Review: Phantasy Star Portable (Sony PSP)

Phantasy Star Portable
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Alfa System
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 03/04/2009


PSP on the well, PSP was the 14th best selling game in Japan back in 2008, and although it lacks the DLC option of the Japanese, it’s finally come Stateside, giving a lot of PSP owners the first real A-list game of 2009. PSP is based off of Phantasy Star Universe and its expansion. I was mainly interested in this game because it was developed by Alfa System and produced by Sonic Team. Alfa System gave us the all too awesome Time Gal, the Castle Shikigami series, including last years CS III and the highly underrated rail shooter Elemental Gearbolt.

I’m not really a fan of the online RPG’s. I hesitate to call PSP a MMORPG, simply because you can only have a party of four people at a time playing, but the original Phantasy Star Online was the precursor to things like Everquest and World of Warcraft. I had a lot of fun with the original PSO, but far less fun with the remakes and the card based PSO III for the Game Cube. Besides PSO, the only real fun I’ve ever had with an online RPG was Dungeons and Dragons: Online and that was mainly because a lot of my friends got the game and we all played together. Even then the enjoyment was only for a month or so. What brought me to Phantasy Star Portable was the need for a new quality game for my PSP that wasn’t a turned based or SRPG and the fact that several of my friends and a few of my staff here at DHGF were going to pick this up due to some heavy Phantasy Star based nostalgia incurred by Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection.

So how was PSP? Sega promised an all new story mode for the game and some pretty big changes from PSU. Was it as fresh and fun as experience as the original Phantasy Star Online was nearly a decade ago, or has this type of game been left behind by more modern online games?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Phantasy Star Portable’s story is fairly generic. Your protagonist is chosen from four races, two genders and three (to start) classes. None of that really matters story wise, as regardless of your choices, you are the typical mute main character from the old school 8 and 16-bit RPG’s. Some races to get one or two extra decisions to make throughout the game, but these are pretty rare and inconsequential in the scheme of things.

Your main character is a rookie member of the GUARDIANS. You are paired with a new CAST (robot) named Vivienne and together you two start off with a simple recon mission leading to the discovery that a malevolent life form known as SEED is not as extinct as the GUARDIANS assumed. Even worse, it seems that a mysterious woman in black is aiding the return of the SEED in new and deadly forms. As you go through the game you’ll be able to make several subtle choices that have some pretty strong consequences leading you to one of several endings.

Besides the main story, you have your free missions where you can team up with AI controlled partners or you can engage in multiplayer missions if you have friends that also possess a copy of PSP.

In all, the story is nothing fancy. It’s basically a no-frills JRPG with no real character development save for the grown of Vivienne under your character’s watch. Thankfully, the game makes the most of what it has by throwing in a few comic moments and trying to make the mystery of the SEED’s return a compelling one. The game’s plot is serviceable enough and it’s leaps and bounds over the original PSO’s plot, which really didn’t have one.

Story Rating: Decent

2. Graphics

I actually really liked the graphics in this game. The colours were bright and crisp, with nicely rendered backgrounds and level designs. Character design options were plentiful and I really enjoyed the mix and match options open to me. I was able to make both a decent Optimus Prime and a nearly spot-on Jushin “Thunder” Liger, although both had to be CASTS in order for me to do that.

I was also a fan of the many cut scenes that are in the game. Most of which involve flying to another planet or the introduction and/or death of a boss character. Oddly enough there are a lot of dragon-looking bosses, but they are all large and impressive.

I only encountered an issue with slowdown once in the game and that involved being in first-person mode while shooting at some killer flying penguin like creatures. The game crawled to almost a standstill and for a second I thought it was going to crash. Interestingly enough, I never encountered slowdown in multiplayer mode – although that may be because of my FIOS connection.

In all, Phantasy Star Portable is one of the prettiest games I’ve played on my PSP. From the myriad of colours to the well designed monsters and allies, PSP is a fine example of what the PSP can do.

Graphics Rating: Very Good

3. Sound

I really love the opening track to this game. It’s fast paced, frantic, and very catchy. Sadly, the music goes downhill from there. Now I don’t mean that the score is bad by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just fairly generic and forgettable. I found the game more enjoyable with the music off and my Itunes on.

The same can be said for the voice acting. While nothing here is say, Resident Evil bad, it’s also not very good. The actors deliver their lines without any real emotion or feeling, and because you can read the dialogue at the bottom of the screen faster than they can speak it, you’ll be pressing X to advance the story rather than waiting to hear the actors recite their lines.

Monsters and sound effects again follow the pattern of doing the bare minimum to get by. Almost all the guns make the same noise as each other, even though there are nine different types of firearms. Only the grenade launcher family really has a different sound to it. Hand to hand combat is better, but not by much.

The aural aspects of PSP is definitely its weakest area. Although it is not awful or anything that will make most gamers cringe, it’s just merely mediocre with no real effort put into this aspect. Pity.

