Review: Phantasy Star Universe (XB360)


Phantasy Star Universe
Genre: Action/MMORPG
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 10/25/06

The Phantasy Star series has been through an interesting metamorphosis through its existence. Originally starting out as a standard turn-based RPG franchise, Phantasy Star I-IV were all cut into that mold before Sega stepped back and decided to change things up. After a complete non-showing on the Saturn, the PS franchise came out swinging on the Dreamcast with Phantasy Star Online Episodes 1 and 2, which could best be described as a Japanese Baldur’s Gate or Diablo. With a cool anime stylistic, fun combat, and the ability to build badass characters online and off, PSO was one of the greatest games to ever appear on the Dreamcast, and it long outlived the system itself.

Further console releases, however, didn’t fare so well. PSO saw a release to the Xbox, with fairly poor reception, as well as a release to the Gamecube, a system whose online support could kindly be described as pitiful. Another attempt at revolutionizing the concept came with PSO Episode 3, a turn-based card game of sorts that, whether or not it was any good, was very poorly received and quietly forgotten. Sega tried once again with PSO: Blue Burst, a PC version of PSO that was better received than their recent attempts, but still not nearly as well as the Dreamcast versions. Fans, it seemed, were tired of PSO, and were either looking for a story-based Phantasy Star RPG, or, barring that, a new version of PSO instead of the same game they’d been playing.

Which brings us to Phantasy Star Universe, Sega’s answer to both. For the old-school PS fans, PSU features a multi-chapter story mode set in the Phantasy Star universe (no pun intended), and for PSO fans, there’s a completely revamped online component reminiscent of PSO, only upgraded and improved. It sounds like a dream come true, I know, but is it? Can Sega recapture the magic? Let’s take a look.


1. STORY


Our story du jour follows the adventures of one Ethan Waber, a resident of the GUARDIANS Colony (they capitalize it, so will I), a space station in the Gurhal System. Ethan begins the game distrustful of the Guardians, but after a rather nasty disaster aboard the colony, he decides to join up in hopes of helping others. The game follows his exploits as he progresses through his Guardian training, though it ultimately diverts to a story about a shadowy organization, ancient relics, and a battle to save the universe. You know, the usual stuff.

By and large, the story is acceptable, if underwhelming compared to, say, PS2 or PS4. It hits all of the appropriate notes one would expect from a PS title: love, heroism, saving the universe, and even Dark Force (or a reasonable facsimile) shows up in the end. It’s just that the writing isn’t terribly strong, per say; the story feels less like the story one would expect from a venerated RPG series and more like the story of an anime. Contributing to this is the division of the story into chapters, each of which repeats an introduction sequence and ending montage, and each of which shows highlights of the next chapter with a little voiceover informing the player of what’s coming next. It’s cute, and if you’re an anime fan you’ll most likely dig it, but for fans of older PS titles, it’s nothing special.

I think the thing that kind of hurts the story, though, is that it’s wholly unneeded; the original PSO offered up a simple backstory that you would follow along with as you played; as you navigated the various locations, you found notes left by Red Ring Rico, another Hunter who was exploring the planet ahead of you. The story was a lot more subdued, and it allowed you to feel as if “you” were following it, which made the ending revelation that mush more interesting and powerful. In PSU, this feeling is lost as you’re held by the hand and led through the exposition the game has to show you. It’s not a bad story, by any means, but it’s neither as powerful nor well-written as prior PS titles nor as engaging and involving as PSO, it’s simply there.

Story Rating: 5/10


2. GRAPHICS


The graphics on the 360 version are pretty, mostly, but they aren’t the best the system can do. This is unsurprising, though; the game was designed simultaneously for release on three platforms, so it’s unsurprising that the game isn’t a visual masterpiece on the 360. That said, it does look pretty good overall. The game makes very good use of colors, and the various in-game environments and characters are vibrant and striking, especially in Hi-Def. Characters also look pretty good, though nowhere near the top level of the 360’s visual capability. Enemy models are largely solid as well, though the monsters tend towards a more abstract and less monstrous design; this is consistent with PSO, and looks cool artistically, but it seems that robotic/angular designs are used more commonly than animalistic ones, which makes things look faker than they ought to. Clipping, as it was in PSO, is a constant here, though it’s not terribly problematic or anything. Also, for some reason, there’s a visual effect designed into the game when you’re in towns that makes ethereal humanoids appear at a distance, only to make them disappear when one gets close; I understand why they did this (to imply a city that’s alive), but it looks really weird. Also, there’s the occasional bout of slowdown (usually when executing Photon Arts), though this seems more common during the single player campaign, from my experience. Minor complaints notwithstanding, though, PSU looks quite nice, and while it won’t be winning any awards for its graphics, the artistic design combined with the slick look come together to make for a nice overall visual experience.

