Phantasy Star Online has now been available in North America for over a year, and Phantasy Star Online Version 2 has been in stores for several months. There has been a lot of discussion in regards to what is good about the game and what could use improvement. If you're a member of the Phantasy Star Discussion Board or if you've played PSO with me online, you've probably heard me discuss a lot of what you're about to hear already.

If not, here's what I consider the good, the bad, and the ugly of Phantasy Star Online.

The Good

The Story:
Yes, you read that right. Not only did I put story in The Good, I put it at the top of The Good. I consider story to easily be the best part of Phantasy Star Online, for two main reasons.

In the years following the release of Phantasy Star IV, part of me didn't even want there to be a new Phantasy Star game, ever. I was terrified that a new Phantasy Star game would turn out to be a lot like the Star Wars: Dark Empire comic books. For the non-Star Wars fans out there, Dark Empire was a comic book series that took place about six years after Return of the Jedi and featured the return-to-life of Emperor Palpatine, thereby completely nullifying the entire sacrifice Anakin Skywalker makes in Jedi to save his son and rendering Anakin's death pointless. The last thing I wanted to see in a new Phantasy Star game was any kind of plot line that revolved around, "Oops, guess what, The Profound Darkness really didn't die after all!"

This is the first reason why Phantasy Star Online's story is so great. It is indeed a sequel to Phantasy Star IV, picking up the story of Algo 800 years after Chaz Ashley destroys The Profound Darkness, but it resists the temptation to nullify that which came before it in order to move onward. Instead of destroying past continuity in order to rehash it, Phantasy Star Online opens a new chapter in the saga of Algo, building off the logical steps presented in the previous game. Phantasy Star IV showed us a Motavia that was slowly dying -- at least in the eyes of its Palman residents. Though the efforts of Wren and Demi had slowed the planet's reversion back to a desert world, they could not stop the reversion completely, as huge patches of the Motavian landscape in Phantasy Star IV were no longer green but brown.

Phantasy Star Online picks up on this, 800 years later, at a time when Motavia is no longer inhabitable for Palmans. What better way to open a new chapter in the Algoian saga than to colonize a new world? It's a stroke of genius on Sega's part: by making the main characters Palmans, Numans, and androids, Phantasy Star Online continues the story of the people of Algo, but pens a new chapter of the tale by taking them out of the system. Some phanatics have complained about this, but Phantasy Star has never, ever been about the Algo Star System. It has always been about the people who inhabit the Algo Star System, and Phantasy Star Online continues this fine tradition.

The second reason I consider story to be Phantasy Star Online's strongest point is because it tells its story in a way never before seen in a Phantasy Star game. One of the main reasons why I consider Phantasy Star I and Phantasy Star II such masterpieces is because they are true role-playing games. They do not reveal every tiny detail of the main characters because that's the player's job in a role-playing game. This is also a chief criticism I have of many current RPGs. They are more movie-watching games wherein you simply control the characters between cinema scenes, rather than true RPGs.

Hence, because the early Phantasy Star games are true RPGs (Phantasy Star IV takes some huge steps towards becoming a movie-watching game, though it is nowhere near as bad as others), they are not character studies, for the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Phantasy Star IV is in many ways a character study of Chaz Ashley, and how he came of age, but at the expense of giving control of his personality to the player. The second factor that makes Phantasy Star Online such a great story is it is indeed a true RPG, while it is also a character study.

Your character is the role you portray, while the character being studied is, of course, Red Ring Rico Tyrell. When we are introduced to Rico, she is a determined, confident hunter, at times bordering on arrogance ("If you can't hit a Hildebear, try standing in front of it. Of course, I don't miss."). Rico is always one step ahead of you, and when I first played through the game, I looked forward to finally meeting her.

By the time you reach the Ruins, however, you can only listen to Rico's messages in horror, realizing that she has fallen straight into a trap. The confidence of her early messages is now gone, replaced by loneliness and desperation ("I wish I had a friend here..." and "Don't let it come in. The dark consciousness looks for the best animal to obtain its temporal host body"). Perhaps most tragic, signifying that perhaps Rico knew what fate awaited her, is her line, "I miss my father. I wasn't a very good daughter... was I? Is my father OK now?"

