Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II (GameCube) Review

By Rory W. Renehan 29.07.2004

Review for Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II on GameCube

Those tentative first few steps into a new online world are usually amongst our fondest gaming memories to date. But can Sega really revive their greatest gaming masterpiece so far? Well if ever their was an argument for the GameCube going online it is definitely contained within the 200+ hours of play that Phantasy Star Online delivers...

Surprisingly enough, for an RPG the story does not play a massive part in the game and is really only shown in the game's beautiful opening FMV, yet is worth knowing. Your home world of Coral is soon going to become uninhabitable and a ship named Pioneer One has been sent with half the population to find a suitable planet to occupy. Your story, however, begins aboard Pioneer Two along with the last of the refugees. Now, whilst Pioneer One has found a planet that is seemingly perfect, unfortunately upon the arrival of Pioneer Two to this perfect new world, Ragol, a mysterious explosion rocks the planet and all contact with Pioneer One's settlers is lost. Cue you, the gamer, taking control of a personalised character hailing from one of three classes; Hunter, Ranger or Force, which each have four sub-classes. Hunters are the mêlée warriors, Rangers the ranged combat experts and Forces are the magical adepts.

The player’s role in the game and whole style of play depends on what class is chosen from that start. Once sent down to the ship a quick welcome is given from the Principal of the ship and from here on in the game is free for exploration. Part of PSO's beauty is in those first few moments of control; RPG fans will instantly hit start to look at their menu screens and be pleasantly surprised at what is without a doubt the best status screen the GameCube has seen yet. Although many other aspects of the game may appear to be unusual for an RPG, it is the statistics (mentioned in more detail later) that form another part of this game’s charm. Fans of “traditional” RPGs may be at a loss where plot is concerned, especially since the true storyline, if played with friends, is an epic tale of teamwork, friendship, online communities and fevered item hunting. No doubt, though, the thin storyline is enough to make a lot of RPG fans look away.

Of course before you get time to get to grips with the controls and combat system you cannot fail to look around and get a feel for your surroundings. Unfortunately, first impressions are grim to say the least. The character models are suitably pleasing to the eye, but the Episode One scenery is beginning to show its age. Sega has done absolutely nothing to the visuals since the Dreamcast version hit the streets many years ago, so the game is definitely lacking when compared to any of the GameCube’s other titles, especially the enemy models. Episode Two, however, brings with it some welcome improvements with far crisper visuals and stunning locations. The levels also now feel far less ‘identikit’ and range from lush jungles to sun-kissed beaches. Fortunately, all the way through both of the Episodes, you are treated to some delicious magical effects (such as heat distortion) and some breath-taking boss encounters.

Screenshot for Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II on GameCube

Unlike the hit-and-miss visuals, the musical presence in the game is of a permanently high quality. From the opening cut-scene to the game endings, everything is beautifully orchestrated and warms the heart on several occasions – and, notably, you are treated to some inspirational vocals after each game completion. The game’s menus are also delightfully ambient and the boss themes suitably thrilling. Sound effects are nothing too out of the ordinary, with the usual (but strangely satisfying) grunts of enemies as they taste blade, laser or fire. Overall, this game’s orchestration is an aural delight and fortunately all music you hear is stored in the BGM test found in the options – a great addition so the player can replay their favourite tunes time and time again.

The storyline is not the only thing to make you suspicious of this game’s RPG tagline; the combat, which can only be compared to an action hack-and-slash version of Diablo, makes the link even more tenuous. The only real difference between the two is that PSO involves far more skill, as you must manoeuvre your character exactly and time your attacks to perfection. This approach gives the game a real action-packed edge and as you become surrounded by slow moving enemies, Resident Evil-style, the combat becomes pretty intense. You begin the game with a standard and heavy attack, as well as a basic weapon. The normal attack is what you most likely would expect, with the heavy one being simply stronger but slower. This, therefore, forces you to use the game’s ‘3-hit combo’ function, albeit in a preferred pattern; for example: normal, normal, heavy. At first the 3-hit combo system is hard to get accustomed to, but it easily becomes second nature.

