Phantasy Star Universe is the first new title to come out from Sonic Team and Sega since Phantasy Star Online v. 3 for the Gamecube and Phantasy Star Online Blue Burst for the PC back in 2003-2004.  This game was highly anticipated since sometime in 2005, especially by fans of PSO, who wanted to see what would be new, what could be added and what overall improvements would be offered by the game.


When the features of PSU were introduced, the concept of an actual storyline, eight-player parties and the ability to create your own weapons or armor really stoked the fires.  The question would be, of course, if PSU could break out of the niche that PSO found itself in in the first place and become a true MMORPG, or if it would fail to make much advancement at all?


A quick note:  As with all PC reviews, my system specs get listed here:  I’m still running an Athlon 2400+ with a gig of ram, a Radeon 9800 using Omega Drivers version 3.8.273.  My OS is Windows XP SP2.  This allows me to run the game at 1024×768 full-screen or 1280×968 windowed (just the start bar visible) with decent quality and performance.


Also, while the game ships with no real copy protection, it does use GameGuard, the same protection that PSO Blue Burst uses.  As a result, it tends to cause various other software programs (news readers, especially) to close down without warning.  This is minor, but should be noted for those of us who like to run other things in the background while playing.

The graphics in PSU have definitely evolved from those in Phantasy Star Online.  The game takes advantage of as much graphics horsepower as your computer can put forth, allowing it to look as good as the Xbox 360 version in many cases, if not exceeding it on a higher end machine.  Even at medium settings, there was very little noticeable stuttering except when moving into a crowded area. 


In a nice move, the game actually fades-out NPCs that aren’t plot-specific as you approach them, which cuts down on how much the game engine needs to render.  This allows the backgrounds to be absolutely spectactular, with vivid, lush environments.  Granted, most of the detail is in the background, but even while running around you’ll have grass that you can run through, bushes to move around and through, and it’s very nice to see this level of detail.


Character graphics are also quite polished for the most part, with the faces, bodies and clothing in general all having a very sharp look to them.  There’s one bad area here, and that’s the characters’ hands and fingers.  It’s like all the graphics power went to everything else, and there wasn’t enough left for the characters’ hands.  The fingers are jagged little pointy …. things.  If you can get past that, though, in general the graphics are quite nice.  Those on a high end machine capable of pushing the game to its highest settings will probably like it even more.

The music in PSU is quite outstanding, as is typical for most Sonic Team titles.  Phantasy Star Online and many of the Sonic games all featured incredible music, given the technological limitations at the time, and PSU is no different.  In fact, the music in PSU is so vast that they used two different orchestras to make the score, with one of them being the Polish National Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. 


Each of the planets has its own distinct sound, and the overall quality level of the music is quite superb.  While there’s nothing that stands out like many tracks from, say, Final Fantasy, it’s still good enough that you shouldn’t get tired of hearing it in the game.


The sound effects are nice also, with footsteps sounding different depending upon which surface you’re walking on, all of the weapons having various sound effects (some of which sound the same as PSO, however), and all of the monsters having decent amounts of sound effects.


While Meat Loaf may have sung that “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”, that doesn’t apply when it comes to the voice acting in PSU.  Unfortunately, it’s the one place in the sound that … just doesn’t work.  The only thing that makes sense is that the English-speaking VAs tried very hard to sync their tracks with the characters’ lip movement which didn’t work at all well with the script they were given.  In fact, some of the lines are downright….Shatnerian.  While not all of the characters suffer from this (Karen sounds quite decent, and Hyuga’s English accent isn’t bad), Ethan’s voice is …. very poor, to say the least.  Unfortunately, as he’s the main character, you have to deal with it a lot.  If it wasn’t for the voice acting, this section would garner a much higher rating.

First and foremost, PSU is a console game, specifically Xbox 360 and Playstation 2.  This means that the PC version is a port, probably of the Xbox 360 version.  This becomes obvious fairly early on as there is very little use of the mouse in the game.  This means that if you’re only using your keyboard, you’re going to lag far behind people using game controllers.  In fact, the game is specifically designed to use the Xbox 360 gamepad by default.  Using a Logitech Dual Action, I found that the controls were awkward.  Luckily, the game provides the ability to customize your controls…but only outside of the game.


Once you’re able to get the controls customized to your wishes, the game actually controls quite well.  By default, the camera is tied to the right analog stick on your gamepad, which makes things relatively easy, although it seems the camera does get stuck behind bushes and monsters sometimes, which makes it hard to target or see specifics. 


