Reviewed: August 21, 2003
Reviewed by: John Carswell


Sonic Team

Released: April 15, 2003
Genre: RPG
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Teen


Supported Features:

  • Vibration
  • Memory Unit
  • Dolby Digital
  • Xbox Live

  • In the realm of “Geekiness”, one can find thirty year olds squabbling over Pokemon cards, eight year olds giving hour-long lectures on the consoles wars, and Trekkies and Trekkers clawing one another’s eyes out. However, if you travel far enough and reach the very pits of this frightening land, you’ll find a room where bearded dwarfs wielding gnarled axes and blue-haired, androgynous men with huge swords are locked in an endless struggle to define what makes a “true” RPG. I’ve always considered myself to be distanced from these obsessive basement-dwellers but—after having played Phantasy Star Online Episodes 1 & 2 I may have more in common with them than I’d like to believe.

    Simply put, when it comes to Phantasy Star Online Episode 1 & 2, I have never been more wrong about a game in my life-- dismissing PSO as an RPG “lite”. I’ve looked down on it as a game largely aimed at some fictitious younger crowd who are content to could swear at people online and maybe do a little “power leveling” in between. In reality, PSO is a deceptively deep RPG with a heavy focus on teamwork that any RPG gamer will appreciate.

    The single player portion of PSO is generally viewed as being shallow and linear, and to be frank, it is. However, it’s also a great deal of fun. Although the story—your basic, “should humans tamper with nature” affair—is by no means compelling, PSO still has plenty going for it. Firstly, everything that you’ve gained in the single player mode can be brought over into the multiplayer portion. This alone provides enough incentive to push forward. Secondly, a first-rate combat engine, excellent monster design, a huge assortment of upgrades and weapons, and the game’s overall difficulty are more than enough to keep the gamer hooked to PSO.

    In the single player mode, you are sent out on a handful of main quests that land you on a newly inhabited planet where something has gone horribly wrong. These main quests are few in number, but will take a considerable amount time to complete since they become very tough, very quickly. To help you gain the skills and weapons needed to take on these quests, PSO provides a Hunters Guild that will hire you to complete small missions. These side quests are mainly just dungeon hacks with investigate/escort/rescue goals but will fill your bank account and are a great way to increase you level. As an added bonus, the NPC’s you bump into will often have something interesting to say (albeit entirely via text and with more ellipses than you can shake a hyphen at). While these conversations will not get you hooked on PSO’s story, they do add some context to your endless monster hunting.

    Combat in PSO mixes console-styled “hack‘n slash” action with enough RPG elements to keep it from feeling too simplistic. Rather than tweaking your stats, upgrading your equipment and spells is the key to becoming a successful PSO player. As you’d expect, PSO is filled with melee weapons, firearms, and spells (referred to as “techniques”). The variety of weapons in PSO is staggering and each be enhanced. In addition, skilled hunters not afraid of a little risk can find these same weapons with special abilities. Due to this, you will slowly build an arsenal of weapons that perfectly suit your playing style. As an added benefit, each weapon has it’s own unique appearance so if you have a particularly powerful weapon, everyone will know it!

    Armor in PSO is equally varied although unfortunately does not show up on your characters model. Additionally, the more rare armor is upgradeable via a slot system (think: FF7). The player can then insert “buffs” into these slots that bestow its wearer with certain benefits such as increased mental and physical abilities.

    As for “techniques”, these too are also upgradeable and available to most character classes. However, as with weapons, the player must either buy or find new levels of spells. There are restrictions to what spells a player can use of course (based on your level) and certain classes have greater casting powers. This means that they’ll do added damage even though they are casting the same level of spell as someone playing a melee-oriented class.

    Melee combat is based on a combo system where you can string three attacks together. You also have three forms of attacks: a normal attack, a heavy attack, and a special attack. Each form of attack has its own benefits and risks, which require the player to carefully weigh the odds. Obviously, this is hardly ground-breaking stuff but when you throw in PSO’s huge arsenal of weapons and the various weakness/resistances of your enemies, combat becomes an enjoyable a deep experience. Ranged combat (using missile weapons or “techniques”) is very straightforward and is based around keeping a healthy distance between yourself and your target while using the correct attacks to exploit your enemy’s weaknesses.

    Another feature found in PSO worthy of mention is the “Mag”. For the truly nerdy, Mags are PSO’s equivalent of “familiars” except with a slight Chao-influence (Chao’s being little creatures you could breed in Sonic Adventure). These little guys hover over your shoulder and boost your stats. Your Mag needs to eat, what you feed it will decide how it evolves, and in turn, what attributes it will grant your character. This makes Mags the closest thing to Stat management you’ll find in PSO. Also, as your Mag evolves, it gains special attacks that can be lifesavers when the going gets a little too tough. I absolutely love the concept of Mags and hope to see the idea fleshed out further in future versions of PSO.