The icing on this cake is that once you realize Rico has fallen into this trap, it's too late, because you are in the trap, as well. The combination of mystery and character study combine to tell a Phantasy Star adventure in a way never told before, and this easily remains the game's greatest strength.

Phantasy Star games have always featured outstanding casts of characters, and this is another tradition that Phantasy Star Online continues. Some of the game's characters don't do much for me (Alicia Baz is a notable example), but other characters like Doctor Jean Carlo Montague and Kireek have to rank high in the pantheon of Phantasy Star characters. Montague's eccentricity evokes memories of Raja, and Kireek, who turns out to secretly be a member of the evil Black Paper but who also seems to have some strange sense of honor, is incredibly intriguing. The mysterious Bernie and his untimely death help contribute to the tragedy of the story (but then, pretty much every Phantasy Star game is tragic in some way...), and even some Guild Quest characters, such as Nol Rinale, Elly Person, and Shino, are extremely interesting even though they are briefly seen. It's been very nice to see Sega reusing these characters in online quests ("Today's Rate" and "Towards the Future" are examples), and hopefully, this is a trend which will continue.

Online Play:
Undoubtedly, the strongest game play element of Phantasy Star Online is online play. The ability to join your friends or make new ones (although the cheaters have done an excellent job of eliminating much of the latter) is an extremely rewarding part of the game. There really isn't much to say here, because anyone who has played PSO online knows what I'm talking about, while those who have been unable to play online don't know what they're missing.

Another fine Phantasy Star tradition that PSO continues is its outstanding soundtrack. Each level has two tunes associated with it, one for "normal" travel through the level and one for battles with monsters, and the two blend together in seamless fashion. The music is also very appropriate; each level's theme is perfectly fitting with the overall atmosphere of the level. Finally, PSO also features arguably the best non-Phantasy Star I boss theme music yet. "Lassic's Theme" and "Darkfalz's Theme" from PSI remain the best boss themes in the series, but "From Seeing the Rough Wave," "The Crazy Program," "You Have Nowhere To Go," "Pray, for 'IDOLA' the Distorted," and "Cry, for 'IDOLA' the Holy" are very close runners-up.

The Bad

Most Rare Weapons are Found Only Through Luck:
The distribution of rare weapons is one matter that should be addressed before Sega works on PSO2. It's annoying enough that many of the most powerful weapons in the game can only be found through dumb luck -- what makes it worse is that more often than not, you need to have incredible luck. I'd love to know the formula for what makes rare items appear, but I reckon that is a secret guarded more closely that the Colonel's blend of herbs and spices. My best guess is that it has something to do with your Section ID, the current "Beat" time, and Yuji Naka's driver's license number. In order to get this item removed from "The Bad" for PSO2, Sega definitely must make each and every weapon in the game accessible to everyone. This does not mean that every item should be available in the shops. Sega has found great success with rare items being the prizes for successful completion of quests, or perhaps, for example, a certain boss will always drop a particular weapon if you beat the boss within a certain time limit. The point is, luck should not be the sole determining factor for the distribution of rare items, as it very much seems to be now.

Some or all online cheating may or may not be the fault of Sonic Team, but that's not an issue I care to debate here. In interviews, even the head of Sonic Team seems to have expressed extreme disappointment at the levels of online cheating. But regardless of who is at fault, there's still the fact that online cheaters and cheating are a reality of the game. This online cheating started innocently enough with the duplication of some of the game's most powerful items, such as the Lavis Cannon and the Spread Needle. There was -- and perhaps still is -- no better way to sap the fun out of an online game that to have one or two members of the party equipped with a weapon that can decimate a room of monsters in just one or two hits like the Spread Needle (especially a hacked, high-percentage Spread Needle).

Eventually, cheating took on more sinister forms through player killing outside of battle mode, character killing (causing permanent damage to render your character completely unplayable), or causing "Frozen Screens of Death," states which can force your Dreamcast to reset itself at best or wipe its internal memory at worst, forcing a phone call to Sega before you can even play with your purchase online again. Personally, I avoid all online cheating by simply playing with friends I know and trust, but it's undeniable that online cheating has almost completely eliminated the ability to meet new people online and to make new friends through open games. When a stranger can either become a great friend or can prevent you from even playing the game you chose to pay hard-earned money for, the risk just is not worth the potential reward.