Graphics Rating: 6/10


3. SOUND

First off, let me say that the music in PSU is absolutely awesome. Incredibly solid orchestral composition accompanies well placed electronic effects to create music that is fully fitting for the game itself, as well as music that’s really, really good all on its own. Sega’s been on a roll with their musical scores lately, and for that, they are to be commended. And for once, I can say that not only would I love an OST of the music, but because I pre-ordered, I actually GOT one, so hurray. The only complaint I can bring against the music is against the main theme in Story mode: while the music sounds great and the singer does a good job, the song writing is pretty rough. Like, “Swing Time” and “Sonic Boom” rough. Fortunately, it can be skipped, but still, there it is. Oh, and of course, custom soundtrack is in full effect, which you’ll grow to appreciate after the twentieth hour of online play (music, no matter how good, wears on you after a while).

The voice acting is solid, by and large; though none of it stands out as an awesome performance, it’s all well done, and the various actors and actresses know how to emote properly and such. The sound effects are also quite acceptable; the various monsters sound appropriately monstrous, and the space-age weaponry emits the sort of futuristic effects you’d expect. All told, PSU is yet another great sounding game from a company that fully knows how to make a game sound awesome. We shouldn’t be surprised about this considering how many Sega games sound exceptionally awesome, but still, it deserves to be said nonetheless.

Sound Rating: 8/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


If you’ve played an action RPG in the past couple of years, you’ll be able to pick PSU up pretty quick, but if you’ve played PSO, you’ll feel like you’re home. Story, Extra and Online mode all essentially play the same: take on a mission, build a party (or not), go to the location specified, and kill things. Combat and movement are a snap; the left stick moves you, while the right stick controls the camera, one button attacks, one button uses your Photon Arts (special magic attacks that deal higher damage, but drain energy from your weapons), etc. It’s all very PSO/Dark Alliance 2 in design, but there are a few things that make the game more than just another rehash.

The first, and most interesting, change to the combat system is the actual Photon Arts themselves. In the original PSO, characters had magic points that could be used to cast Techniques (the PS universe’s answer to spells) and they could deliver normal (faster, but weaker) or charged (slower, but stronger) attacks in combinations to kill foes. Here, weapons are built with inborn energy called Photon Energy, and it’s from this energy that players can use Photon Arts, which either work as special attacks from melee weapons, shots from ranged weapons, or Techniques from staves. What this does is simple: it exchanges the normal/charged attack variables with the ability to unleash special attacks at any time (if one has the energy), but only perform regular attacks. It’s a solid change, but it’s not without issues. Forces, for instance, cannot launch normal attacks from staves, only Techniques, so if one wishes to simply smack an enemy, one would have to equip a knife or something similar. This may be undesirable, however, as one will essentially need to have a staff for each Technique one wishes to use in battle; Techniques cannot simply be used anymore, they MUST be associated to staves. This also means that Hunters and Rangers can no longer use Techniques to heal themselves or what have you, as they cannot equip the requisite staves to cast said Techniques. In other words, this system is both better and worse than the systems in PSO, but it ends up being functional enough on its own (and more clearly defines class roles in battle).

Another change comes in the use of the Action Palette. Previously, one would map various actions/Techniques/items to the face buttons to use them. With the Action Palette, one now maps things to the palette (either on the Weapon or Item side), and one can simply bring the palette up to use the items in question. On one hand, this means a player can have a lot more things available to them in battle, as one could, say, map multiple different curatives to the action palette for any situation, or multiple combinations of weapons for whatever occasion might come up. On the other, it can be cumbersome to fumble through the Action Palette if one does not have the exact item needed available when being chased down by a pissed off De Ragan, so there’s something to be said for the older system. Still, the Action Palette feels like a much stronger design and ends up being a (mostly) welcome change to the combat systems.


