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Phantasy Star Universe

I wrote up a little Gamespot Review yesterday for Phantasy Star Universe. It really doesn't properly capture how much this game has me enthralled right now. I'm guessing that won't last too long as, after all, Neverwinter Nights 2 is just around the corner. However, I wouldn't be surprised if I'm still playing it after NWN2 is released. I'm honestly considering the 210 day for $50 subscription plan. Without further ado, my review (with some recently captured screenshots, yet):

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To best understand this game, it's good to put it in the proper perspective. Despite the $10 US subscription fee and the addition of housing and trade skills, Phantasy Star Universe is not your traditional MMORPG. Comparitive stats between friend and foe, while a definite determiner of the difficulty of the fight, are not the ultimate determiner of success or failure. Skilled arcade play, evaluating enemy patterns in order to dodge their attacks while attacking their weak points, play an important role in the success or failure of combat. Also, going out and hunting things is instanced into a maximum size of six player parties.

In other words, don't expect to play Phantasy Star Universe the same way you would EverQuest or World of Warcraft. The execution here is neigh totally different. Similarities have been drawn to Diablo, but those are weak at best. The best comparison would be to the precursor of this game, Phantasy Star Online, but there are and fundamental differences here and there that work to streamline and actually improve th game.

Phantasy Star Universe isn't for everyone, and many players are probably going to get stuck on two important aspects of their first impressions before giving the game a fair chance: The Interface and the Style. I'll cover those both:

The main gripe those players will have about this game is probably the interface. This is a console game port, which means you'll either adapt to playing it on the keyboard interface or plug in a gamepad. Personally, I play it on the keyboard interface and don't have too difficult of a time with it, but then I've a lot of experience playing this kind of interface from other Console to PC ports. If you go for the gamepad option, ideally you should try to use one from an XBox 360 (which are PC compatible) but you should be able to wing it with any pad that has two dual analog sticks. Regardless of which way you go, the Interface is something you can get used to in time, and is actually pretty slick once you have.

The second most common gripe may be about the style. The backdrop of the game is a somewhat upbeat Sci-Fi backdrop with aspects of Japanese pop culture here and there. Mecha, Chibi Cat Girls, Robot Maids, Svelte Teen Heroes - you'll find them all here. It helps to have an appreciation for Anime or at least the Phantasy Star series before going into this game. If not, well, you're either open minded or better off buying another game.

I didn't have either of these gripes, so for the most part Phantasy Star Online was just pure good for me. To simplify, I'll go into the individual reasons behind my scoring, and in doing so explain some of the core ups and downs of Phantasy Star Universe.

Gameplay - I haven't really messed around enough with the online mode yet, but from what I gathered it's pretty fully featured, so PSU is almost like getting two games in one: an episodic single player game and an open-ended up to six player multiplayer game with the matchmaker expanded to become a massively multiplayerish activity. Aside from the online/offline distinction, there's two main aspects to consider the gameplay by: In combat and out of combat.

The combat of the Offline and Online player mode is similar differing only in that you can choose to take players instead of AI while online. There are three approaches to combat: Melee attacks, Ranged attacks, and Force (Magic) attacks. Melee attacks involve performing strings of combos built of either normal attacks or powered up attacks that eat energy. Some of them look pretty extravagent. Ranged attacks can either be shot "off the hip" or from a first person shooter like aiming mode (leaving you immobile). Force attacks are thrown off wands and staves, and there's quite a variety of effects you can do. Given that a lot of emphasis goes towards watching enemies movements, avoiding their incoming attacks, and maneuvering to make your own, the combat plays out somewhat more like an arcade game than a MMORPG.

Out of combat you get to spend time in cities shopping, synthesizing, socializing, and selecting missions. The offline story mode is particularly interesting because there's an extravagant episodic adventure going on with Ethan (the main protagonist) and his friends. However, then you get into all the online MMORPG-ish trappings, and Out of Combat is where you start seeing things get massive. Sure, you're limited to 6 players per team while adventuring, but out of the adventure areas you interact with any one of the potentially thousands of players on the server. For example, they could come to your room and buy the stuff that you synthesized, or you could visit them.

Gameplay could potentially be improved with further depth and better AI, but it's a whole lot better than nothing, and still more involving than most MMORPGs out there, despite the limitation of 6 players at a time. No perfect 10 from me, but it earns an 8.

Graphics - The graphics in Phantasy Star Online are really pretty breathtaking, for the most part. My only critique would be that some of the textures are intended for lower resolutions, and you'll notice that if you pay close attention. The animations appear to be motion captured, which is good in terms of animation quality but appear a little strange to Western eyes sometimes. There's considerably more customization in the individual characters here than there was in the original game, and this includes clothing or, if you're playing a CAST (robot-like race), parts to customize your look further. Overall, I only see it necessary to ding the graphics short of a full 10 because of the low resolution textures.

Sound - The music might strike you as a bit repetitive, not to mention atonal in a creepy but uniquely Phantasy Star sort of way. Aside from that, I can't complain about the sound much, it gets the job done with minimal complaints. The sound effects are all so well synced with the action that it's hard to notice. The voice work is okay, but I qualify that with knowing it was an import. You'll hear better dialog on TV. Overall, I can't say I really felt humbled by the sound, it works but there could have been more done here, so I give it a 6.

Value - As I said once or twice already, Phantasy Star Universe is essentially two games in one.

Online, there's quite an extravagant single player story campaign, split into an episodic format including intro sequences and exit sequences between each chapter - even a preview of the next chapter! Offline play is further enhanced through "extra" mode that lets you play offline with your own custom character, all the unlocked side missions and Guardian NPCs friends from the story mode.

With the PC version, it's not necessary to buy an Online account in order to play in Offline mode, not sure about the other versions. Once you want to go online and play the semi-MMORPG experience with other players, that's $10/mo. Cheaper than most other modern MMORPGs, but will content updates come frequently enough to justify paying a continued monthly fee? Though they added quite a bit of bric-a-brac items and seasonal decorations to the original Phantasy Star Online, I'm not sure I'd say that was worth $10/mo. It's yet to be determined whether Phantasy Star Universe will prove worth that investment, but word on the street says that there's several Japanese patches that will be released at roughly the same schedule.

So in calculating the value between the offline and the online experience, I'd throw it a value of 8/10. Starts out high, but decreases a bit due to uncertainty.

Reviewer's Tilt: 8/10. It's a pretty solid game, I feel good about purchasing it. I recognize that not everybody will love it for the reasons I've outlined in the first three paragraphs of this review, but for those who aren't bothered by those problems I think they'll find it a worthy purchase. Especially if they like Sci-Fi.

In the end, the only thing I can really promise you is that if you enjoyed Phantasy Star Online you'll enjoy Phantasy Star Universe. It's essentially a streamlined, then improved upon, version of the original PSO. In addition to the online improvements, the story mode creates a whole new side to PSU, where PSO's single player was just a limited multiplayer version. The story also provides a great deal of background to the universe. I've yet to regret this purchase.

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