Have you ever wanted to play an MMO on a handheld? No, this review isn't going to turn into a rant about the new Jungle device that was recently announced, but rather than answer to that question will likely gauge how interested you'll be in Phantasy Star Portable 2. If you love the level-grinding, loot-collecting and party-forming aspects of MMOs so much that you want to experience it on the PSP, then this game is for you. Everyone else will be sorely disappointed.
Phantasy Star Portable 2 picks up three years after the events of Phantasy Star Universe. The Seed threat has been destroyed, but the races of the Gurhal system now face a new danger as their natural resources are dwindling. Scientists believe that subspace travel may be the answer, but their experiments are causing all sorts of minor disasters and galactic disturbances, and yet they press on. The story that unfolds over the next 10 chapters is one of mercenaries, ancient races and, of course, unspeakable evil; in other words, it's every RPG ever made. The plot definitely isn't one of the game's strong points, as it ends up being little more than a tangle of technobabble and clichéd plot devices.
One area where the game excels is in character creation and customization, which sports enough variety and flexibility to appeal to nearly all players. There are plenty of races and classes to choose from, as well as multiple appearance and clothing options. Even better, the game allows you to change or extend your class at any time, so if you're unhappy as a melee fighter, you can switch to a tech user, ranged fighter, etc. You'll never feel locked into a play style that doesn't fit, and you're free to experiment as much as you'd like until you find just the right setup.
Once you've created your character, most folks will jump into Phantasy Star's single-player campaign, and that's somewhat unfortunate. This mode is exceptionally boring, as you'll undertake a series of same-ish story missions accompanied by some fairly boneheaded partner AI. Every level proceeds with the same flow of "run into a room, kill the monsters, grab the loot, move into the next room, rinse and repeat." Eventually, you fight a boss, and after a cut scene, you're dumped right back into the world hub where you can gear up before doing it all over again.
The game's idea of "variety" is to provide optional free missions that send you back to the exact same maps to fight the exact same enemies, only this time there may be a time limit, weapon restriction or other random extra circumstance meant to spice things up. These bonus missions really don't offer a lot, and many players will likely try one or two and then walk away for good due to the lack of variety.
The game's multiplayer alleviates some of the boredom, especially since the game supports infrastructure mode, allowing you to go online and party up with folks all over the world. While you'll still be running through the same maps completing the same missions, at least this time you'll be doing it with real people in your party, which makes it a bit more entertaining. After all, isn't it more fun to mow down legions of nameless monsters when you're doing it with friends?
While the multiplayer component of Phantasy Star is nice, it has plenty of problems of its own. Communication with other team members can be challenging, as you must choose from a list of generic canned expressions "Hello!", "Let's Go!", or type out long-form communication using the in-game keyboard. Of course, all this is happening in real time, so while you're trying to ask for a healing spell, the monster is continuing to tear you to ribbons, but you can't fight back due to your frantic typing. The game also does a terrible job of matchmaking, often pairing level 50 players with total rookies, which results in stages where newcomers can't even damage enemies and are basically along for the free experience points. The satisfaction of taking down a huge boss and then reveling in the loot drop is still there, but it's less enjoyable here than in a game like WoW.
Poor design decisions seep through nearly all facets of the game, and navigating menus in an attempt to find and use equipment is a royal pain. The sheer amount of loot dropped makes it hard to organize your inventory, and the lack of any way to readily compare equipment means a lot of scrolling back and forth to determine what to keep and what to sell or toss. Furthermore, the fact that equipped items are displayed merely with a name and symbol but no description about what they do means you'd better play real close attention to which circle with a dot restores your health and which one bumps up your attack power. When your hit points are dwindling and you're knocking on death's door, it's good to be sure that the item you're about to use will restore your health rather than leave a particularly buff corpse. The menus are, as a whole, confusing and overwhelming, with even the Start button occupied with pulling up yet another menu. God forbid you need to pause the game for any reason. That's simply not allowed here.
Phantasy Star Portable 2 is a game that relies on its pedigree and a handful of new features to appeal to the masses. Franchise fans will defend the game to the death, insisting that anyone who doesn't enjoy it is either "playing it wrong" or "just doesn't get it." If you're familiar with the series, then by all means feel free to love this game just as you do all the others. Those unfamiliar should stay away and look for an RPG that is friendlier toward newcomers and those who prefer a more individual experience over an emphasis on multiplayer. In short, this is a game for the Monster Hunter crowd. Most other folks will struggle to find the appeal.
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