There are also a few minor things added to combat that are worth mentioning as well. Characters can now lock-on to enemies and strafe around them in combat, which is a good improvement over the original PSO. Those with ranged weapons can now enter into first-person perspective to shoot at enemies or aim at specific locations of bosses, which increases the usefulness of Rangers immensely. And if you’re brandishing a one-handed weapon like a knife or a buster, you can hold a one-handed gun in the off-hand for added versatility in combat (in theory, it might have been nice to be able to mix and match swords in each hand, but then, wouldn’t you just buy a double sword or knife?). All in all, PSU ends up being a more robust combat experience than its predecessor.

There’s a lot more variety to character creation, as well. There are now four races from which to choose in character creation: Humans (who are largely average at everything), Newmans (elven looking humans who excel at use of Technics), CASTs (robots, who excel at gun use), and Beasts (animalistic humanoids, who excel at hand-to-hand combat). Each race starts as the job they most excel at (Newmans as Forces, Beasts as Hunters, and CASTs as Rangers… Humans start as Hunters, I imagine because it’s an easy job), but you can change your job at any time in the Guardians office, for a fee. Characters can be fully customized in size (height and width), color, and color of things like eyes and hair, and can be dressed in various combinations of clothing from the get-go; it’s not as deep as something like a City of Heroes, but it’s pretty solid. For those going for the unique look, you can also buy additional clothing at shops in the game, though be prepared to spend out the nose for them. Between the solid creation options and extra clothing options, you can make a character who doesn’t look quite like anyone else’s, which is more than I can say for some MMO’s, so bonus to that.

So, okay, you can customize your character and throw down plenty, but is there anything else to do? Yes, actually. Aside from running about whacking anything you see, you can also do the normal RPG activities; shop for armor and weapons, walk about and look for other people to join your hunting parties, the usual. You can also spend some time in your room, which is essentially what it sounds like: a room for you to put your stuff in. Aside from the obligatory “place to put your stuff”, you room also features places to put decoration (so you can spruce your room up with stuff and amuse your friends), a common box (where all of your characters can share items and meseta, THANK GOD), and your Partner Robot. Partner Robots replace MAGs as the default “evolving robot you can use in battle” in PSU; you can feed them various items to upgrade them, and once they get high enough level, they evolve and can accompany you in battle. Partner Robots can also synthesize items for you, assuming you have the appropriate materials and boards (schematics to make the items you want) to do so, which can either be found in dungeons or bought from the Synthesis shop. Upgrading your Partner Robot’s stats also effect how successful synthesis attempts will be; a higher stat in their Armor score, for instance, will make them more likely to successfully synthesize Line Shields. There’s the possibility of failure, of course, but the higher level the PM is in the required skill, the less likely failure becomes.

And of course, let’s not forget the ability to do things like add stat boosts to armor with equipable items, or the ability to upgrade weapons through grinding (which has changed; now grinding has a chance of failure, and must be done in certain shops), and so on. PSU is a surprisingly deep experience for the type of game it is, and while it doesn’t really compare to a lot of the more hardcore MMO’s out there, there’s a lot for players to see and do in it.


But it’s not without its flaws. The camera, even with the fixes applied, eats. It can be worked around, but situations arise where you’ll end up not being able to see what you’re trying to attack, and if something gigantic wanders into the view (as people who’ve played in the Parum Relics Site can attest), you can’t see a damn thing. The online game is missing certain things out of the box (like, you know, A WHOLE PLANET) that ends up hurting the experience quite a bit; there are three manufacturers of equipment in the game, and each one occupies one of the three planets… with that missing third planet, you’re missing out on upgrades from that manufacturer. Also, a lot of the gameplay elements seem to be designed in such a way as to be unnecessarily complex for no good reason; having to go to a specific shop to upgrade weapons made by that manufacturer, for instance, seems stupid when you have an upgrade shop IN THE GUARDIANS COLONY that effectively DOES NOTHING for a large portion of your early game experience. And when playing online, while players can’t PK you, and party distribution can be tuned so as to be fair for all players, players can still screw you over by kicking you out the party just before you kill a boss, which hurts the experience somewhat. And if you DO want to play online, Sega asks that you pay them $10 a month for that experience; this is more expensive than, say, a Guild Wars, but less than a WOW or EQ2 or what have you. Still, that might be more than you’re willing to spend, so you might want to be aware of this.