The best combination, honestly, seems to be using both the keyboard and a gamepad, as you can use the gamepad to control the game itself, while using the keyboard to talk (while online).  Also, you can shift into first person mode, which is nice for aiming the various projectile weapons, but otherwise isn’t all that useful.

Phantasy Star Universe is really two games in one.  Taking a lesson from Phantasy Star Online, PSU has both an offline and an online mode.  The difference is, the offline mode actually has a pretty lengthy story.  The story deals with the Gurhal system, which has three planets, inhabited by humans and their creations:  CASTs (basically robots), Newmans and Beasts.  For five hundred years, war raged between the races before ceasing a hundred years ago.  Of course…no peace is destined to last forever.


In PSU, you play Ethan Waber, a young man living on a space station in the Gurhal system.  Since the universe has been at peace for 100 years, of course there’s a ceremony to commerate the 100th anniversary of the Triparitie Treaty.  During the middle of it, an alien entity which becomes known as the SEED launched an attack against the various military ships surrounding the space station as well as the station itself and three planets in the solar system.  This leads Ethan into joining the GUARDIANS, a private police force which exists to protect the peace as well as performing odd jobs for various people. 


While a member of GUARDIANS, Ethan and others will work together to uncover the mystery of where the SEED came from and what they want while also fighting against apparant corruption from within the government as well as the mystery of exactly why the ‘new’ energy source just discovered happens to be the same one that existed in an ancient civilization.


Gameplay is very familiar to fans of Phantasy Star Online.  Attacks are still handled the same way, although they seem to be sped up a bit to make combat somewhat more flowing.  One of the nice things about both offline and online play is the ability to change your class between Ranger, Hunter and Force at will.  Your characters’ improvement is in both regular levels and class levels.  You’ll gain levels much faster in your character than your class will, and each class has strengths and weaknesses.


For multiplayer play, you have the ability to create your character from any of the four races.  Each have their own strengths and weaknesses, with Newmans having better luck with TECHNICs (pronounced ‘techniques’), Casts having higher attack accuracy and defense and Beasts having the best HP and attack power.  Even the choice between male and female makes a difference, as males have higher HP and attack stats while females are higher in everything else. 


Speaking of online, a few things have to be noted here.  First, there is no way to switch between offline and online play at the main menu, you actually have to exit out of the game in order to change types of play.  Here’s how it works.  You open the game, which has options for online play, offline play, options and quit.  Then you go to the game’s main menu which has options for onlien play, offline play, and exit.  Except, if you chose offline at first, online is greyed out, and vice versa for choosing online originally.  It’s very frustrating, and makes you wonder why they didn’t just allow you to switch back and forth via the main menu.


Secondly, unlike any other MMO out there (including Phantasy Star Online), PSU has no free time for online play.  You have a choice between a 30 day recurring subscription or a 180 day one-time subscription.  The first time you subscribe, you’ll get 15 extra days added onto the 30 you pay for or 30 free days if you choose a 180 day subscription.  The rates?  $9.99 for 30 days, and $49.95 for 180.  While the prices aren’t too terribly bad, it’s also a slap in the face for those of us used to other MMOs.  The inability to give a free trial means that some players may not even see the need to try to get online which means that they won’t get hooked on the gameplay. 


Also, there’s no storyline online, just a number of missions that you can pick up and play with up to seven other players.  While Sega is being very good about updating the servers and giving out new content, it’s quite doubtful that there’ll be any major revamps due to the fact that the content has to fit on a PS2 memory card as well. 


While you also have the ability in the game to craft your own items and weapons, and even run your own store online, it can be very frustrating to get enough materials to create your items (especially the boards, as rarer items seem to require board drops from boss monsters).  Also, while there’s some experimentation in the process, there’s not enough to really make a difference between the sword I create and the one someone else just did. 

The storyline in PSU is rather decent, if not all that in-depth, especially compared to other RPGs on the market for both consoles and PCs.  It’s a nice addition to the game, but it would have been nice if there was an online storyline as well with a final boss like Phantasy Star Online had.  The offline mode is definitely worth the money spent to buy the game, even without online being touched.  The lack of a free trial for online is a disappointment, but hopefully Sega will change this in time. 


Online is … as addictive as any other MMO can be, really.  If you’re a fan of PSO, watch out, this game will hook you in just as hard and just as quick.

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