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Phantasy Star Portable


12:0408/05/2009Posted by Martin GastonNo Comments

How do you justify the continuation of a franchise almost exclusively famous for its online gameplay when it doesn’t feature any online modes? SEGA haven’t thought about it much, so the oft-maligned Phantasy Star Universe has been taken, squished down and regurgitated on Sony’s handheld opus as Phantasy Star Portable. Although whether you’ll ever want to play it on the move is another question entirely.

psp2The biggest problem is that it hasn’t travelled well across the pond. Us grubby, overweight westerners are more than content to sit alone in dimly lit rooms happily isolated from the rest of society in our pursuit of multiplayer gaming, and the Japanese player base aren’t. They’ll meet up. Sit next to each other. Play together. Socially, like. But what are we Europeans supposed to do? Unless you can somehow sprout three mates who all own PSPs and a copy of the game to sit down and play with you for extended periods of time, you’re pretty much out of luck. The grim consolation prize is the option to play with the disastrous AI, who can’t differentiate between open space and walls, and doing so sours the whole experience to the point of it being more fun to sit with your eyes closed and think about how the Dreamcast died before its time.

Neglecting the online effectively lobotomises the game from the beginning, and whilst there’s a promise from the developers floating around the internet that infrastructure mode will be patched in at a future date, it’s a small consolation for anyone who dropped £29.99 on it at launch and wants to play it properly right now.

You’re left with a crippled, mostly-lonesome experience where you trudge around various typical JRPG tropes and wonder how this happened to a series you remember being so wonderful at the turn of the millennium. It’s all here: clumsy dialogue, atrocious voice acting and occasional ‘comedy’ moments that go down as well as putting a Russell Brand DVD on the telly at the Daily Mail Christmas party. There’s even a pervy robot doctor, to round everything off.

psp4It’s all a bit of a shame, really, because they’ve managed to smooth out many of Phantasy Star Universe’s shortcomings. They’ve included plenty of content on the disk, for instance, and they’ve learnt their lesson from before and haven’t locked any of it away as paid DLC. Loot drops are a big deal again, which is a relief as PSU went way too far overboard with item creation. Most importantly, singleplayer characters can now be taken into the multiplayer mode and vice versa, ridding the game of PSU’s most illogical barrier. Thank God.

The Phantasy Star Online format actually holds up pretty well, still. It’s all about following visual and audio cues to chain attacks together, and the rather slick visuals certainly help make it easy on the eyes. It’s of similar ilk to Diablo, really, although the extra focus on character customisation certainly doesn’t go amiss: it’s all about scavenging, looting your way through dungeons to give your avatar a cooler, more aesthetically pleasing selection of swag. You choose from one of PSO’s vintage three classes (which specialise in melee, ranged or magic) and mix it with one of the four races to confer various bonuses, abilities and the whatnot before giving it a few final tweaks and getting stuck into the action.

And when you start investing more hours, you realise how apt the game really is. The UI is particularly noteworthy, for instance, the developers aware that navigating through cumbersome menus is never a good idea and opting instead to let you switch from various load-outs with a couple of quick button presses. SEGA clearly understand the genre: you’re never taken far from the action, and are rewarded with just enough loot to always justify another quick run through a dungeon.

psp3It’s just, well, it’s better with some other players, isn’t it? It’s not made to be done on your own. The lousy AI and awful script mean singleplayer Phantasy Star Portable feel like an oddly isolated experience. It should be better than it is. I can understand the potential difficulties in creating a more competent multiplayer system, but the lazy effort they’ve put out is just an inescapable flaw of the entire experience. Everything else is in place: a well handled difficulty level, decent dungeon crawling and just enough enemies and strategies to ensure that everyone will need to work together. But it’s pretty much all for nought, isn’t it?

Obviously if you can successfully get a game going with some mates, then do. It really is very satisfying when it works.

But more often than not it feels stunted; starved for options that were never developed. For all its many graces, Phantasy Star Portable is the latest in a series that’s still trying to ride on its claim of being the first online console RPG, clumsily forgetting the last nine years ever happened. It’s not going to pluck many people away from World of Warcraft, let’s be honest. There’s some diamonds in the rough, granted, and with more development time it could have been something special, but ultimately Phantasy Star Portable misses the mark by being a multiplayer game with no online.

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