Beat Time System:
While I understand the reasoning behind it (it's a "worldwide" time system), the Beat time system should be eliminated from PSO2. No one understands it or uses it. It seems silly that Sega can create a system to translate your text into multiple languages, but they can't come up with a way to convert a time in your time zone to another. Some kind of automatic time zone conversion should definitely replace "Beats" in PSO2.

The Ugly

Weapons Proficiencies ("Percents"):
Let me make my thoughts on this subject perfectly clear: Percents must go!

Percents are fine in Normal and Hard mode, because your base ATP is low at that point, and you also do not find very high percents there (20% if you're lucky). But in Very Hard mode, it is quite easy to find a 50% weapon, and what type of weapon it is really doesn't matter if you have 700+ base ATP.

In Ultimate, it's even worse, what with HUmars having around 1400 max base ATP. See, it seems to be a common misconception that percents have a direct affect on damage inflicted; for example, most players think that if you do 100 damage with a 0% weapon, you will do 150 damage with a 50% weapon. Not so. Many times in Ultimate mode, you find that you can do zero damage with a 0% weapon and several hundred points of damage with a 50%. This is the main problem with percents: they apply not just to the weapon itself, but also to the base ATP of the character who equips one. A 0% V2 weapon can easily give HUmars 2000 ATP, before Shifta. If the weapon is 50%, their attack will be as though they have 3000 ATP. That's just ridiculous!

This results in the weapon type being completely irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the percent. You can see this, online, too. If someone finds a "Special Weapon?" in Ultimate, the first thing the other players ask is not, "What is it?" but rather, "Percents?".

If a weapon's percentage applied solely to the weapon's ATP, perhaps they wouldn't be quite as bad, but applying them to base ATP as well is ludicrous, and results in extremely overpowered characters. Further, they contribute to an overall imbalance in game play, in Very Hard mode to some extent, but especially in Ultimate mode. I recently played an Ultimate mode game in which my Level 121 HUmar was armed with a weapon with no percents, and like the other two players in the game, was under the effects of Level 15 Shifta and Deband, and the monsters were under the effect of Level 15 Zalure. While I managed to do an average of 80-90 points of damage per hit, the other players in the game -- 20 to 25 levels lower than myself -- averaged 800 to 900 points of damage per hit. This is as clear a sign as any that percents contribute to a huge imbalance in the game, and must be eliminated.

Off-The-Charts Magic Resistances:
If percents sit at one end of the spectrum of the causes of unbalanced game play in Ultimate PSO, the insanely high magic resistances of the ultimate monsters is at the other end, but each contribute equally to the overall imbalance of the difficulty level.

In this case, the facts simply speak for themselves:

  1. Level 30 techniques do less damage in Ultimate than Level 15 techniques do in Very Hard. Meanwhile, with a good percent weapon, a maxed V2 Hunter can do more damage in Ultimate than a maxed V1 Hunter could do in Very Hard. This is ridiculous and inexcusable -- this is something that should have been caught in game play testing months before the game even hit retail. One of the major problems in V1 was that Hunters were the "Easy" class, Rangers were "Normal", and Forces were "Hard". This was supposed to have been fixed in Ultimate by making it hard to hit enemies, thus giving Rangers an advantage since they have high attack accuracy, and by giving Forces stronger techniques than everyone else, because in V1 any character who can use techniques is capable of magical damage that is virtually identical to that of the strongest V1 Force. Instead, Hunters are more powerful, and Forces are weaker.

  2. Unlike Defense Power, Resistances work on a percentage scale. If your character has "50 Fire Resist", this means that if something casts a fire spell on you, the damage from it will be cut in half; "50% Fire Resist." Also, unlike Defense Power, Resistances can not be lowered by a spell. Zalure lowers Defense Power only. In Hard and Very Hard mode, Resistances are used to make a Force have to mix and match techniques in order to inflict damage on enemies. For example, Hard and Very Hard Boomas are weak against fire, strong against lightning, and are invulnerable to ice. This means that Boomas have a low Fire Resist, Average Lightning Resist, and Maximum Ice Resist.