But perhaps the single most hurtful thing I can say about the game is that it’s the exact same thing, over and over again. When playing online, this is less noticeable; playing with people and BSing as you obliterate every animal in the forest or whatever is a good distraction from that. But the single player modes offer no such reprieve, and it’s here that the game shows it’s limitations; there’s only so long you can spend spamming the same two buttons over and over until you get bored of it all. Sega has committed to adding in even more content to the online game, which is great, but this won’t dramatically change the gameplay any, so even after weeks of playing, you’ll STILL be spamming the same two buttons ad infinitum. Of course, this can also be said about Dark Alliance, but then again, you’re not spending weeks and months playing that, are you?

Overall, though, PSU ends up being more good than bad. The simple gameplay makes the game easy to get into and work with, and there’s plenty of stuff to do, both online and off. It can get boring after a while, and certain elements of the experience show their age, but by and large, it’s still a whole lot of fun to play, and if you’ve never experienced something like it before, you’ll most likely have even more fun with it than someone who’s been playing it for years and seen a lot of the tricks the game has to offer. Either way, though, there’s a lot of fun to be had in PSU while it lasts.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 6/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Between the unlockable Extra Mode, a very solid online component, and the promise of additional content and support, PSU promises insanely high replay value. The online play is staggered enough that, if the projected release period for the next batch of content (approximately one month) is correct, you’ll tear your way through what’s available just in time to play with the new stuff. Assuming Sega keeps the new content coming (and they say they will), there’s a very good chance you could easily be playing this for months to come. I know I will be.

Replayability Rating: 10/10


6. BALANCE

The Story mode tends to skew towards the easy side, with Moon Atomizer X’s and Star Atomizer’s popping up in the first mission (in other words, REALLY FREAKING POWERFUL curative items) and oodles of cash and EXP pouring out of enemies like Pokemon games out of Lucard’s DS carrying case. Online play, however, is the exact opposite; you’ll find yourself grinding on more than a few occasions to get the money/EXP/items you need to do what needs doing, and even in large groups, higher level zones are appropriately challenging. Enemies also tend to behave in a more intelligent manner than they did in PSO (though not as intelligently as one would expect), which adds to the challenge. Overall, the game has a reasonable balance to it that, while it most likely won’t do anything to stand in the way of seasoned players, should provide some challenge to newcomers.

Balance Rating: 6/10


7. ORIGINALITY

It’s Phantasy Star Online with a more in-depth storyline. There are some mild variances, what with having your own home to play around with, the Partner Machine replacing MAGs, and the ability to change class and clothing and such, but beyond the cosmetics, it’s still the same PSO with a face lift and some new features. The new features do breathe some life into the concept, but let’s be honest here: the fact that the game is still, at it’s core, PSO, is by no means a bad thing. It doesn’t lend itself well to the Originality score, but frankly, if you’re at all a fan of PSO, you won’t care, and if you’re not, all the changes in the world won’t change your mind.

Originality Rating: 4/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

The story mode is about as addictive as one could imagine it to be. The first few chapters feel a little tiresome at times, but once the narrative picks up, the story mode becomes a lot more enjoyable. The online and extra modes, on the other hand, are highly addictive; if I didn’t have this review to write, I’d probably be playing right now. It’s a lot of fun to sit down and play with friends (or strangers, if you’re into that sort of thing), especially when you get to the point where you can lay waste to massive bosses like De Ragon as a group, and the constant ability to upgrade yourself, your equipment, and your partner robot all comes together to make this one of the most addicting games I’ve played all year.

Addictiveness Rating: 10/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

PSU, at its core, is an MMORPG of sorts for the console set, only with a fully functional single player experience built in. PSO fans should have absolutely no trouble getting into PSU and enjoying themselves, but for those who didn’t like PSO, PSU doesn’t really do enough to instantly be appealing, or to win them over. Fans of the .Hack games, Dark Alliance, or similar dungeon-hack experiences will most likely find a lot to love about PSU as well, though conversely, those who hate said experiences won’t love much here. As an MMO game, PSU allows you to make progress independent of party play and offers a lot of things to see and do, so those who find most MMO’s too hardcore will find much to love here, but for fans of World of Warcraft or City of Heroes, there’s less to do in PSU than in those titles. If you don’t fall into any of those categories… um… it’s simple to play and easy to find others to play with, so if you’re looking for something like that, PSU is right up your alley. If not, then you might want to pass.

