Inside Pulse 12

Review: Phantasy Star Zero (Nintendo DS)

Phantasy Star Zero
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 11/10/2009

Phantasy Star Zero is both a misleading and a very fitting title. Misleading in the sense that it allows you to believe that this may in fact be a prequel to the original Phantasy Star on the Sega Master System. Or perhaps even a return to the Final Fantasy-esque gameplay that was so prominent in the series during the Genesis era. Sorry, old school gamers, but the odds of that happening are probably no greater than Sega deciding to make a third Shenmue game. In fact, one might even say that there would be a zero chance of that happening… see what I did there?

The reason I say the title is very fitting is the zero can be used to describe a number of things about it. Such as the fact that this game has gotten zero attention since its announcement. Or the fact that the number zero looks like the letter “O”, making the acronym for this title look very similar to that of Phantasy Star Online, the standard that this game tries very hard to mimic. In fact, I will refer to it as PSZ to avoid confusion. But the real question is, does it leave me with zero chance of having fun with it?

Let’s Review

Story/Modes

Phantasy Star Zero takes place on Earth a couple centuries after an event known as the Great Blank, which was essentially a war between three great races that left civilization in ruins. The remnants of the human race are slowly rebuilding their cities in hopes of repopulating the world. Unfortunately, the remaining habitable areas on the planet are also occupied by monsters which must be taken down by Hunters. This is where you come in.

When you begin the game, you will be asked to create your character. Your decision of which race and gender to play as will slightly alter the storyline and dialogue that will be presented to you throughout the game. However, regardless of which choices you make, you will ultimately be visiting the same areas throughout the course of the story and your overall experience probably will not be altered too much. In other words, three playthroughs are not likely to be merited here.

Much of the story is told through static pictures and text – a lot of it – although some anime cutscenes are thrown in to mix things up. The multiplayer Phantasy Star games have never been known to weave a very interesting story, and this game doesn’t do too much to change that. There is a lot of potential here with some of the twists that the storyline takes towards the end of the game, but by the time you get the far, the pointless dialogue will probably have worn you down too much to care. Even the side quests have a seemingly endless supply of text for you to wade through just to realize that all you are doing is back tracking through an area you’ve already been to just to kill the same boss over again. If you have the patience to read through all the crap that is thrown your way, you will find that there is actually some decent characterization for some of the people that join your party. But if you’re like me, and would rather skim past meaningless dialogue, then it will likely not mean much to you.

Since the main character is created by the player, his or her role in the game is restricted to that of the silent protagonist. And the only interaction that they will have with the other characters is a few limited dialogue choices that seem to have very little impact on the overall flow of the story. As a result, despite doing all of the grunt work during the hunter missions, you will probably feel very detached from the characters and the narrative, and will likely treat all of the quests that you embark on as nothing more than World of Warcraft level tasks that are merely there to lead you into combat and level up your character.

After completing the game for the first time, you have the option of going back through all the missions again on hard mode. There is no added story value for doing this, but it does give you the opportunity to keep playing after the main story has ended in order to challenge some much higher level enemies. There are also some additional side missions that unlock after your first playthrough.

Besides the story mode, you also have the option to play multiplayer either locally or over the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection. It’s interesting to note that the missions that you tackle in multiplayer mode are completely different than those found in the single player story. However, this does not mean that they are any more diverse, since they really just boil down to visiting whatever area the quest takes place in and killing the boss there for a reward. This is still a load of fun and will likely be your biggest time sink when playing this game.

Story/Modes Rating: Good

Graphics

It’s very difficult for me, after having recently played the PSP’s Phantasy Star Portable, to give this game high praise for looks. It’s certainly not a bad looking game. Quite the contrary, it’s actually pretty decent to look at. Especially when you first begin and are greeted by a gorgeous anime cutscene montage of exciting action sequences. However, when you put it up against other games on the console, such as Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days or even PSZ‘s predecessor, Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast, it seems like a small step backwards. This does not detract from the game in any way, and it actually has its own little charm that will rub off on you after awhile.

The main problem with the game’s appearance, is that everything seems rather pixelated when looking at it up close. That, and there’s not much variety between the various rooms of each world and the different character models. If there’s too much chaos going on onscreen, the game’s frame rate will take a plummet as well. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, expect it to throw off the timing of your melee combos.