    So how well does all of this translate into online play? After logging onto PSO, you are taken to a lobby where players can chat, create teams or join existing teams. In most online games, there is a nervous before joining a group since no one likes being the newbie of the team. Thankfully, the single player game helps warm you up and keeps your character from being completely green. Once you’ve selected a game to join, you’ll be transported to a “mirror” PSO world where the other players currently are.

    There you’ll find yourself in town while your teammates are knee-deep. To get you into the action, someone will invariable will open a “Telepipe” which teleports you to their position.

    Once in the dungeons, Phantasy Star Online is all about teamwork and frantic, hack-and-slash action. What amazed me was how quickly a “hive mind” formed between the team members; Xbox Live’s voice communicator helps immeasurably in this department. While other Xbox Live games can oftentimes be populated by the shy or obnoxious, PSO is teaming with players who are constantly strategizing and monitoring one another’s progress. On multiple occasions we’d split off into teams of two to quickly accomplish objectives or spread out to surround the enemy. It was certainly unexpected, but in terms of finding teams that acted as a single, cohesive unit, I had more luck in PSO than I ever did in Ghost Recon. My only issue would be the occasional teammate or two who would horde all the loot for themselves. Thankfully, experience points are split up between all of the party members so you’ll benefit in one way or another.

    This is as a good a place as any to mention the quality of players to be found in PSO. Although PSO must have its share of bad apples, the people I played with were either extremely polite and helpful or straight-to-the-point and goal-oriented. In fact, many were very generous and helped me out by giving me better weapons and showing me some advanced tactics. Better still, everyone was very understanding when I’d botch up their plans with the newbish blunderings.

    Sadly, PSO’s is marred by a few glaring issues. Firstly, the camera is simply atrocious. You have the option either to let the camera move of its own volition or to “reset” the camera behind your character (after which it will begin moving on its own again). The problem is that the camera always chooses odd angles. I can’t count the times that I found it pointing away from the enemy I was fighting or hovering at an odd distance so that I found the screen dominated by the backside of my target. There is radar that helps combat the camera’s clumsiness but it’s not enough. Why Sega choose to give the player such limited control over the camera is beyond me but hopefully they will address this issue future release of PSO.

    Another issue is the split screen mode. For starters, the radar—your one saving grace from the horrid camera—vanishes. This creates some very frustrating moments and needless retreats. Boss battles too are laughable since they devolve into each player spinning around hoping to catch a glimpse of the enemy. Additional, the graphics go a bit haywire and leave out huge chunks of the landscape. For all intents and purposes, PSO’s split screen mode is so halfhearted and poorly executed that it becomes a wholly ignorable feature.

    PSO’s graphics, while by no means unattractive, are seriously dated. For an Xbox game, the amount of pop-in is disappointing, textures are often bland, and modern lighting effects are nonexistent. Nevertheless, PSO gets the job done and its aging visuals are quickly forgotten after a few hours of playtime. Ultimately, aside from a few boss sequences, there is nothing here to get excited about but things are not so bad as to distract you from the gameplay.

    As with the graphics, the audio in PSO is underwhelming. Perhaps due to its Dreamcast roots, all the sound effects in PSO are adequate but sound “small” and lack the rich intensity that one would expect from such an action-oriented game. As for PSO’s music, if you’ve played a console RPG over the past 20 years then you already know the deal. Dated, Sci-Fi-synth tunes are forever present and are practically indistinguishable from one another except for the varying tempos used to convey “fighting” and “not fighting”. Of course, many people are absolutely in love with this style of music but frankly, I am more than ready for something new. On a positive note, the downloadable mission I tried out had some cool tunes attached to it. I wouldn’t listen to them outside of PSO but they helped to break up the auditory monotony and were enjoyable in a campy sort of way.

    Although PSO comes with two free months of online play, this game is hardly a bargain. Firstly, you must have an active Xbox Live subscription whether you plan to play PSO online or not. Secondly, after your first two free months, you’ll be saddles with 8.95 monthly fee. Therefore, if you do not currently have Xbox Live, PSO could cost you around $100 to play.

    However, as an online RPG, PSO offers endless replay value and the single player mode further adds to the title’s value. In the end, PSO’s worth will depend largely on the player’s affinity for RPG’s and whether or not they already belong to Xbox Live.

    Phantasy Star Online: Episode 1 & 2 is a solid title, with plenty to offer Xbox gamers. If you are already a fan of the series, there is no reason why this RPG shouldn’t be in your gaming library. If you’re considered joining the world of Online RPG’s and are willing to pony up the cash, PSO is a great place to start as it will not overwhelm you with complex stat management and is full of people ready to teach you the ropes.

    However, if you are looking for a true MMORPG and not a fan of “dungeon crawlers”, PSO may not be for you. With that said, I detest dungeon drawlers and thrive on the complexity found in games like Ultima Online but still enjoyed my time with Phantasy Star Online Episode 1 & 2 immensely.