First, a caveat: devising theories regarding Phantasy Star Online is like skating on very thin ice. As the series is still in active development by Sega -- hopefully with many more sequels to follow! -- parts, most, or all of this theory may be completely invalidated by future games. I am simply basing this and all of my other Phantasy Star Online theories on all currently available information.
Before I share with you what I believe the date of Phantasy Star Online to be, however, I'd first like to examine some of the other theories regarding PSO's date that have sprung up since the game's release. One of the earliest -- and admittedly, most interesting -- of these theories was that the Pioneers are not Algoian, but are in fact from Earth! This theory suggested that Pioneer 2 was an Earth vessel, and PSO documents the Earthmen's first attempt at colonizing a new homeworld. After the disaster Ragol turns out to be, Pioneer 2 leaves in search of a different planet, but this time they have an extra passenger: Dark Force. This explains how Dark Force came to be aboard the space ship Noah in Phantasy Star II, and gives some backstory to Phantasy Star's most surprising villains.
I had some key problems with this theory right from the start, however. First, PSO's humans use techniques, and real-life humans do not. This can be overlooked as Phantasy Star is, well, fantasy based and not reality based, but they key fact that disproves the "Earthmen Pioneers" theory in my mind is one word: meseta.
Meseta is the one constant in every single Phantasy Star game ever made. Planet and technique names may change -- hell, magic spells may become techniques may become skills -- but meseta is always meseta. And it's always been an Algoian form of currency. One could conceivably argue that meseta was actually an Earth currency, but this would mean the Earthmen had such advanced influence over Algoian culture as far back as pre-Phantasy Star I eras that even at that early time, they were able to introduce their own currency into Algo. No, I'm afraid meseta effectively rules out the possibility of the Pioneers being the Earthmen (but that's just my two cents).
Another theory that has been advanced is that the Pioneers actually come from the Alisa III. Sometime post-PSIII, those who supported this theory suggested, the Alisians grew weary of living on a ship and thus started the Pioneer Project. They found Ragol, built the Pioneer ships, and emigrated there.
Aside from what I consider to be the obvious question of where in the heck would the Alisians get the materials necessary to create two ships the size of Pioneer 1 and 2 -- not a lot of raw, natural resources on a spaceship, you know? -- this theory is squarely ruled out by in-game dialogueue. Principal Tyrell states, "We can't return to our planet." The scientists say, "Our planet was tearing itself apart, we couldn't stop it. So we started searching for a new planet, and we found Ragol with unmanned search units" and "I was against the immigration! If a planet dies, the people have to die with it. Don't you think so?"
With those two possibilities ruled out, we are left with what was obvious to me from the beginning: the Pioneers are from Algo -- post-PSIV Algo, to be precise.
One other early theory was that the Pioneers were from a post-PSII/pre-PSIV Algo, when Motavia was "tearing itself apart" by reverting back to the desert world it was before Mother Brain. I find this unfeasible, however, because the people of post-PSII Motavia (or perhaps more correctly, post-Great Collapse Motavia) had to be fighting just to survive. There's no way they had the resources to launch deep space probes and build interstellar colony ships.
Three items specifically suggest the post-PSIV timeframe. The first is the presence of Numans aboard Pioneer 2, not as rare, individual examples of the power of bio-tech ala Nei or Rika, but as an entire functioning race of people. At no other previously seen portion of the Phantasy Star timeline have Numans been as large a species as they are in PSO. Since PSIV ended with Numans getting their start as a true new species with Rika entering mainstream Algoian society, the viability of the Numan race in PSO is simply the next logical step.
Second, the presence of Mags suggest a post-PSIV timeframe. Examine the way Dacci describes Mags in "Magnitude of Metal": "Mags are just protectors invented by a scientist. But we're given one when we become hunters. It's kind of tradition. Mags are an essential piece of equipment for hunters, right?" Mags are not just some new fad that may eventually fade away, as they would have to be if PSO took place post-PSII/pre-PSIV. Mags are a "traditional" piece of hunter gear, and they've been around so long they're considered essential. Again, this further points to PSO taking place many, many years post-PSIV. (And as an aside, I don't know about you, but I think Mags definitely have Wren and Demi written all over them. Ten to one, they were the first creators of Mags.)