On the flip side, there is a diverse selection of enemies to do battle with, possibly far more than PSO. And it is more than just a change in the color palette, which is always a bonus. There are also hundreds of different weapons to be looted throughout the game as well, and so far I haven’t found a single one that was similar in appearance to another. It’s hard to believe that with all of the equipment that can be obtained during the course of your adventure, that so many of them are very unique looking. It really makes it worthwhile to keep coming back to PSZ‘s world, just so that you can see what the next weapon you find looks like.

Graphics Rating: Good

Sounds

Veterans of Phantasy Star Online are going to feel right at home with the sound effects present in this game as many of them are lifted straight out of it. Everything from the menu sounds, to the little bleeps and bloops it makes when you loot gear or use items is familiar. It’s very nostalgic, to say the least, and definitely helps appeal to longtime fans of the series.

Nothing about the soundtrack is particularly memorable as it is typically drowned out by the sounds of combat. Some dramatic fantasy music or perhaps a hard rock theme would’ve been perfect background noise to some monster slaying. But alas, what’s there is overshadowed by weapon swinging, item collecting, and monster cries. There is a pretty theme song that plays at the conclusion of the game though that should serve as a reward for having seen the game through to the credits.

Sound Rating: Good

Control/Gameplay

I have to be honest, I really struggled with the controls at first. Part of this may be attributed to my decision to play a melee character as opposed to a caster, but regardless I had a lot of difficulty with the learning curve. In order to be effective as a melee character, you really have to grasp the timing of the different combos that you have at your disposal. You have a button mapped to a light attack and also one that is used for a heavy attack, and you can string together three hits of any combination of these two attacks. In order for said combo to be successful though, you must hit the button for your next attack at the end of your previous swing. This is very difficult if you are accustomed to button mashing in games and becomes even more so when you throw in the added element of different weapons with varying attack speeds. For my failures, I blame Phantasy Star Portable.

There’s also a button mapped to dodging, which is a nice ability to have in a pinch. You really have to be careful with this though, since after rolling out of the way of an attack, there is a slight delay before you can perform another action. You can also use the L button to block or center the camera or the R button to access another set hotkeys that you can supply with spells or items to aid you in battle. For some reason though, the X button is not used for anything in particular, so it seems like such a waste to not have that button as a way to hotkey more abilities.

If you decide to go online, the bottom screen is delegated to drawing out messages to your teammates in order to let them know everything from “congratulations” to “help me.” Yes, that’s right. The handheld with a built-in microphone requires that you draw messages to your teammates. Actually, I felt more sorry for my teammates, because they were the ones forced to decipher my terrible handwriting any time I needed something. Luckily, you can set up a few macros beforehand that will make things a bit easier in terms of getting your point across to someone, but nothing will ever truly replace good old fashioned voice chat.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Good

Replayability

The single player campaign will take you roughly twenty hours to complete the first time through. If you feel compelled to squeeze every ounce of storyline from this game, then by playing through with a character from each race will easily triple that for you. I was close to forty by the time I completed the campaign and the level cap in the game is one-hundred.. Also, by completing the story or by reaching a level threshold in multiplayer, you have the opportunity to unlock two more difficulty levels that further enhance the replay value. If you’re the kind of person who runs the same areas/dungeons/instances over and over again for a single piece of moderately improved loot in games like World of Warcraft and Diablo, then expect to feel right at home here. In short, there’s plenty to do.

Multiplayer further enhances this by creating a co-op game so compelling, that you won’t care that you’re running through the same areas over and over again. Watching each others’ backs while hunting for loot as well as working together to bring down tough bosses has never been done as well in a DS game as this one. This is easily the best multiplayer game I’ve ever played on a handheld system, and one I see myself coming back to over and over for a long time to come. For someone that after finishing a game, shelves it, and then moves on, that’s saying something.

Replayability Rating: Classic

Balance

The difficulty seems very uneven in some places. Even if you breeze through the enemies in an area, there will be occasions where the boss found there will really give you a rough time, especially when playing alone. Then there are some, particularly those you meet towards the middle of the game, that are little more than a joke. Some aren’t even really boss battles, they are just endurance matches between you and waves of some of the more difficult enemies that you may have encountered earlier in that area. The final boss just absolutely walked all over me, but there hasn’t been a Phantasy Star yet where this hasn’t been the case.

