Release Date: October 24, 2006
There's a reason this review hasn't appeared until now. When Phantasy Star Universe released, it was literally half a game. Now, it's about 2/3 of a game, and I'm far too impatient to wait for any more content to come out. So, now that the substantial amount of content that was unlocked on the 17th has been around long enough for people to play it a little, it seems like as good a time as any to write a permanent, non-Web 2.0 review for the game.
With that said, now couldn't be a more appropriate time to discuss the major controversy surrounding the game: locked content. We'll just get it out of the way right from the start, and continue with the review as normal, okay?
There is no downloadable content. It is all on the disc already. You just can't access it.
So why is this a problem? Honestly, I don't think it is at all. Perhaps some see it as an affront to pay $50 for a game and another $10 for the monthly fee, but I completely sympathize with Sonic Team's plan to release content piece by piece. Obviously, it creates excitement to have new content open up, even if our mild Gamer OCD makes our eyes twitch with anger every time we think about all of the content on the disc to which we don't have access. Think about any recent PC MMO, though, and you'll see this business plan put to good use. For one, it paces players and keeps them from burning out on the game permanently before paying for an extra month. Besides, few people complain about this model on the PC, and for a console without a standard hard drive, it could be seen as a friendly favor that this content was put on the disc. No downloads! (How's that for spin?)
For the sake of the longevity of PSU, I think we should support this concept. Besides, we didn't even have to wait a month for a massive chunk of new content to release, including an entirely new planet around which to run. This is seemingly an artificial method to keep people from leveling up too fast, but if you've read many forums discussing the game, a great deal of serious players hit the level cap long before the November 17th update. Given the slower grind in PSU – when compared to the Dreamcast and Gamecube PS games, at least – this is kind of shocking. These are the people who would have burned through the entire title in two months and left forever. Would it really be in our best interest to have a sizable chunk of an online community ditch the game early on?
The only downside to all this is that PC players won't receive the amount of content and upgrades to which they are accustomed. Going by history, Sonic Team isn't even going to try to supply basic patches to fix small glitches and help along compatibility, and some glitches, including some problems getting the game to run without the specific version of Direct-X included on the disc, have been commonly reported but not addressed professionally in any way. That, and the fact that the controls are not optimized in any way for PC play (as they were even with PSO and Blue Burst!), might turn off some potential players.
Personally, I got used to the keyboard controls very quickly, although I have adjusting issues with it whenever I transition to the PC version (which I use when I want to play side-by-side with a friend, which is possible because characters are now server-side, and work on both platforms). Sadly, the Xbox 360 version has its own servers, and while I'm excited that that version has true worldwide compatibility, I'd like to at least have the option to use my PS2/PC character on that platform, even if I can't play with the same people. But really, after the console-only Dreamcast and Gamecube versions, who am I to complain about losing just one platform with a much smaller community? For those of us trying to get away from the PS2 version's blurry, low-resolution look, the PC version is probably the way to go. You can plug in a wired 360 controller for the full experience, if you'd like.
Now that all of the initial complaints are out of the way, let's get down to business.
For the uninitiated, PSU is a state-based online RPG. It's not an MMO, despite what you've probably heard from uninformed gamers. Think Diablo with enormous lobbies in which live players mill about. Think Guild Wars. But please, don't think in terms of World of Warcraft. You'll be either disappointed or enlightened to realize that PSU does not work on that big of a scale.
PSU is a completely new, reset world, with no direct connections to PSO Episodes 1 through IV. Story-wise, it goes great lengths to be much more accessible than previous PS games. The gameplay, however, is a great example of how to evolve without losing any of the core concepts.
PSO was driven by a rhythm-based, three-part combo system. As wonderful as that sounds, once the rhythm part was mastered (which took all of five minutes to do), this boiled down much of the gameplay to pressing the same button in groups of three for hundreds of hours on end, nothing to interrupt the monotony but a few well-placed spells and heavy-attacks.
PSU is all about speed and customizability. There is no rhythm system; you can jam the buttons to your heart's content without interrupting your combo. Better yet, each weapon can be linked with special skills, which can be leveled up individually. For most melee weapons, the link skill is the equivalent to the heavy attack from PSO, but with evolving abilities, including second and third parts of the attacks. So, using twin knives, you can do up to four standard attacks without a break, and with the knife skill at level 10, you can use the heavy attack skill two times without interruption. That's about 10 opportunities to deal damage in a single combo!
You won't be able to plug away with these combos forever, though. Each time a skill is used, or, in the case of long-range weapons and magic-casting weapons, any time any type of attack or spell is used, Photon Points (PP) are drained. Individual weapons have their own PP charge, which is a pretty strong case for carrying multiple, high-quality weapons on every mission. There are PP charging stations around just about every corner of every city, but not every mission contains them, and when they do, they usually don't appear until long after you've drained most of the weapons in your inventory. And the kicker: it costs quite a bit of meseta – Phantasy Star currency – to charge up.
This brings us to a very important point, one that I think many reviewers have glossed over: Meseta matters in PSU, and I think that's an incredible accomplishment. Even in the pre-hacked incarnations of PSO, meseta had little impact on the overall economy of the game. Now, with PP costs to deal with, the ante is kicked up a little bit.
So how does one obtain as much meseta as possible? Here's where PSU takes the team-play concept far beyond anything seen in the genre before: performance rankings. Depending on how long a player has participated in a mission, how many enemies were killed, and whether or not any players died, a grade is assigned: C, B, A, and the coveted S Rank. Depending on the mission, a different reward scale is used, but there is enough of a gap between each rating that S Rank is really the only way to go. A few hundred more meseta goes a long way, but more importantly, there is absolutely nothing more irritating than not getting enough Mission Points (MP) from a run because somebody decided to end the mission before all of the enemies were killed.
