chief among the vast array of additions are the new game modes. The main online and offline game mode now includes the intensely difficult version 2 Ultimate modes. Only those who have reached level 80 and completed normal, hard, and very hard offline can reach the new difficulty level. (Though when playing online, only the former is a prerequisite). With the new armies of monsters to deal with, the character level limit has been increased from 100 to 200.

   As the title suggests, online mode is the title's raison d'être. Here gamers can play the main adventure mode, download guild quests, chat and interact with others across the world, and access the new ver. 2 modes. Next to the Ultimate mode, Version 2's most touted element is the battle mode which features the two added dungeon arenas, Spaceship and Palace. Up to four players can engage each other with rules set at the discretion of the party leader. Once the timer expires, victory is awarded to the gamer with the most kills. Calling this mode fun is an understatement -- this is Bomberman battle, RPG style. The other battle option allows gamers to go through the game normally, but in this mode friendly fire such as spells do cause damage.

   Another new mode is the Challenge mode. Players are given a difficult time trial version of the standard game. Dungeons have more puzzles to solve, level and equipment limits are also placed per stage, and players are unable to return to town for healing or supplies. Additionally, a party member's death means defeat for the entire group.

Lobby Soccer

   The overlooked Hunter Guild quest mode has also been upgraded. These missions not only reward the player with prizes and provide some context to the storyline, but add a whole new element to the game. In the noteworthy Missing Maracas mission, the goal is to acquire certain music discs where you can replace the normal songs with fan-favorite tracks from Samba de Amigo, Burning Rangers and Sonic Adventure. Another visually striking quest places the party in a midget-sized state, where players are forced to play, solve puzzles, experience and perceive the dungeons from a Lilliputian perspective. Lastly, there's a quirky, but fun 12-player "GO GO Ball" soccer mode that's sure to please Pelé and Chu Chu Rocket devotees.

   Graphically, ver. 2 improves on the already solid mark PSO set. The same enormous dungeons return with new environmental effects, such as immaculate lighting and fog. For example, the forest level has a new sky background and the entire level is bathed in sunset light. Monsters and bosses also look far more menacing, thanks to revamped modelling and textures. An example is the impressive changes made to the once stunning fire dragon boss, which now breathes ice. The old dreary cave is replaced with a fantastic glacier environment. Ice winds gust by your feet, and the aurora borealis wafts against a star filled backdrop, making the older version positively drab in comparison. Characters now also benefit from the addition of new costumes, as well as the ability to change outfits anytime the save file is accessed. In the aural department, Hideaki Kobayashi's score is augmented with two classic Phantasy Star remixes for the two battle venues.

   Version 2 also addresses complaints lodged against PSO's class balance issues. Especially at the higher class levels, there was little distinction between hunters, rangers and forces. Now, this flaw is for the most part a nonissue. For example, forces can now wield deadly techniques (magic) up to level 30, while other classes are limited to the lower PSO levels. Hunters are less accurate, though still the strongest in melee combat, while rangers are dead accurate, but deal medium damage. There's also a plethora of new weapons and armor to aid gamers in their journey. Like the new spells, version 2 weapons and armor display more aesthetic flair.

  Ultimate mode
Battle royal

   Other minor, but most welcome changes have also been made to the gameplay. A distracting annoyance in PSO was the save feature, which required players to quit and disconnect their current game in order to save. Version 2 remedies this with auto-saving in and around town, as well as during disconnects. Weapons can now also be equipped and changed on the fly via the R Trigger + Y button. This may seem superficial, but its benefits are most easily seen when you can avoid the status screen by quickly changing or re-equipping weapons during the heated battles. As with the original, PSO ver. 2 suffers from the same two main problems. Despite SonicTeam's efforts to block game-hacking with Gameshark, Xploder users have found ways to modify their character or equipment stats. While the game displays prodigious dungeon environments, the limited selection of adventuring areas can get redundant, especially when the average player plays the game anywhere between 30-200 hours. To the game's credit, all of the new modes go a long way toward eliminating the feeling of repetition. However, to keep up with new online RPGs on the horizon, future versions of PSO will need to incorporate either randomly generated dungeons or more areas to explore.

   On the whole, Phantasy Star Online version 2 is a solid upgrade. While PSO ver. 2 suffers from some minor shortcomings, to dwell on these wouldn't do justice to its overall quality, given that this is still the only networkable console RPG. Version 2 can be as deep or shallow as one can afford -- whether it's a quick half an hour romp through battle mode or five or six hours of nonstop addiction. PSO ver. 2 is such a compelling RPG, it's easy to lose yourself in the game and clock upwards of 200 hours. And now with Shenmue II being abandoned for Dreamcast's North American release, as the last major title for the system, PSO ver. 2 is a game that no RPG gamer should pass up.

Review by Jeff Davis, Lapsed Agent.
Phantasy Star Online Ver. 2
Developer SonicTeam
Publisher Sega
Genre Multiplayer RPG
Medium GD-ROM (1)
Platform Dreamcast
Release Date  06.07.01
Phantasy Star Online ver. 2 to require fees in North America
TGS: 3 GameCube version screenshots
North American packaging