Screenshot for Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II on GameCube

All characters (except androids) can learn an array of magic attacks. Forces, being the best with magic, can learn all spells and can naturally achieve the most effect with them. Since the main pull of the game is to Level Up you learn spells, most of which have levels one through thirty, with technique "disks" that you can find either at stores or dropped by enemies. The battling seems very straightforward at first but is subtly ingenious in its own way. When you begin to factor in the game's vast array of weapons and weapon types you will soon discover that range, speed and power are all very important aspects. Since the game is in Real-Time, Forces have their work cut out for them when working alongside three other players. Although a formidable fighting force within themselves, they take on their "true" role in multiplayer, in which they have to heal and support a group of fighters, which is no mean feat!

Based on the style of fighting you would not believe this to be your everyday, run-of-the-mill role-player. The feature that does define this game most as an RPG is the numbers / statistics. The game is based totally on Levelling Up and what can be achieved through it. As you Level Up your stats increase and as this occurs, more and more weapons, spells and armour become usable. You spend the entirety of the game watching and managing your stats so you can equip that great new weapon you just found or learn that devastatingly-powerful new fire spell, but soon enough numbers begin play a bigger role than that. Very quickly you will be watching your characters stats very closely in your quest to mould them in the exact way you desire.

The game's dependence on numbers is made even more noticeable with the introduction of a Mag, a cute little companion that evolves and hovers above your shoulder at all times. Your Mag has four statistic levels - power, dexterity, mind and defence. When you feed it certain items the statistics are raised until they Level Up - accuracy, mental strength and defence, respectively. Mags offer you the chance to build-up specific stat-areas on your character and are the only way to attain the type of fighter you want. They are a clever addition as the raising of them adds an extra element of brain power that is not immediately apparent from the game's hack-and-slash exterior.

Screenshot for Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II on GameCube

For those wondering whether the game is actually worth the expense, I can reassure you slightly as there are multiple ways for this game to be enjoyed. You can play offline through the levels to reach the end boss or instead choose the twenty-plus missions that are incorporated. You can play through the two- to four-player offline mode with your friends or merely compare your unique rare findings. The game also offers a challenge mode whereby you are stripped of your levels and left with the default character, thus forcing you to work in a perfect team to overcome tasks that alone would be impossible. Tag on the fact that once Online new missions can be downloaded as soon as Sega releases new quests (something that still currently happens), and the title expands quite considerably. In addition, for veterans everywhere, upon completing PSO, you unlock hard mode, followed by a very hard, then ultimate mode! The last of these is especially fun with the inclusion of brand new enemies and a much higher degree of difficulty. Overall the game's modes can keep dedicated players happy for upwards of a year offline or Online.

So at its worst this game is a glorified hack-and-slash with masses of rare weapons and items to keep fans happy for ages. At its best, though, Phantasy Star Online is a live community, the likes of which you have to experience at least once. The online game is so fantastically realised by Sega that it is Unreal. The overwhelming sense of community and triumph as you and your team of friends defeat an enemy with team work is breath-taking. It is this sense of teamwork and community that is the game's main focus point. Explaining PSO is difficult, but just imagine a futuristic wonderland where you have enough statistics to fulfil a perfectionist's dream; thousands of weapons and armour of varying rarities to be found and equipped, and powerful magic spells to learn that will get progressively stronger...Most importantly, though, imagine everyone else is experiencing the same excitement and sense of convergence as you!

Screenshot for Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II on GameCube

Cubed3 Rating

8/10
Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

At its core this is a beautifully realised futuristic RPG world in which you can 'interact and enjoy'. The Online experience is expensive but it is the way the game was intended to be played. There is some difficulty in trying to describe what makes this Online gaming experience so magical. Is it the on-going desire to explore? The complex, yet strangely compelling, character growth? Maybe it is the greed to find the most expensive piece of magical kit? Or perhaps the narcissism to be the best there is? Whatever the case, get yourself a GC modem and a copy of this as soon as possible!

Developer

Sonic Team

Publisher

SEGA

Genre

Real Time RPG

Players

4

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  10/10 (4 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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