MP are applied to the Class level for each character, with a max level of 10. Each Class Up gives a small upgrade to the base stats relevant to the class in question, be it Ranger (long-range attacks), Hunter (melee attacks) or Force (technics). Each race has a default class, which can be changed at any time – for a fee (yet another reason to waste away meseta!). All previous MP are reserved for the unused class, but are not applied to the new class, so you'll have to start at level one all over again when changing.
You should also be very careful with which races you change classes. A Cast – PS talk for robots – might not make the best Force, and the lesson I learned the hard way: A Newman – PS talk for elves – doesn't make for a very good Ranger. My Force Newman, BLOODBLOODBLOOD (I can't make serious names in these games anymore), made the transition to Ranger on a whim, and is now completely unable to deal enough damage to kill anything but the lowest of the low-level enemies. It's taking forever to level up thanks to getting nothing but residual experience instead of the final hit bonus I'm used to enjoying at least once in a while, but I'm glad I experimented with this anyway. Better yet, I'm preparing my psyche for the upcoming cross-class update, which will allow characters with mastered classes to add a secondary class to their repertoire, without losing the bonuses of their primary job. I'm determined to create the perfect Force/Ranger character.
The biggest change between PSO and PSU is the item system. Weapons are available in shops, just as before, but during missions, they rarely – and I mean rarely – appear in a completed form. Mostly, you'll find hundreds of materials with which to create weapons and items long before running into a complete, usable product. This is where the Partner Machinery (PM) comes in. Each character has a personal, customizable room, which is inhabited by a small, evolving robot, similar to the Mags from PSO. The big differences: it takes them much longer to level up, they don't follow you around, they don't have anything to do with modifying your base stats (that's void is filled by the Class Level), and they can't be used in battle until they hit level 80.
Mostly, you'll use them in your Room to synthesize items, using materials and recipe sets called Boards. Depending on the item, they will either be finished immediately or take a set amount of time to synthesize, ranging from one minute to a few hours of real time. Boards are not entirely rigid, either; some materials, mainly the elemental photons, can be customized to change the abilities of the weapons. If you want a Dark weapon for a run through the Relics, where there are lots of enemies imbued with Light, pop in the right photon, and hope your PM is in a good mood when it synthesizes the item.
PMs are also the hosts of player-run shops. Players find shops by using a powerful search engine, which indexes items, character names, and the contents of the shop ads. Stores work exactly as they should: any items can be sold, at any price that the player chooses. Initially, before the value of items was solidified, the shops were the perfect way to get expensive, rare items for much cheaper. Now, most players push the prices as high as possible, but as always, the internet community has come to the rescue, and there are many resources that list good and bad sellers. As for low-ticket items, while many greedy or sardonic shop-owners throw on exorbitant price tags, usually it's easy to find a few healing items for rock-bottom prices, which is a good thing to know for new characters who don't want to drop thousands of meseta into healing items just because they got stuck playing with a bad Force who doesn't heal.
The community so far has proven to be somewhat disappointing compared to PSO – or, at least, the Dreamcast and Gamecube versions. The PC community seems to make up a great deal of the population, if not the majority. I'm not biased against the platform in any way – in fact, all the guys I regularly hit the missions with except for one are PC players – but it seems like the MMO grind crowd has a big presence on PSU. That means you'll end up with a lot of party members running through stages and ruining the rank because they're trying to get to the next area for level-grind hotspots. Obviously, there are a lot of PS2 players who are doing exactly the same thing, but it definitely feels like people with a specific "point A to point B" level-grind mindset are much more common than ever before.
The plus side is, these players will move on to the next big MMO within a few months, and the players who are left – PS2 or PC – will be a much different, and hopefully better community. These players are in full force at the moment, with so many people back in action to run around on the new planet, Moatoob, and especially all of the new missions on Parum (where most of the level-grinding takes place), but in another few weeks, when everybody's at level 50, things should relax again, and not so many early missions will be overrun by hijackers.
Despite some ho-hum early reviews, which weren't entirely false, I think PSU has shaped up to be a great, balanced, deep state-based online RPG, with so much more to micromanage than simple level-ups that it is obviously far beyond what PSO had to offer. Many startling problems remain, including a horribly executed "weekly anime"-style single-player mode (complete with a theme song and "next week on Phantasy Star Universe!" trailer at the end of each chapter!), which is marred by terrible voice acting and all-around irritating characters. I'd take the old "barely there!" story of PSO over this mess. Generally, the graphic design just isn't as nice as the original Online series. Maligned though it was (I personally enjoyed it), Episode III had some of the best 2D design this generation of consoles has seen, right down the loading screens and item menus. PSU is unattractive, and it seems like some important 2D design staffers are no longer present at Sonic Team or just didn't work on this project.
So really, Phantasy Star Universe, as a continuation of PSO themes, is mostly a failure where storytelling, visual, even audio (!) presentation are concerned – and after the fantastic PSO soundtrack, as tired of hearing it as I became a few hundred hours in, that PSU couldn't at least match that is surprising, and detrimental to those of us too lazy to turn off the sound and turn on a podcast! Most of this can be swept under the rug for the sake of experiencing the vastly improved gameplay, which actually demands the use of brain cells this time around. Gameplay is paramount, and I would say that PSU is a better game than the original, but not necessarily up to the same level of quality. If you're a fan, you don't need me to tell you to be here, but if you're new, please mull over the contents of this review, and think: Does micromanaging in an action RPG sound fun? If so, this is the best console game for that. PC gamers have much better options, but if you're looking for a more hands-on take on the concept, at least give this one a month of your time.
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