• The Phantasy Star series has long been a defining force in the world of RPGs. Ever since its humble beginnings on the Sega Master System in 1987, Phantasy Star has built up an incredible fan base, spanning more than ten games, on numerous platforms. The release of Phantasy Star Online in 2000 on the Dreamcast signalled a drastic change in direction for the series, as it not only made the leap into 3D, but it also became an MMO, an unprecedented move at a time where broadband was rare, and the only gamers who played online were using a PC. Some may say that Phantasy Star Online was responsible for popularising online gaming across consoles, and whether they are right or wrong, the original PSO certainly was certainly a front line soldier in the online revolution. However, as revolutionary as Phantasy Star Online was, by focussing on the online side of things, the game lost a few of the features that had made it so popular in the first place. For one, it made the change from turn-based battles, to MMO friendly real time encounters, and secondly, it became almost completely devoid of a decent story mode.

    And so, this brings us nicely to Phantasy Star Universe, the latest title in the long running RPG series. When the game was originally announced, Sega promised fans that PSU would bring with it a return to the single player glory days of old, whilst simultaneously building on the MMO game that had been such a success on the Dreamcast. And, initially, it seems as though Sega may have succeeded.

    Phantasy Star Universe

    For anyone who’s played the first few Phantasy Star Online games, PSU’s single player mode will come as a refreshing change. No longer are you just randomly hopping from planet to planet, from unlinked quest to unlinked quest, as now, everything you do has a underlying story behind it. Set in the Gurhal system, Phantasy Star Universe sees you playing as a young, 17 year old boy named Ethan. You begin the game on-board the Guardians colony, a giant spaceship where people of all races, colour and creed live in harmony, and are treated as equals without fear of discrimination. However, the utopian surroundings are suddenly thrown into disarray, when a mysterious alien race attacks during the middle of a ceremony. It’s here your adventure begins, as you (eventually) sign up to be a member of the Guardians, a group of do-gooders who go from planet to planet, solving crimes and generally making the world a better place, whilst trying to find out the secrets and reasons behind the attack by the mysterious alien race, known only as the SEED. The story, as unlikely as it may seem, is actually one of the best parts of Phantasy Star Universe, and provides the main reason to keep you coming back. Told using a combination of in-game cutscenes, and the occasional fancy pre-rendered clip, the plot is full of the usual amount of twists and turns, which will keep you on the edge of your seat. With some fantastically scripted dialogue, and genuinely interesting dynamics between characters, the game provides many laugh out loud moments, and actually makes you care about the otherwise mediocre plot. Whether it’s something silly, like Ethan nicknaming his female partner robot Pete, or watching your teammate make many failed advances on your attractive, 17 year old instructor, Phantasy Star really makes the characters come to life, in an area when many other games just fail. So far, so old-school Phantasy Star.

    The single player game has been divided up into chapters, with each chapter covering a sizeable segment of the story. These chapters are usually made up of one or two main missions, which see you jetting off to some far away planet to investigate mysterious goings on, or to rescue an unsuspecting child from a SEED attack. Missions are collected through the relevant Guardians branch, and once you’ve jetted off to the mission location, it’s business as usual, as you find yourself faced with the familiar Phantasy Star style of gameplay – simply hammer the button until everything stops moving, unless your faced with a boss, where you can use the Y button instead, to perform a slightly fancier attack. Repetitive, monotonous, and rather tricky, the combat system is where the cracks begin to appear in Phantasy Star Universe’s space-age armour. Which is a shame, as combat makes up the majority of the game. Missions rarely involve much more than simply running around, killing things, collecting a key, opening a locked door (which are magically scattered around the fields), before moving onto the next area. And even this wouldn’t be too bad, if the combat dynamics were a bit better. When faced with multiple enemies, each bearing rather sharp claws, and a set of tusks that would make a walrus green with envy, a decent lock-on system would have been a valued addition, but unfortunately, your left to just hopelessly slash in front of you, leading to far too many up-close and personal meetings with said tusks. And heaven help you if there’s an enemy flying overhead, as your character will just stand and be shoot blankly forwards…

    This is not to say that hacking-and-slashing is all there is to do to each mission, as Sega have tried to make things a little more interesting, by providing a few mission exclusive tasks, such as scanning rubble for weak-points, which you can then attack to free people who have been buried beneath it, but ultimately, the game’s combat bears more of a resemblance to dynasty warriors than the Phantasy Star of old that we were promised.

    Upon completing each mission, your character is awarded a number of experience points, which then automatically level your character up, increasing all attributes by a set value (no spending points on attributes of your choosing here…). Character customisation in the story mode comes in the form of classes, which adjust how proficient you are at using certain weapons and abilities. Changeable at any point during the game, you can select the most relevant class for each mission; for example, Hunters excel at melee combat, whereas Forces are well versed at using Technics (magic). This allows you to develop your character in a way you see fit, but ultimately, it feels far too watered down when compared to the customisation on offer in Oblivion, or Enchanted Arms. A recent update from Sega added support for several new character classes to the multiplayer mode, however, as of the time of writing, these are not available in the offline mode.

    However, although PSU doesn’t allow you much freedom in the way of creating your character, the game certainly lets you customise plenty of other stuff during the course of the game. Whilst you start the game using a pre-made character (you have no choice in the matter), your characters physical appearance can be altered throughout the game by buying new clothes from shops on any of the planets you visit. Also, at the start of the game, you get granted your own personal living space in the Guardians colony, which you can decorate however you see fit, filling it out with relics and other items of memorabilia that you bring back from quests. Your room is also home to your partner robot, who can upgrade your weapons for you, store your items, and generally provide assistance with preparing you for your missions. It’s also possible to upgrade this as you go along, and if you upgrade enough, it can eventually reach a stage where it can accompany you on missions in your party, providing some invaluable backup.

    Graphically, PSU is reasonable enough, however, as it’s a straight port of a PS2 game, it fails to provide that next-gen “wow” factor that other 360 RPGs can, looking functional as opposed to fancy. Whilst the lack of graphical sheen isn’t a game breaking fault, the problems get a whole lot worse when this PS2 game manages to grind to a halt on your 360. How many times more powerful is the 360 than the PS2? So, why is this port plagued by slowdown!? What’s worse is that this slowdown only seems to occur when you’re in the field, mid-combat, against multiple enemies, i.e., just when you could do with the game keeping up with your movements.

    Disappointing combat, and graphics aside, there is still a good game that’s dying to get out from under the rusty shell that is Phantasy Star Universe. The has been beautifully presented, with some fantastically space-age music, and the characters, environments and humour all ooze Sega – its just a shame that they’ve oversimplified the mechanics so much, and ended up breaking a great game in the process. A decent story, accompanied by some brilliant scripting and a fantastic soundtrack prevent this game from being a complete washout, but in the end, we can only recommend it if you can put up with the monotonous combat.

    Score: 5/10

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