Phantasy Star Online

Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

As the first console MMO, Phantasy Star Online is an important piece of gaming history, sadly, these days it's treated as something of a footnote. Perhaps this is due to the fact few people played online on consoles or simply because PSO was released for the ill-fated Dreamcast. Whatever it would be a shame to see its historical merits forgotten.

Despite it being an mmo, Phantasy Star Online offers an offline mode, which is what I'll be playing for the purpose of this review.

Phantasy Star Online forfeits all connections with previous games and instead introduces players to a new cast and system. This may seem like a bait-and-switch maneuver on Sega's part but the game pays so little importance to story or characters one would barely notice it hardly matters. 

Luckily, the aesthetics fair much better in this regard, if you've played Phantasy Star 2 and/or 4 on the Sega Megadrive/Genesis you'll easily recognize the art-style employed here, it remains as true to its source material as it could have been.

As you create a new character, players are given a choice of several classes and races, these will generally boil down to your typical warrior, healer, magic and ranged builds. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Sega imposed a limitation in which you can only save one character per memory unit, this mean if you want to try every possible combination you'll need a total of nine VMUs. Why the developers imposed this restriction is beyond me!

Starting the game you're brought Pioneer 2, a colony ship sent to Planet Ragol for colonization purposes. You're told in second hand of how massive your craft is, but sadly you only get to explore a tiny section with a handful of shops, serving as the only town in the entire game. Instead, most of the game is spent taking on missions and traversing the same sections of the planet over and over again until you complete each objective. I am not exaggerating when I say you will be running through the same maps over 15 times just to unlock the next section, as if that weren't enough, you can't accept multiple missions, so you'll just have to go through each and everyone of them individually. 
Leveling up and farming for better gear is a mainstay of the genre that's very present in Phantasy Star Online, these are arguably the game's strongest points, though it's a shame very few items actually change the aesthetic look of your characters.

Combat, gear and items seems to have been inspired by the likes of Diablo, albeit much slower, clunkier and generally less interesting. You have an auto targeting system which works well against single enemies but quickly becomes cumbersome when fighting groups, moreover, your character turns very slowly, it doesn't quite reach Resident Evil tank controls, but it's still more of a hassle than it should be.
Skill, magical and items are all used in real time, unfortunately the Dreamcast controller doesn't allow for a lot of slots, so I often found myself restricted as to what I could use.

Music and sound effects are very minimalist, even large explosions don't create as much a noise as one would expect. While at first I didn't care for the sound design it eventually won me over.
Graphically the game is showing its age, particularly with the low-poly character models and muddy textures, though on the artistic side the game is feast for the eyes, the high-tech 'city' of Pioneer 2 and Ragol's lush green forests were a feast for the eyes. Occasionally NPCs will speak to you while invisible, I'm assuming this is a memory saving move by the developers and remnant of PSO's mmo origins. Between the sound design and this feature I found Phantasy Star to be a hypnotizing, almost dream-like experience.

Overall Phantasy Star Online is game that's definitely showing its age. The Diablo-like gameplay can be addicting and rewarding, but it's also prone to repetitiveness, especially considering players are forced to traverse the same maps over a dozen times before unlocking the next. If you're a fan of the classic 16-bit Phantasy Star games you might get a kick out of the updated graphical style, but be warned, lore-wise the game severed almost all ties with its ancestors.

Trivia: Did you know the Phantasy Star Online game disc contains a set of five 800x600 and 1280x1024 wallpapers? Just insert it into your PC and set them as your desktop background. Alternatively, if you don't own the game, you can download them here.

Trivia 2: Originally, the game was not going to be part of the Phantasy Star franchise, instead it was internally known as 'Third world' and was meant to be its own ip. However, when creating concept art for the title Sonic Team director, Yuji Naka felt it was very reminiscent of the Phanttasy Star games and so the change was made.

- Good dungeon-crawling elements
- The art style is very faithful to its 16-bit predecessors
- A piece of gaming history

- Very repetitive
- Characters are hard to control, auto-aim could use some tweaking
- Only one character per VMU

Final Grade: C+

The cover is an absolute waste! The artwork itself is fine, if a bit crowded but what's with the white border taking 50% of the cover? It makes it hard to tell what is even going on.

Inside you get a lot of awesome content, firstly, the disc features an alternate artwork which looks much better than the game's cover, why didn't they use this? You also get a fairly thick manual with a lot of information on how to play the game, all complemented rather nicely with screenshots. A shame it's printed in black and white and uses a low quality paper.

Finally you get a Sonic Adventure 2 demo disc which even comes with its own manual! This may not seem like much, but back in the day, a game coming with a demo was a pretty big deal. Finally you get a serial number which was used to play online. As you can expect, this code is useless these days, though it does make for an interesting piece of gaming memorabilia.

Overall, this is an excellent packaging, yes the cover sucks and the manual is printed on cheap paper, but all the extras more than make up for it.

Packaging Grade: B+

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