    This is fine offline, or in online Hard and Very Hard mode online, but it's out of hand in online Ultimate mode. Enemies in the Ultimate online Ruins have extremely high Resistances, where your most powerful attack against them can only inflict minimal damage. The Resists of an Arlan, the weakest and most common enemy in the Ruins, appear to be something like Fire 80, Thunder 90, Ice 100, Light 80, Dark 90. This means it's weakest to Fire and Light, but no fire spell is capable of doing 100+ damage to it and Grants 30 can do a maximum of about 150 damage.
In short, Forces are punished in Ultimate if they chose to be a Force and use their techniques. Now, one might argue that it's equally difficult for Hunters, because they must find weapons with good percentages in order to do high amounts of damage in Ultimate mode. True enough, it is hard to find weapons with high proficiencies -- see the first item in "The Bad" -- but at least it's possible. A Force who wishes to use his techniques, even with those techniques maxed out and his MST maxed, is told by Sega, "Sorry, use a melee weapon instead."

In order to correct these two flaws in PSO2, a major restructuring is in order. First and foremost, Photon Blasts should be the most powerful attacks in the game. This would insure that all characters, regardless of class, can get in a high-powered attack every once in a while.

Second, aside from Photon Blasts, no other attack in the game should be capable of delivering more damage than Grants Level 30, and the other Level 30 attacks should be close behind. The payoff for being the physically weakest characters in the game should be that Forces are capable of the most damaging attacks. Monster resistances must be lowered, or technique damage raised. And above all else, percents must be eliminated.

American Discrimination:
Perhaps the most alarming trend seen since PSO's release is the apparent shocking lack of concern Sonic Team (who maintains the PSO servers) seems to have for American players. The Japanese PSO servers were patched from all cheat codes for months by the time PSOv2 was released in America, but it still took Sonic Team several weeks after the game's North American release to apply the same fixes to the American servers. Anytime new cheat codes are released online, the Japanese servers are patched almost immediately... while the American servers are patched when they get around to it.

Further, at least two Download Quests have been available for months for download and play in complete English as long as you are playing the Japanese copy of PSOv2. These quests have never been made available to players of the American release of PSOv2, despite the fact that, again, they are playable in full English if you are playing the Japanese version of PSOv2 and your language setting is set to English. American players are expected to make due with "Letter From Lionel," a quest that has been available since PSOv1.

(Note: Recently, a second Download quest, "Soul of a Blacksmith," was finally made available to America players. In the Japanese version of this quest, it is possible to obtain three rare weapons: God Hand, Suppressed Gun, and Technical Crozier. However, in a move that is shocking in its blatant disregard for American players, performing the exact same steps that yield you these rares in the Japanese version of the quest yields you only Level 4 (red) weapons in the English version of the quest. The fact that Sonic Team would deliberately remove the rare items before making the quest available to American players is simply mind-boggling.)

I do not know Sonic Team personally, nor have I ever been given a chance to speak with them, so for all I know, there very well could be a good reason for all of this. But on the surface, it does not look good, not at all, and Sonic Team should recognize the bad PR it gives them and either act to correct the discrimination or at the very least offer an explanation for it.

Since I seem to have been rather rough on Phantasy Star Online in this review, I'd like to stress that I really do find much, much more to like about Phantasy Star Online than not to. I can not stress enough how much I enjoy the game's story and characters, and this is a good 90-95% of what makes a good game in my estimate. I still rank Phantasy Star I and Phantasy Star II as the best games of the series, but Phantasy Star Online sits behind them in third place, ahead of Phantasy Star III, Phantasy Star IV, Phantasy Star Adventure, and Phantasy Star Gaiden. It is a fantastic addition to the Phantasy Star saga, and I look forward to many more installments. Once again, the Phantasy Star brand has broken new ground and blazed a trail that other games in the genre would be wise to follow.

(Very special thanks to JWL for considerable help with this article.)

For another great review of Phantasy Star Online, be sure to check out
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