Phantasy Star Zero is confused about what it wants to be. On the one hand, it wants to appeal to the existing fans, and does so with lots of collectable items and, at times, brutal difficulty. On the other, releasing the game to DS' massive userbase implies that part of the intent is to grasp hold of a whole new bunch of players, which is at odds with the challenging difficulty levels and means that some of the fun in finding new weapons is removed; in an effort to be more newbie-friendly, they turn up much more commonly. In the way it tries to target two entirely different markets, Phantasy Star Zero contradicts itself - nevertheless, it is a rather good contradiction of a game.
On a basic level, Phantasy Star Zero is an action RPG that encourages you to smash in a variety of monsters so that you can earn money, weapons and other treasures, gain experience, level up, improve your equipment and, again, beat up more enemies. Those who are not fans of the genre may not see much appeal in repeating the same actions over and over, but those that do find themselves perking up at the thought of such a game will doubtless be able to recall the feeling of satisfaction gained from discovering a particularly rare piece of armour or suchlike. Personally, I find them therapeutic in their repetition. For genre-fans, Phantasy Star Zero should definitely be on your radar.
Combat is simple enough to be inclusive for new players, but goes just deep enough to satisfy those that are more experienced, with a huge selection of weapons to master. The touch screen holds an Action Palette, a simple line-up of three icons that relate to the face buttons. Players assign actions to each of these icons and the buttons can then be used to quickly access commands. By default, light and heavy attacks and a dodge-roll are attached to the icons, but it is very easy to customise and swap things around. Magic and items can also be placed on the Action Palette, and you actually have six slots to utilise - holding down the shoulder button swaps the default icons for a second set of three, using the same buttons with the shoulder button pressed. With this doubling the options, I kept the basics as they were and had a selection of healing items occupying the second tier of the Action Palette for easy access at all times. With this system in place, healing, casting spells and, of course, attacking, are all as easy as a button press. Switching weapons is also reasonably easy, with a grip of the shoulder button and a tap of the Start button getting you straight into selecting your arsenal - the alternative is swamping through the menus mid-battle, and while this still puts you in the line of fire, the key combination at least gets you to the right sub-menu instantly. There's no pause, see, being an online-centred game.
For weapon combat, timing your button presses properly will chain together combos for greater damage - a simple technique to master, but one that will save a lot of pain later on. The only thing to worry about is getting the timing down for each of the weapon types. Phantasy Star fans will not be disappointed at the wide spread of tools of destruction, with a few new types thrown in for good measure. Should the basic weapons not be enough for you - and they probably won't be against some of the bosses - you can fortify and even synthesise different elements to them for that extra tang on the end of each hit.
Areas in Phantasy Star Zero are separated by gateways. Some these allow you to run straight through to the next, others require key cards to pass, while others still require you to trounce a host of hostile creatures before you can progress. More than likely, though, you will want to slay each and every thing you see - how else do you expect to level up to deal with the even bigger threats? Plus, you only get boxes of loot when you've dispatched every nasty in each area...
Aside the vast array of weaponry, basic character customisation isn't all that. You get to choose your gender, clothes, hair and voice...and, aside your most significant choice, race, that's about it. There are three types: humans, the elf-like Newmen or the robotic CASTs. Each have their own statistical advantages and disadvantages, and varying abilities - Newmen use magic better, while CASTs can set traps, for example. Your choice also affects how the story pans out. In a nice touch, three save slots have been provided so that you can sample each of the races without binning off your previous efforts.
The single player story mode is nothing too special, though it does feature some excellent anime cutscenes and is a decent way to start newcomers off with the game. It lasts around 15 hours or so and has a number of sidequests, too. There are some definite concerns about difficulty, however. The very first mission as a human involves a battle against a giant dragon that is next to impossible to defeat without some serious grinding for experience beforehand, which could put off those that it aims to attract. It seems to nudge new players towards the online play quite prematurely so that they can gain the necessary levels to stand a fair chance. Whatever character you make can be used interchangeably through single player, local multiplayer and online multiplayer, thankfully, so if you hit a point that you just can't get past there are other options to help you build your statistics up first. If you get bored of a particular mode, you can just hop in and out and still continue with your main character, which is a huge advantage. Sadly, you cannot go through the story mode in multiplayer, local or otherwise.
The online multiplayer is undoubtedly the meat of Phantasy Star Zero, and considering the limitations set by Nintendo they've done a very good job of it. It's easy to get into, and, although you will have to wait a few minutes for a game to set up, it is completely lagless once you get a party of up to four players together and the exploring/eviscerating commences. The gameplay remains the same, but it's always better with real people joining you in the fun. Unfortunately, it is precisely the limitations that Nintendo have set that hold things back. There is no chat available outside of some set messages if you are playing with random players. Play with people you know with friend codes and you get a more versatile Pictochat-style chat application to use, but if you don't know anybody else with the game...well, you're out of luck. You're also unable to add random players to a friend list, though you can review them so that they're more or less likely to be connected with you the next time you're both looking for a game. Outside of these issues, though, if you're so inclined you'll be playing the online for absolutely ages to fill your collection with all those delicious items.
Yet, the worst thing about Phantasy Star Zero is not actually to do with any silly online problems, and more to do with a huge oversight in the system that it has been developed for. Despite Nintendo DS being a portable system, you're probably going to have to ignore its benefits and play it at home anyhow - firstly because of the online reliance, and secondly due to the lack of a pause or mid-mission save function. The former is forgivable, as you do not always have to play online, but the latter is infuriating due to the length of missions - usually around forty minutes. Let's say you have a twenty minute commute to work, as I do. You start playing a mission, get halfway through it and...oh dear, you've reached your destination. Your options now are to save your statistics, switch off and attempt the entire mission again later, or you can leave your DS in sleep mode until you are able to play again. It seems ridiculous to think that a simple 'temporary save' function could not have been implemented that allowed you to restart from any point you wanted. This temporary checkpoint data could have been wiped when you reloaded the quick save point so that people could not exploit it. This is exactly the sort of thing that portable games need due to their very nature and the circumstances in which they are commonly played, and it is disappointing that such a simple thing proves such a hindrance to Phantasy Star Zero.