Developer: Alfa System
Release Date: March 3, 2009
Sega's Phantasy Star series has had a pretty interesting history. Premiering on the Sega Master System, the first game was an RPG set in a sci-fi world where the universe's fate depended on the actions of a party consisting of beings, each of a different species. With a story that was deeply engaging and emotional, Master System owners proudly flaunted it over their NES brethren, since it was something that no game on the competing system ever had. When the Sega Genesis debuted, so did the sequel, which carried the same type of combat and story depth into the 16-bit era. The next two games after the 16-bit debut, Phantasy Star III and Phantasy Star IV, were equally as good and brought about multiple endings to the series as well as a sense of finality to the game.
While the series lay dormant during the Sega Saturn era, it came back for the Sega Dreamcast but in a completely different form. Phantasy Star Online was the first RPG from a Japanese company to take the game online. It also ditched the traditional turn-based system in favor of a real-time system, and it completely did away with most of the story from the franchise, choosing to only keep intact the sci-fi setting and the worlds from the series. The change was a polarizing one. Some fans loved the direction that the game was heading toward, while others hated it and wished that the game would go back to its roots. After a brief stint on the Nintendo GameCube and Xbox as well as a sequel appearing on the Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 2, Phantasy Star Portable comes to the Sony PSP. The question for PSP owners is whether Sega's flagship RPG series fits in well with the other games on the system or feels out of place instead.
Phantasy Star Portable is a direct sequel of both Phantasy Star Universe and Phantasy Star Universe: Ambition of the Illuminus. You play a recent graduate of the Guardians, a group of peacekeepers for the Gurhal System. On your initial mission, you get partnered up with the latest CAST (android) model named Vivienne and must investigate a disturbance in a fully automated plant, where the machines have gone out of control. By the end of the mission, you discover that this may have been the work of terrorists that are using biological weaponry, much like the SEED threat of the previous games. Your overall mission is to stop the terrorists and wipe out the threat once and for all.
For those who have played the recent Phantasy Star titles, this will instantly feel familiar to you. If not, this will feel a bit different from the other Japanese RPGs on the system. Instead of being a turn-based affair, the game takes a real-time action stance. Enemies are automatically seen and combat happens just like any other third-person action game. The action takes place in various outdoor environments and futuristic dungeons separated by doors or gates. For comparison purposes, the game is a lot like the Monster Hunter games, where you go and complete various quests to help the story progress.
Phantasy Star Portable is more focused on action too, although you can ditch the side activities, such as learning how to cook, in order to put more emphasis on combat. There are some activities here, such as weapon crafting, but it is a more simplified affair. The title also features decent partner AI for your quests. It's nothing extraordinary, since they have a bad habit of not doing much in combat, but they also have good item management skills. More often than not, the AI was good enough to keep the user alive but not smart enough to immediately fight back when getting hit.
One big change from the console versions is the world map. In the PS2 game, the hub worlds were actually living, breathing environments where the user could physically walk to each store and building and interact with anyone willing to talk. The sheer amount of people walking around each hub world made each level feel alive. On the PSP version, however, this has all been reduced to static maps and menus. Players have to point to areas in a map and hit the X button to transport themselves there. The same thing happens in stores, where the user has to find the merchant icon, click it, and instantly go through menus to find the items they want to sell or buy. The change here feels a bit unfamiliar at first, and talking to icons instead of seeing 3-D avatars feels a bit cheap. Upon further use of the system, however, you can see that this was a better design choice for a portable title. Less time is spent gathering information and more time is spent actually playing the game and getting into combat. The new system also makes information gathering a breeze, since the colors for each icon also tell you if the pedestrians have important information to divulge. In the end, the change is welcome, considering that the game is quite lengthy for a portable RPG.
With all of the good things that can be said about the title, some negative things have to be said as well. Phantasy Star Portable doesn't know how to pause (more on that later), and the whole game feels recycled. Yes, this is a direct sequel of the Phantasy Star Universe games, so it's expected that some characters and environments will appear once more, but it seems as if almost everything from the previous games was placed in this title in exactly the same order, only with a different story holding it together. All of the environments are the same, all of the enemies are the same, and even the musical score and theme song are exactly the same, though, to be fair, the theme song is a remix of the original. If you were expecting a majority of the game to be composed of new content, prepare to be disappointed.