Sound Rating: Mediocre

4. Control and Gameplay

Controls differ wildly dependent on what you play as. If you are playing as a melee characters, then the game is a straight hack and slash button masher with the only real thought process needed for playing is changing your photon art. Photon arts are powers that have a specific type (like fire or ice attributes) and have specific secondary effects that can occur (Like poisoning or putting an opponent to sleep). Melee weapons work just fine without these, although it is advisable that you link at least one art to a weapon. If you are playing a Ranger (gun toting character), then you HAVE to have a photon art linked to your weapon or it won’t work.

As well, Rangers will have a better time using their weapons in first person mode, although you can move with this viewpoint active. If you fire guns from the third person view, they tend to do less damage and it’s harder to lock-on. However, some guns won’t let you use first person mode, while others won’t let you shoot outside of it. As you won’t know this until trying the guns out, this can be a bit of an irritant.

Forces are the equivalent of magic users, and they just aren’t very good in this game. Your tech points are usually too low to attack as often as Rangers or Hunters of the same level, and damage usually isn’t as impressive. Basically a Force is best used as a healer or if you are going for one of the three prestige classes that require Force levels. They’re too slow and too weak.

Since we’re on the subject of levels, I should mention that everything has levels and gains experience points. Your Photon arts gain levels (up to level 20) and your character gains two different types of levels. The first is your overall level which is raised by killing things. This level determines your overall stat growth. The second type of level you can gain is in reference to your battle type, or what you probably know better as a character class. You can change class types freely in between missions, and the farther you progress in a class the more likely a prestige class like Gunmaster or Aeromaster will ipen up to you, allowing you access to better weapons and stat growth. Your type levels only go up after successful completion of a story mission or the optional side missions. And as such, your character may be say, level 15, but your class type might only be a level 8 Ranger. It can get complicated and unwieldy at first, but after you notice how both level and type gain experience independently from each other, you’ll be able to easily understand how to max out your stats.

The actual gameplay itself is quite nice. It’s a standard 3-D action RPG with the camera normally positioned behind your character, although you do have a full 360 axis on which to control the camera with via the D-pad. The L trigger is also a soft reset, which can help during a big battle.

Besides running and killing, you’ll be making constant use of the action palette. You press the O button to bring up the palette and from here, you can use the D pad to select a new weapon or healing item. However, the game has no pause, so everything is done in the heat of the battle or after you’ve cleared a screen of enemies. Often you will find yourself lamenting the ability to pause the game, especially if someone comes to the door or you have to go to the bathroom, but that’s what the ability to use the “hold” aspect of the power button is for.

I was quite happy with the overall gameplay of Phantasy Star Portable. There is a bit of a learning curve with the action palette as it’s outside the realm of most other action RPG’s, but once you pick up how to use it and you get used to the inability to pause the game, you’ll find PSP flows quite smoothly and that there are only a few minor issues, such as bosses turning transparent when they get close to you or the issues with first Vs. third person mode with a few Ranger weapons.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

You can get a lot of use out of PSP. Not only are their multiple endings in Story Mode, but you have so many different options for new characters on your next playthrough, that you’ll wrack your brain thinking of all the neat combinations and if they would work well together or not. You also have a staggering amount of side missions you can embark on, some of which are longer and more challenging than the main missions that advance the story.

Unlike PSO for the Dreamcast, you don’t really have to worry about the death of servers with PSP, which is another added bonus. You can also unlock titles, which are equivalent to PS3 trophies. This was a nice little surprise, and it is made even better by getting special rare items when you earn each title.

You also get a partner at the beginning of the game that is a CAST sidekick. Each model has a different A.I. (supposedly) and abilities, and you can change this at any time, giving you another opportunity to replay the game and even the same mission back to back with different effects.

I was impressed with how much there was to do in this game, how long (and deep) story mode was, and how much replay value this title packed. Phantasy Star Portable is a lot of fun, both on your ownn and with friends, and it’s certainly a game worth coming back to multiple times over.

Replayability Rating: Great

6. Balance

Here’s where the game falls apart. The problem is that there is no A.I. at all, for you opponents OR allies. Your opponents will use a set pattern every time, unable or unwilling to deviate in the slightest, even if you are nowhere near them. This makes the game exceptionally easy…or does it?

Remember how I said there is no A.I. for your allies. Well it’s true. They are completely unable to take initiative. They will just stand by you like lemmings, only attack if a monster gets too close to them or if you run up and attack. If you are playing as a hunter, that’s fine. If you are playing as a Ranger, you might as well be fighting by yourself. Your A.I. controlled partners will stand in front of you, obscuring your vision and thus your shots. Even worse, because you are a long distance fighter and all of your allies are melee oriented and crowding around you, it means enemies with a wide spread attack will always hit you considering the other targets never leave your side. It’s really awful and damn near shameful that this was allowed to occur. I’m shocked they didn’t put in the ability to give your CPU controlled partners commands ala Guardian Heroes or other games of this nature. Forces nsuck to play as and the computer sucks as a partner if you’re a Ranger. It really feels like PSP was designed ONLY for the hunter class in mind, and that’s just stupid.

