Players who journey through the Phantasy Star Universe, can find action as a single gamer in either an offline "Story" mode, as an individual adventurer online, or within a group by connecting to the Internet.
Offline, gamers take the role of 17 year-old Ethan Waber, a young cadet in a human security group known as the Guardians. Ethan is thrust into war after an alien race known as the SEED attack a colony of humans and kidnap his sister in the process. To save his sister and eventually the entire Phantasy Star Universe, Ethan must travel through 20 dungeons and three different planets while earning experience, upgrading his gear and attributes, and discovering hidden trinkets and treasures found throughout the game. He won't be alone, however, as an ensemble of characters will join him throughout the single-player adventure.
Connecting to the Internet opens up three types of missions for single-player and group adventuring. Online universe users begin by creating their own character through a customization process complete with a variety of adjustable physical attributes. All players then gather in a pre-mission lobby to select and attempt a quest to complete, either alone or with a group of friends. Mission points, items, and other goodies are awarded in all three adventures based on performance.
There are three types of weapons with 200 variations and 20 categories found in Phantasy Star Universe, including melee, TECHNIC, and ranged combat options. TECHNIC is a type of magical combat executed with a wand or other magic casting weapons. Two items can be equipped at one time, and gamers can group their weapon sets according to each tool of destruction's strength and weakness. All three styles can be used, interchanged, and improved to battle over 200 diverse enemies found in the game.
Phantasy Star Online was the best Diablo clone ever set in space. Sega's made radical changes, even bringing in some common MMO elements, but few of these really work out for the better. As with most Phantasy Star games, Phantasy Star Universe has few immediately obvious connections to previous editions. This time we're introduced to the Gurhal star system, in which three planets (and one space station) are under attack by an unknown alien menace. Though it could've worked out fine if handled differently, Phantasy Star Universe doesn't do much with this setting, making me nostalgic for PSO's infinitely more compelling and creepy Planet Ragol. In fact, many aspects of Phantasy Star Universe feel generic and flavorless compared to their PSO counterparts.
One of Sega's major focuses this time around was the single-player experience, which throws you into the space hoodie of young Ethan Waber as he enlists in the Guardians (a peacekeeping force) and fights to defend Gurhal from enemies without and within. This basic storyline might've worked in more capable hands, but it's told poorly through cheap cinematics and weak voice acting. It's pretty impossible to care.
In between the goofy anime drama, you'll get to beam down to a planetary hotspot and smack some monsters with Ethan's lightsaber. The action soon proves repetitive, and it becomes apparent how hard it is to really care about a Diablo-clone character that you've not created yourself.
It'll probably take 15 to 20-odd hours to slog through all of the single-player chapters, which has the side effect of unlocking Extra Mode. Extra Mode lets you create your own custom character for offline-only play, sans any story bits. This sounds cool at first, but it's even less entertaining than the story mode. The only thing to do is play the same basic missions over and over again until you're strong enough to grind the next one in a similar fashion. It's like a training simulation for obsessive compulsive disorder, not a game you'd actually play for enjoyment.
Which brings us to the online game. The basic idea behind PSO remains the same in Phantasy Star Universe's online mode: create a character, beam down to a planet, gain experience from beating the crap out of monsters, and profit from the loot. It's a simple formula. An addictive formula. An almost fool-proof formula. Yet somehow, Sega screwed it up.
Worst things first: Phantasy Star Universe is one massive grind. Gone are the smooth progression and frequent loot scores of PSO. In Phantasy Star Universe, the only way to get ahead -- really, the only thing there is to actually do -- is repeat the same small set of missions over and over again, striving to reach the next five-level plateau so you can do the same thing on one or two newly accessible missions.
Even that might be fine if the fighting action were addictive, but it's actually worse than before. The characters run around more nimbly than in PSO, but that's about the only substantive improvement. Fighting comes down to nothing more than repeated button-mashing. It's utterly boring the fourth time, let alone the fiftieth. PSO's action was pretty creaky, but at least it demanded your attention.
But hey, at least you'll earn cool drops, right? Sadly, the loot's almost uniformly crap. Ninety-nine percent of drops are common crafting ingredients or restorative items. Phantasy Star Universe's idea of a "rare" is a piece of wood, maybe a circuit board or rappy wing if you're lucky. It's likely that some actual nifty drops -- you know, like a rare weapon that's useful -- will occur as the game lurches onward, but there's no getting away from the fact that the vast majority of drops suck, which will drive you to NPC shops and the odd player crafter.
Of course, money's pretty scarce too, giving you yet another thing to grind for. Toward this end you can open up your own shop to sell off the amazing pile of junk you'll accrue on your outings. This is probably the best way to make money, since one space-elf's junk is another's armor synthing ingredient. Unfortunately, the player store searching interface could not be more cumbersome. Trying to shop around for good prices is a laborious affair akin to running around K-Mart during a blackout and trying to find blue light specials.
After coming to terms with the online game, I began to feel like there was nothing to do. There's really not. You can grind a mission over and over until the next one opens or you can sit around in public chatting at a third-grade level. In PSO I could've beamed down to the planet and ran around seeking experience and rares; Ragol felt like a real location compared to the forgettable, 15-minute instances that make up the entirety of Phantasy Star Universe's generic "worlds." Universe, indeed.
To add insult to injury, a majority of the game's online content is still behind locks, to be doled out slowly through monthly updates. Given that many players are already at the level cap, it seems likely that a lot will quit before Sega gets around to opening the later stuff. After noticing this, I thought I might let my $10 monthly subscription lapse for six to nine months and come back when there's actually more than three days' worth of content to experience. Unfortunately, the small print in the manual reveals that Sega "may" delete characters on canceled accounts, so I would be risking my character (and all of the grinding I've already put into her) if I did that. Not cool, Sega.
Sadly, even PSO's memorably compelling aesthetics have been compromised in their journey to Phantasy Star Universe. Phantasy Star Universe looks like a candy-coated neon take on its dark and somber predecessor. This is not an innately terrible direction to take, but in this case most aspects end up feeling generic and lesser compared to what came before. (I actually like the new player fashions quite a bit, though.) This lapse in quality is evident everywhere. The planetary scenes barely look better than the levels we explored in 2001, and are less memorable to boot. The new boss encounters are completely unimaginative. Even the soundtrack is a mere shadow of its former majesty.
As a typically incompetent console port, Phantasy Star Universe for the PC has a very rough interface that will likely cause annoyance until you get to grips with it. A gamepad is pretty much required. The visuals are weak by modern PC standards, but at least this version supports things like higher resolutions, anti-aliasing, and the usual PC graphical niceties. This is probably the best version for overall performance. There's no voice chat built in, though, so you'll have to rely on a third-party solution to communicate with your allies. This obviously won't work well for public games, but that might be a blessing in disguise considering some of the characters running around out there.
Phantasy Star Universe is a disappointment of near-epic proportions. Sega ripped out the very heart of PSO's legendary addictiveness, replacing it with a repetitive, tedious grind that shows no signs of ending. As a huge admirer of PSO, I can still find bits of enjoyment in Phantasy Star Universe; however, this is not a good start to our long-term relationship, and just as I grew tired of the grind in Final Fantasy XI, so will I tire of it in Phantasy Star Universe.
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