Some of the race/class combinations seem to have more of an advantage than others. For races, you have a choice between Humans, which are more balanced. Then you have Casts which have higher health and do more physical damage. Finally, the Newmans are more adept at magic and have more MP than the other classes. After choosing a race, you then have to pick from one of three classes: the token melee class, Hunter; a ranged, blaster wielding Ranger; and the healing, magic damage dealing Force. I chose a human hunter as my primary character and I felt as though I had a far more difficult time than my magic wielding friends. Perhaps it was because I chose a human and my damage potential was hampered due to lacking the specialization potential of the Cast. Or perhaps I’m just terrible at the game. Whatever the case, the goofy timing of the combos and the shoddy targeting system really took some getting used to.

One of the biggest advantages of playing multiplayer in this game is that the computer AI is only one step above worthless. Normally, I just like to pretend that they’re not even there so that when they do decide to throw a heal my way, I can feel like it was a lucky bonus rather than an expectation from competent computer controlled teammates. Actually, I take that back. It’s impossible to ignore their presence because their bodies block my screen so much that collecting loot is practically a chore. At least with some of the missions I can leave my CPU teammates behind so I can actually see what’s going on.

Balance Rating: Above Average

Originality

When Phantasy Star Online was first released, it was ahead of its time. It brought MMO style gameplay to consoles during a time when online play hardly existed on anything other than a PC. Other games in the series tried to capitalize on this success, such as Phantasy Star Universe and Phantasy Star Portable, but ultimately failed to please the core fans that made the original Dreamcast title such a classic.

Phantasy Star Zero tries to recapture that magic by moulding itself to better match the original game more so than the other games in the franchise have done. And it’s amazing how well the core gameplay holds up after all these years. So while this game doesn’t do anything particularly new or innovative for the series or the genre, what it does do is give you a firm reminder of what made the original great in the first place, only in a portable format.

Originality Rating: Great

Addictiveness

Simply put, once I started playing this game I had a difficult time putting it down. As I mentioned before, the game is built on mechanics that are almost a decade old. But by no means does that put this title at a disadvantage. So while the single player story may not be enough to merit a purchase, the multiplayer certainly is. Nothing beats hacking and slashing your way through exotic worlds collecting loot side by side with your friends. And each subsequent playthrough of each world is just as enjoyable as the last.

Addictiveness Rating: Classic

Appeal Factor

If you were a fan of Phantasy Star Online back in the day and you own a Nintendo DS, then you should buy this game, no questions asked. If you’re not at all familiar with Sega’s RPG franchise, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t appreciate this game. If you enjoy the multiplayer modes in games such as Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days or either of the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles games, then you will likely appreciate this title as well.

Appeal Rating: Classic

Miscellaneous

One of the major things that this game is lacking compared to say Phantasy Star Portable is its lack of customization. For example, as a human hunter I have no choice but to look like a prepubescent boy wearing a pair of shorts. And the only real customization I had was the style and color of my hair and the color of my clothes. I literally had an almost identical character to two of my friends the first time I played with them. It’s a good thing the weapons are unique, because the characters sure aren’t.

I really hope that with Nintendo’s next generation of consoles that the twelve digit friend codes will go away… forever. Seriously, nothing kills the gaming mood faster than having to plug in one of those monstrosities every time I want to add someone to my friends list. Also, I really wish there was a way to play Story mode while still being connected to Nintendo Wi-Fi so that I can advance the story while keeping an eye out for my friends logging in. This is more Nintendo’s fault than Sega’s for having a system in place that is the punchline of every online joke. I guess I should be fortunate that this game even has an online component considering the other portable PS game that I invested in, Phantasy Star Portable, does not.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story/Modes: Good
Graphics: Good
Sounds: Good
Controls/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Classic
Miscellaneous: Good
Final Score: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
If you’ve ever played Phantasy Star Online, or if you are a fan of multiplayer action RPG’s, then you must own this game. The single player storyline is weak, but the multiplayer component makes up for this in spades. If you can get past the ridiculous friend code system and the lack of voice chat, then what you have is easily the best cooperative DS game of all time. If you have friends that own this game, or even access to a wi-fi network, then I would highly recommend a purchase.

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