Thankfully the saving grace of the game is the ability to replay side missions at different levels, the fact monsters can gain levels, and that boss battles are long and somewhat challenging because they can hit multiple opponents and oh look….all of your squad is in one giant cluster because there is no sense of tactical combat strategy to this game. Le sigh.

I may sound pretty irate here, but trust me, I think this game is a lot of fun. Just realize that the game is not only out of balance due to A.I. issues, but the fact the game bends over backwards to give hunters a very easy time while Forces and Rangers have special issues to deal with.

Thank god I can play side missions by myself or with my only A.I. partner being a healer that does nothing but.

Balance Rating: Bad

7. Originality

Although this isn’t a direct port of Phantasy Star Universe and its expansion, a case can be made that it is somewhat the same game. However, PSI forced you to play as a particular character, Ethan Waber, and it had locked out content that you had to pay for, PSP is not only a superior game in terms of play friendliness and a better story mode, but after reading multiple reviews of Phantasy Star Universe and its odd item issues and the partner machinery that it used, PSP seems like it’s more an attempt to get back to basics and pattern itself after the original PSO rather than PSU. That’s refreshing to me and probably while I enjoyed my time with PSP so much.

That being said, there have been more than a half dozen Phantasy Star Online games, and a ton of other old school PS games as well. Neither Sega nor the new developer for PSP, Alfa Games, have bothered to try anything new or innovative. Instead, PSP is practically the same game that came out a decade ago, albeit in a portable format and with updated graphics and a story mode. PSP isn’t an attempt at a quick buck off of desperate PSP fans in search of a new game to help give the system new life, but again, I couldn’t fault someone for making that assumption after playing this.

Originality Rating: Bad

8. Addictiveness

Phantasy Star Portable was a really fun experience and was easily the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer PSP game. It’s a nice combination of nostalgia and relief over your now human controlled partners making intelligent decisions instead of waking up to the floating mine or standing next to you when you are a sniper and they have a sword.

I was able to spend hours traversing dungeons with no problem. Whenever a new side missions opened up, I went right for it. The return of the random item dropping made the game all the more exciting, and I loved getting my own hovering Dreamcast trailing behind me, or finding my first S-Class weapon. I love my action RPG’s when they are done right, and Phantasy Star Portable was no exception.

Because your game of PSP won’t be littered with random strangers with bad grammar or bad attitudes ala MMORPG’s, you’ll find your PSP party to be made up of long time friends, or at the very least, people you can’t hear or that won’t type inane gibberish onto your screen.

PSP is definitely a game that will keep you glued to your PSP. On two separate occasions I played until the PSP’s battery gave out. Thankfully both times were during solo play so as not to screw my friends over.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

9. Appeal Factor

The great thing about the original Phantasy Star Online is that anyone and everyone could enjoy it. It was that perfect mix of hack n’ slash and JRPG that let you play the game with a smile on your face regardless of your genre preferences. The online stopping you was that you needed your Dreamcast hooked up to the internet and later on, you had to pay a monthly fee. This is common place now (I argue it shouldn’t be) but it was a big deal back then.

With PSP, all you have to pay for is the $39.99 game, and then you can play with your friends as often as you like for free thanks to the magic of the PSP’s ad hoc system. My how far we’ve been able to come.

Aside from a bit of annoyance with the A.I. and the fact PSP costs about ten dollars more than the average PSP game these, there’s a lot here to enjoy. You get a real time action, several different ways to level up, and a great game to play with your friends. With the game being free to play, you have all the advantages of the earlier PSO games, but with none of the disadvantages.

Honestly, if you own a PSP and you haven’t picked up anything new for it, give PSP a try. You just might find yourself with a pleasant surprise.

Appeal Factor: Good

10. Miscellaneous

Although a bit pricey, PSP gives you a nice game to play with your friends along with a solid single player mode where you can build up your character, earn titles, and kill a lot of strange monsters. It’s the best Phantasy Star has been since the original PSO for the Dreamcast and it’s a game that can be appreciated by not only fans of the online incarnation, but also gamers like myself, who place the original turn based quartet on a pedestal.

PSP offers an amazing amount of content, some really fun multiplayer content, and a lot of nice customizable options to help you build exactly the type of character you want to play as. It’s pretty, has a passable story, and offers you the button mashing goodness we haven’t had at this quality level since Dark Alliance 2

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story/Modes: Decent
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Great
Balance: Bad
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

Phantasy Star Portable is a fun little action RPG that combines the best aspects of a hack n’ slash game with all the bits that made the original Phantasy Star Online a smash hit. The story may be a little trite and the musical score is easily forgettable, but this is the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer game on the PSP. It’s not quite a system seller, but if you and any of your friends own a PSP, then by all means, pick this up and get a team together to kill some SEED infested monsters!