If you grew up during the release and short-lived popularity of Sega Dreamcast system, chances are that you've heard of a little gem called Phantasy Star Online, which was Sega's attempt to revitalize one of its earliest role-playing game franchises that fizzled out after the fourth entry on the Sega Genesis. Phantasy Star Online was one of the earliest instances of a massively multiplayer online RPG and certainly the first of its kind on a console. This was due in part to Sega's early focus on the Dreamcast in regards to online play, and the end result was a pretty big success for a lot of fans. Since then, Sega has been trying to recapture the magic of the original title. The GameCube port did quite well, but the newer editions, Phantasy Star Universe and its add-ons for the Xbox 360, didn't quite hit the same mark. Phantasy Star Portable on the PSP was a pretty solid attempt, but it lacked the online feature of its predecessors and only supported up to four players via local play.
The newest release on the Nintendo DS, Phantasy Star Zero, manages to hit just about every bullet point I've been looking for in a Phantasy Star Online revival. The fact that it's portable on the DS makes it all the more appealing, as it's something that you can take with you and connect for a few quick quests via the online Wi-Fi support. It all works together quite well, and it really feels like a true successor to the original title.
When you boot up Phantasy Star Zero for the first time, you'll create your character. There are three preset races to choose from: CAST, Human and Newman. The humans are well-rounded, allowing for some flexibility when it comes to the class you select. The CAST are basically cyborgs, the robotic inhabitants of Phantasy Star Zero; they're more useful as melee and physical attackers than magic users. The Newman race relies heavily on magic attacks. If you're starting off for the first time, my general suggestion is to check out humans or CAST, as they're a little easier to get into and not nearly as squishy as the Newman race. From that point, you'll choose your character appearance, selected from a number of preset looks, so there's not a whole lot of customization available. You also pick voice type, which is pretty limited, and your name. From there, you're dropped into the game world and introduced to your partner, who remains with you throughout most of the story, and you're shown how the rest of the game works.
When you're opting to play the single-player game, you're mostly going to partake in the story-related quests, but there are also a number of available side-quests. The starting area is a small town, but it's primarily made up of three locations. There's the outside sector that houses most of your vendors; the inside portion, where you can talk to the city mayor, get quests and access your storage chest; and the sewer section that opens up after a specific story point, where you can spend the rare Photon Drops on hard-to-find items and weaponry. The vendors provide little more than a way to convert the mission loot into currency; you'll rarely find something worth buying from them aside from healing items, and eventually, you acquire so much of the stuff that you don't even need to buy it. Because of that, the economy is a little broken; you'll quickly make far more cash than you'll ever need, and there's not enough stuff to buy to make it worthwhile to hoard it all.
There's also a limit to your overall inventory, which is why you have access to the storage chest, but even with the limit in place, you'll rarely have to drop something valuable to make room for a new acquisition. The addition of the MAG, which is a little device that accompanies you on all of your quests, can also be evolved by feeding it items, so that's a pretty handy way of getting rid of a lot of the junk you'll acquire. Even though it's a loot-focused RPG title, it would have been nice if the vendor selections upgrade with your character over time so that later game purchases would be a little more viable. Later in the game, the only useful vendor is the one who will trade items for your Photon Drops, but that's about the extent of it.
To initiate a quest, whether it advances the plot or simply serves as a side-quest, you'll need to visit a non-player character (NPC) within the inner section of the town. He or she will offer up a list of available quests, some of which can be repeated, and once you select a quest, you can choose your party members. The teleporting device opens up, allowing you access to the quest area. If you want to do some adventuring and leveling up without the parameters of a quest bogging you down, you can visit any of the areas that you've previously visited. Sometimes it pays to randomly explore over the quest content because you can locate some of the rare enemies; random arena encounters will also teleport you to a coliseum location and pit you against wave after wave of enemies.
As far as the story goes, Phantasy Star Zero has a decent RPG plot wherein the characters are trying to piece together a gap in their collective histories where everyone has forgotten what's come before the past two centuries. Small details surface as the story progresses, mostly due to the exploring your characters will be doing. It's not a great reason for picking up the game, though; you'll quickly be more enamored with grinding and loot than you'll ever be with the actual story. When you're playing multiplayer online, the plot takes a back seat, and different quests are available for the online crowd than what you'll find in the single-player experience. There are also repeatable side-quests that don't impact the story, but there's generally some accompanying dialogue. The game also offers up dialogue branching in that you can respond to characters with different suggestions. It doesn't seem to have a huge impact on the actual plot, so don't expect a level of depth like you'd see in a Bioware-developed game (i.e., Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect).
I realize that this review isn't making Phantasy Star Zero sound particularly hot to newcomers, but I absolutely love this title. Despite the flaws with its economy system, lack of compelling plot, and some issues with the menu that I'll delve into in a second, it's an incredibly addictive experience. If you've ever played a PC title like Diablo, the original Phantasy Star Online on Dreamcast, or something more recent like Titan Quest or another loot-heavy RPG, you'll realize what I'm talking about. While you're playing, there's a constant urge to gather more loot. As you clear out enemies in one area, a chest will spawn that spews out numerous items and money. The items are broken down into armor, weapons, crafting items and healing items. You run into a lot of junk along the way, and you'll often find duplicates populating your inventory, but when you manage to hit that one rare item drop, it makes all the grinding worth it.
That's not to say that the game isn't just fun to play as it is. Even a grind-heavy game like this needs to have a combat system that's quick and enjoyable. Phantasy Star Zero has that too, with simple action combat that allows you to take direct control over your character, tap buttons, and string together small combos along the way. You even have a dodge ability, which becomes incredibly useful during boss fights, and a limited palette of magic abilities with elemental properties so you can use them against enemies in a strategic manner. It's just really fun to play, and while the title has some issues, you'll find yourself willing to overlook most of it because you'll be so wrapped up in the experience. It's easy to put 20 or 30 hours into the game and barely scratch the surface, as quests are divided up into normal, hard and super hard selections, along with all the online group quests.
As I mentioned, the one aspect that could have used a little more work is the menu system. Long-time PSO fans will probably face some aggravation here, whether that's a result of the limitations of the DS hardware or bad design decisions. There isn't a quick way to swap out weapons, and in a game like Phantasy Star Zero, that becomes problematic in some of the bigger fights. Each weapon behaves differently, so items like the saber or fist-equipped weapons will have quicker, less powerful attacks, while something like a spear or polearm will be slower, but far more powerful. You don't need to switch between weapons often, but you'll find that some boss fights will go far better if you do.
However, since the game doesn't pause the action when you're fiddling around with your inventory, you run a high risk of getting hit when cycling through your options in the middle of a heated fight. It's a little better when it comes to using healing items, as you can tie those to a specific button to quickly access them, but it's definitely a hassle for other inventory needs. It seems that this could have been streamlined using the DS' touch-screen function, which is hardly used in this game. A little more thought could definitely go into how this is handled for a sequel.
Aside from that, Phantasy Star Zero is a fantastic RPG on the DS and one of the first that's really nailed a lag-free online experience for four players. A couple of Final Fantasy titles have come close, but this is my preferred online game when it comes to handheld titles. Even if you've never tried a game in this series, I think you'll really enjoy Phantasy Star Zero. It's certainly worth it from a value standpoint, when you consider how many hours can be sunk into the gameplay, and I have a feeling that you'll find this game residing in your DS for months. All in all, it's the best attempt that Sega's made so far at emulating the old Phantasy Star Online formula and longtime fans of the franchise won't want to miss it.
More articles about Phantasy Star Zero