The Phantasy Star Universe got its start way back when on Sega’s 8-bit machine, the Master System. The first two titles were competent roleplaying games for their time and the Genesis sequels were good fun as well. With the Dreamcast, and its online component, Sega and Sonic Team decided to take the series in a totally different direction. Online was the next big thing, and Sonic Team created an addictive and enjoyable title with Phantasy Star Online. Gameplay was very reminiscent of games like Diablo II, and PSO created a fairly rabid fanbase. Unfortunately, the single player was fairly dull, and rampant online cheating practically killed the title.
Fast forward several years later to today, and Sega’s latest entry into the Phantasy Star game universe, is oddly enough titled, Phantasy Star Universe. Not quite a true sequel to PSO, PSU shares a lot in common with its predecessor as well it tries to define it self as not only a solid single player RPG but continues the series great online tradition.
PSU started out originally as a PS2 exclusive, and while it still has some previous generation shortcomings, the title did get a good bit of next-gen polish. Sega really did cover all the graphical necessities. The framerate is solid, the textures look good, and the character models look really clean, and all of this is pulled off in high definition. On top of all that goodness is excellent art direction and incredible atmosphere. The Phantasy Star series has always gone for a more futuristic look instead of the traditional fantasy settings found in RPGs. The setting makes for a great change of pace, and there’s an extra element of fun using blasters and laser swords to cut through your enemies.
Unfortunately, Sonic Team decidedly made some last generation decisions and concessions because of the dual development for PS2 and Xbox 360. First thing you will notice is the use of mulitple smaller areas to make up a larger space. Veterans of the series will probably not have too much issue with this, but in this day and age of harddrive storage a game world shouldn’t be so fractured with incessant loading. I would have also thought that we would have progressed beyond the time of texture swaps for enemies. It’s cheap and points to lazy developers. Of course, Sonic Team did this with the original PSO, so maybe there is some continuity there. Lastly the animations are cheesy, canned, and way overused, again this smacks of lazy development. Overall the game is wrapped in a pretty high def package, but some of the decidely last gen decisions really detract from a genuinely beautiful title.
I am fairly impressed with the original soundtrack created for PSU. Except for the opening song of the game, which was butchered in both translation and execution, the music is good all around. The music also dynamically changes when entering battle and back to walking around. It really lends some impact to the game. It is a total shame the same couldn’t be said about the in game voice acting. If you enjoy ear-bleeding dialogue then you should definitely keep this game in english. I noticed an option to switch to Japanese and immediately hit that button, and then turned that off when it became to confusing. Of course it doesn’t help that the translation is borderline pathetic and effectively hurts the game as a whole. Sonic Team set out to create a solid single player title, and while the game play is solid, the voice acting and translation kill the story. The controls in most roleplaying games normally boil down to simple movement and menu manipulation. Since PSU puts an emphasis on action it is only imperative that the controls are easy, quick and responsive. I am more than happy to report that the action controls definitely meet the requirements on all but one front. Menu navigation is like pulling teeth, it’s just not easy to do in single player it can make for frustrating moments in the single player adventure. Access to certain items is made difficult because you have to hold down a button to access a sub menu and in the heat of battle it’s hard to do this without accidentally choosing the wrong option. I couldn’t find any settings for hotkeys or quick buttons, and this would’ve been a welcome addition for both single player and multiplayer. Lastly, be prepared for a lot of repetition. Staying true to the Action RPG genre the action in PSU gets repetitive and this leads to a lot of button mashing. I would have liked to seen more attention paid to menus and their navigation as well as a new take on the Action RPG. Overall the controls work and are accessible for the most part.
Someone should have told Sonic Team that it’s no longer the year 2000 and they aren’t developing for the Dreamcast anymore. Seriously, it is like someone tricked the 360 into thinking it was a Dreamcast. While the games boasts a solid single player adventure with over 40 hours of game play, that game play is firmly rooted in the ground cultivated by its predecessors. For fans of the series this will be a boon. The game will instantly feel familiar and easy to jump into. For those who never played the past games, PSU will probably feel antiquated and somewhat dated. The Action RPG genre has already made some great advances with games like Guild Quest for the PC, and PSU clings too tightly to the formula that Phantasy Star Online established roughly six years prior.
In all honesty, these criticisms can be laid more against the single player side of things versus the multiplayer side. Already saddled with weak voice acting, translation, tiny areas, load times, and the repetitive and dated gameplay the single player becomes a chore. Which is unfortunate as the game’s world is so well done and just begs for a really good well written adventure.
Fortunately the multiplayer aspect thrives on the simpler gameplay. Playing with up to 5 other people in group helps make up for the weak menu navigation, and the game is infinitely more interesting with people rather than the CPU. Be fairly warned that half of the enjoyment in multiplayer is finding new items and weapons. This also ties into the games addition of item synthesis, where you use the things you’ve found on the planets to create even better equipment and gear to use.
Lastly you can unlock a single player mode that mirrors the multiplayer side of things but adds in CPU controlled bots as your team mates. While it is a neat addition for those without Xbox Live, it is a weak subsitution as the CPU does a sloppy job of managing things. It’s almost an impossible task trying to force multiplayer friendly gameplay into a single player game. While Sonic Team has done an average job at best, they should have tried to make the single player game play different from its multiplayer brother.
Loaded with a quest of 40 hours and untold amounts of multiplayer there is a lot to play in Phantasy Star Universe. If you are a fan of the series or genre, you will definately get your 60 dollars worth of game here, but if you have a PS2 and aren’t a total graphics whore, you will probably be better served by getting it for 10 dollars less there. I really do feel that if you can get a good group together for regular gaming sessions you will get a lot out of multiplayer, and at only $9.99 a month it does have a little more value than your average online RPG. Lastly, Sega is doing some major updates and has many of them planned. If they support the game any where close to what they did with PSO this title will be played for a very long time.