The multiplayer game can be fun, but it feels a bit empty at the end. Unlike Phantasy Star Universe, the character you created in the single-player game can be imported into the multiplayer game and vice versa. This ensures that all of the loot and experience you gained while trudging through the story mode goes with you when you quest with friends, and all of the stuff you get from multiplayer also goes back to your single-player game. The game is a bit different, since you won't be going through any of the missions from the story mode. Instead, you and your party will go through all of the available side-quests. If you've already gone through these quests in the single-player mode, the reason to do it all over again in multiplayer is for the loot that's only available in this mode, so it's a great way to earn items and level up early. While the title is perfectly designed for multiplayer, it can only be played locally. There is no option available to play the game over the Internet with other PSP players. Considering that the games from the Dreamcast onward had Internet play and that the PSP was a system that was capable of online play from the beginning, this is indeed disappointing information.
The controls work rather well. The analog nub is used for character movement while the d-pad is for camera control. The Circle button brings up an items and weapons menu, while the Square and Triangle buttons handle their designated attacks. The L button handles lock-on, and the R-button becomes a trigger to activate a different attack set, depending on what weapons are chosen. The scheme is pretty similar to the console versions of the game and translates nicely to the portable version. What may throw people off here, as stated before, is the lack of a pause system. By default, holding down the Circle button and then using the d-pad to cycle through items and menus is done while the game is running. Hitting either the Start or Select button brings up options menus, but the game still runs when this is happening. This proved to be an annoyance for the console version when you're playing story mode, and it's made worse here due to the portable nature of the system. You can't take quick pauses if you want, forcing you to always place your system to sleep if you have to pause. It's certainly a major oversight for a portable game.
The graphics can be both good and underwhelming at times. As expected for most PSP games, the graphics in Phantasy Star Portable look exactly like the PS2 predecessors. During the time of the PS2 release, the backgrounds and character models were good, though not exactly breathtaking. Things fare better on the PSP screen, thanks to the screen size, which doesn't exactly beg for lots of high-polygon models all of the time. Player and monster models look rather good on the system, and there's enough detail to make them look good instead of a blurry mess. The same can be said of the special effects used; there's nothing amazing, but it's definitely not underwhelming.
The environments also tend to fluctuate between good and bad. The indoor environments don't feature a lot of variety, usually following one color scheme throughout the level, but they somehow aren't monotonous enough to cause to you to get lost in each level. The same goes for the outdoor areas, though there is a bad case of pop-in for the backgrounds. It's not unusual to see whole batches of trees suddenly appear when you take a few steps forward. Despite this, though, the frame rate is solid for the single-player experience, which is always a big plus for any game.
Too bad the same thing can't be said for the multiplayer experience. If there are only two players involved, the frame rate stays normal for both the host and the client. However, adding three or four players to the mix slows down everything for the host, giving him a lag-filled experience while the other clients are absolutely fine. As fun as the multiplayer can be, the lag hurts the experience significantly.
The sound in Phantasy Star Portable is quite good. The sound effects match the console versions quite well, with no noticeable loss in sound quality. The same goes for the music, though it is disappointing to see that they simply recycled all of the music from the console versions instead of introducing new material for this title. As for the voices, the good news is that the voices used here are the same ones used in the console game, and there are plenty of opportunities where voicework is used. Every returning character also has the appropriate voice actor reprising his or her role in this portable iteration. The bad news is that the voices were serviceable at best, so if you hated the voices in the console game, things don't get any better in the PSP version.
Phantasy Star Portable is a very interesting entry to the PSP RPG library due to the heavier focus on action. In this regard, it's more like the Monster Hunter series, since the emphasis is on raiding and multiplayer. An online component would have helped make this game stand out a bit more, as would a more stable ad-hoc connection when more than two people join a game. Despite all of this, it's still a fun title, and players who liked the previous Phantasy Star games will find a good amount to like here as well. As it stands, if you want a simpler version of Monster Hunter without the medieval themes, Phantasy Star Portable could be right for you.
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