Finally, while not obvious at first, the three monuments that seal the Ruins are perhaps the strongest pointer to PSO's post-PSIV time frame. The Ruins are sealed with the words "MUTT DITTS POUMN" and each monument bears a different color: one green, one red, one blue. Anyone who has played a Phantasy Star game prior to PSO will immediately recognize that the seal is a reference to Algo and its three planets -- Palma, Motavia, and Dezoris -- which formed a gigantic seal over The Profound Darkness's dimensional prison for centuries. Whoever made the monuments that seal the Ruins obviously based this seal on the Algoian seal, and because the truth that Algo was the lock on a dimensional jail cell was unknown even to Lutz until Phantasy Star IV, this most certainly suggests the Ruins were sealed post-PSIV, and hence, PSO is post-PSIV, as well.
I've heard many a phanatic grumble since PSO's release that they like the game well enough, but they sure hope the next Phantasy Star game returns to Algo. Personally? I don't mind at all that Phantasy Star Online doesn't take place in Algo. In fact, I almost prefer it. From 1996 to 1999, until Phantasy Star Online was first announced, I was one of the most vocal supporters of any new Phantasy Star game starting a completely new story. My biggest fear was a new Phantasy Star game the basis of which would be, "Guess what? The Profound Darkness isn't dead after all!" In my mind, Phantasy Star Online is truly the best of both worlds: it continues the Phantasy Star story while also preserving it.
Since we have established that Phantasy Star Online takes place sometime post-PSIV, can we give it a more exact date than that? After all, we know that PSIV takes place in AW 2284, and that PSI takes place in Space Century 342. Can we give Phantasy Star Online a date on the Algoian calendar?
Yes, we can, but we can't be as certain of this as we are that we're in the post-PSIV world. Go to the game's sound test and you'll find that the music that plays when you are in the Hunter's Guild is titled "Crossing 3084." A date of AW 3084 would be exactly 800 years after Phantasy Star IV, and that certainly seems to fit in with everything else we know of the date.
Except it might be more accurate to list the date of PSO as AUW 3084. Though PSII and PSIV use the AW dating convention, the quest "Seek my Master" lists several dates and prefaces all of them with AUW. I do not believe that this implies PSO uses a different calendar than the other games, however; AW and AUW are certainly similar enough to be considered the same, just as with Palma/Palm/Parma, etc.
But speaking of "Seek my Master," the story it contains gives further support to the idea of a AUW 3084 date for Phantasy Star Online. The Tekker in this quest shares the story of three blacksmiths whose families were executed by a king. In vengeance, the three blacksmiths and one of their pupils each forged a sword "said to have the power to destroy a planet."
These dates indicate that the swords were forged in the years between Phantasy Star II and Phantasy Star IV -- a technology-free era that would certainly be in line with the story of their origin. Further, the story and the dates it contains gives further weight to AUW 3084 being the date of Phantasy Star Online. At the time of Phantasy Star IV, the oldest of the swords, Sange, would have been 321 years old. By then it would have been a historical artifact, but by AW 3084, even the youngest of the swords is over 1,000 years old, which by that time certainly classifies them as "legendary swords."
The biggest problem opponents of the "PSO is post-PSIV" theory seem to have is, "Where are the Motavians and the Dezorians?" The fact that some have considered this the main basis for not going along with a post-PSIV date makes that question even more baffling to me than it is on the surface.
To me, this one is a no-brainer. Despite what the game's opening movie states, it is not Algo in its entirety that was facing "imminent destruction" but simply the Palmans' home world: Motavia. (True enough, the opening narration states, "The 'Pioneer Project' --A plan born of desperation, conceived in response to the imminent destruction of their home worlds" but look back at the quoted dialogueue from the scientists and Principal Tyrell at the end of Part I of this Theory and you will see they make multiple references to a singular home world, which leaves us with the fact that the opening narration's reference to "home worlds" must be a typo.)
The opening movie even shows us a world changing from green to brown -- a symbolic representation of Motavia's reversion to its natural desert state following The Great Collapse. It's the natural next logical step from PSIV -- in PSIV Motavia was about half-sand and half-green. Eventually, without Mother Brain, it's only natural that it would revert back to complete desert.
So that being the case, why on earth would the Motavians want to leave? They are natives of the desert Motavia. Along the same lines, with Dezoris still the same ice cube it's always been, why would the Dezorians want to emigrate -- especially to a nice, green, temperate world like Ragol?
As much as the next phanatic, I'd love to see Motavians and Dezorians make an appearance again in a future PSO title. But their absence in no way rules out the possibility of the Pioneers being post-PSIV Palmans. In fact, their absence is yet another pointer to PSO being the story of the Palmans' search for a new world of green.
My diodes haven't been this stiff since the last time I came out of stasis.
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