Appeal Rating: 6/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


Under normal circumstances, I use this section to discuss the minor (or major) flaws in gameplay that constitute “bugs/glitches”, and use the rest of the space to espouse personal opinion as needed. This time around, however, my personal opinion of the title should be fairly obvious by the review, so let’s talk tech issues. There are a few, so we’ll need the space.

First and foremost, XBL microphone support is glitched out of the box. In many cases, you either can’t hear other players, or they can’t hear you, or a combination of the above. According to my own personal experience and that of other users, booting the system and logging into XBL before you boot up the game apparently solves this issue. That’s great, but that’s not really the point. The point is that A.) the game spent two weeks in beta prior to release, where this issue was also popping up amongst users, and B.) this will mark the second week the game has been available to the general public. As such, it bears noting that this is a problem, and most likely will be for some time.

Second, the chat filter when using the keyboard is fundamentally flawed. This is an issue that relates to all versions of the game, not just the 360 version, so for those of you who are following along for a PS2 or PC impression, this concerns you too. Since you can’t speak to other players via headset except when in parties, the keyboard (or soft keyboard, barring that) will be a necessity for some conversation. The chat filter, however, is designed in such a fashion as to be difficult to work with. Now, I understand the need to filter standard profanities and other such offensive language, that’s hardly an issue. But when one is prohibited from typing “get it” because it spells out “tit”, that’s broken. In several cases, things I’ve written have been completely obscured (as in, whole communications) because of some obscure word I wasn’t aware of being spelled out somewhere in the dialogue. Having to re-type your dialogue, word for word, being careful to look for the offending passage… it’s lame, okay? It’s really, really lame. The complete and utter inability to turn off the chat filter doesn’t help matters, either; if I’m old enough that I’ve heard a bad word at some point in my life, I doubt someone cursing in general chat is going to offend me, and if it does, I’ll report it. Since players can pretty much say what they want through mic chat, I fail to see what the point of this super-restrictive chat filter even was. And they’re adding words to it on a daily basis, which says to me that, regardless of the fact that it’s easy to add words to a filter, their priorities rest on censoring words more than, say, fixing the broken mic support. Given the choice between not seeing profanity and having working mics in party chat, well, I think you can safely make your own choice of preference.

And finally, server issues have plagued (at least) the 360 version since launch. From a personal standpoint, every other day I’m given an interrupt message when I attempt to log into the server; this is resolved by disconnecting and reconnecting, usually, but that’s not the point. The point is that, from a launch perspective, this is very unfortunate, as it makes the game look a lot less functional than it should be.

And that’s really the point I’m getting at here, you know. PSU is a fun game. It’s pretty much guaranteed to be in my console more than any other game I’ve played this year, barring MAYBE Oblivion. I can’t say enough good things about how much fun it is, or how long I spend playing it per night, or how long I’m going to keep playing it. And yet… it is flawed functionally, in ways that make the game more frustrating than it should be. I am fully confident that these errors will eventually be addressed, but that’s not the issue; the issue is that these problems besmirch an otherwise great title, and that’s a shame.

Miscellaneous Rating: 4/10

The Scores:
Story: 5/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 8/10
Control/Gameplay: 6/10
Replayability: 10/10
Balance: 6/10
Originality: 4/10
Addictiveness: 10/10
Appeal: 6/10
Miscellaneous: 4/10

Overall Score: 6.5/10
Final Score: 6.5 (FAIR).

Short Attention Span Summary
PSU ends up being not as good as the sum of its parts. The online experience is a fun (if costly) experience that you’ll find enjoyment in for quite a while, but the single player modes aren’t so addictive. Still, there’s fun to be had within them, and even with the issues the game has, it’s still a very solid piece of software. Worth a rental for the single player, very much worth owning for the online. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got my Dual Palasch, so I’m off to take on Sleeping Warriors yet again.