It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen a true successor to the Phantasy Star Online world, so when they announced Phantasy Star Universe I was very excited to say the least. Following in the footsteps of Phantasy Star Online, Phantasy Star Universe uses a lot of the same play mechanics with a few new additions to tweak the gameplay. In the end what you get is a great game that lives up to all the build up, but probably doesn’t manage to live up to the expectations of other Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.
The story behind Phantasy Star Universe (PSU) is just as convoluted as it was in Phantasy Star Online (PSO), although this time around they try to elaborate on it much more. The SEED seems to be attracted to A-Photon reactors, seek them out and when they do they end up changing the flora and wildlife for the worse. Your job as Ethan Waber is to find answers and take on various missions to unlock pieces of the whole story as well as why the SEED are attacking. In the end it doesn’t really matter what the story brings to the game because the real meat comes from the online mode. That’s where most people will spend a vast majority of their time because that’s the never ending part of the game that has you searching out rare items and weapons and grinding their characters’ levels to their peaks.
While Phantasy Star Universe has gone through a lot of change in terms of general gameplay, they haven’t put as much effort into the graphics department. Visually it’s an upgrade of their last versions of PSO for both Xbox and GameCube, which were in essence beefed up versions of the Dreamcast title, so it’s kind of a wonder why they couldn’t make tremendous strides in terms of graphics. Still, the game looks good, although hardly what one would consider “next-gen”. The monsters you attack still look similar to the older PSO game; in fact a lot of them act the same as well. Some may find that a bit disturbing thinking that the game hasn’t evolved much from previous versions, however, what SEGA and Sonic Team have done is changed the areas that really affect the entire gaming experience and that includes most everything, but the visuals. That’s not to say that what they’ve done with the graphics here are ugly because they’re far from it, but what they offer just aren’t on par with some of the truer “next generation” titles available on the Xbox 360.
The score in the past PSO games has been one of its strong points and the music is right up there on par with some of the more memorable soundtracks in gaming history. This time around PSU adds voice acting into the game with mixed results. While it’s nice to have it included, it’s a shame that it’s only partly acted as the rest you’re left to read on your own, and even worse that it’s so poorly acted. It’s sort of like watching a bad movie because the acting doesn’t seem to fit the overall tone of the game. Perhaps it’s the translation from Japanese to English or perhaps it’s the talent, but it’s really quite laughable. Counter the voice acting with the score and you’d think the soundtrack came from an entirely different game. The music is expertly composed and does a great job to build atmosphere and set the tone for the game. The sound effects aren’t half bad either, they’ve allowed you to adjust the “voice” of your character (more like the grunts) by letting you choose the pitch. A majority of the rest of the game seems on par with the previous Phantasy Star games. There’s nothing terribly special going on here, but you can tell that there was a nice effort made to make this a great sounding game.
The biggest effort for change is made in the gameplay portion of PSU. Offline this is the first Phantasy Star title to have a full fledged single player experience since the 16 bit era. The game is broken up into chapters and told in a manner not unlike an episode of anime, complete with opening song and chapter recap. The fighting itself has changed fundamentally, but remains similar enough to PSO that player’s familiar with the mechanics from that game can instantly jump in. Gone are the three hit combinations and newly added are a fourth hit that can be customized from a number of special attacks that power up as you use them more. Speaking of customization; that seems to be the real point of the game, customize your weapons, attacks, clothes, armor, etc. Instead of finding a rare weapon on the floor after defeating an enemy (which still happens on occasion) you’re instead crafting your own items now. Make your own weapons and add the sort of characteristics you’d like to have, so whether that’s fire or ice or any of the other “elements” you can do so at your leisure, so long as you have the required parts to do so. Also gone is your character’s Mag, that thing that hovered over your back and helped boost up your stats in PSO. In its place is a Partner Machine (PM) which serves the function of being able to help create your items both rare and common. Plus, your PM will join you in combat when it reaches the appropriate level. On that subject the partners that join you in the various missions are adequate for the most part, but they tend to hang around you and wait for you to attack which gets annoying especially when they don’t do anything to help themselves like heal or step away from the fracas to keep themselves safe. The single player game is good and all, but it doesn’t compare to what you’d get if you were to play online. There’s nothing better than having competent teammates to help you take out a bunch of enemies with speed. Still, for those who loved Phantasy Star Online, but don’t have the time to dedicate to it, this is a decent enough alternative that also gives them the option of playing online if they feel the urge to do so.
Speaking of online, the main reason to play this game is to get online and hook up with friends. This time around you can have up to six members in your party. New to the series (on consoles anyway) is the fact that your character is now being saved server side, so cheating will be held to a minimum, or at least that is the hope. With additional content being added regularly you can count on lots of new missions and other items to make their way into the game, so the game will continue to expand beyond what you see when you initially purchase the game. You can expect lots of rare items to not come your way, but with the help of some good friends you can work your way through to getting some of the hard to find/earn weapons. That’s another spot where your Partner Machine comes through for you because as you feed it items it gets more proficient at making certain items with a higher success ratio. If it sounds rather complicated that’s because it is, but with some trial and error you should be able to figure it out pretty easily.
Despite several missions the lack of real variety between planets kind of sets Phantasy Star Universe back some. In Phantasy Star Online: Episode I & II there were a wider variety of areas to get through. Now maybe it is the intent of SEGA to add more planets at a later date, but at this point three planets to explore is kind of weak when they’re all pretty similar. In the end there’s a lot left to be desired from Phantasy Star Universe especially when the game is overall similar to the previous versions of Phantasy Star Online. The addition of synthesis is a nice touch for those people who like to craft weapons and items in other games, but it seems to be just as hard to find certain pieces as it was to find weapons in PSO, and on top of that you’re not even guaranteed that you’re going to get that rare weapon or item made, so you may end up wasting supplies. Sure, it keeps everyone from having truly rare equipment, but that also may include you which in turn could turn off a lot of people.
Overall, fans who spent hundreds of hours in any of the previous versions of Phantasy Star Online will probably enjoy Phantasy Star Universe, but gamers coming over from legitimate MMORPG’s will almost assuredly be turned off by the arcade type feel and lack of variety in areas to explore. This is a good mixture of an MMO and an action adventure game, but lacks the overall epic feel that a dedicated game might. If you’re in the market for a role playing game heavy on the action then Phantasy Star Universe is a great option for you seeing as how there aren’t very many other options on the 360 right now anyway.
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