Sega’s Phantasy Star series started off life in the 1980’s by embracing many of the traditional gameplay features that we’ve now become accustomed to in role-playing games. In 2000, however, Japanese developer Sonic Team turned its back on the traditional turn-based combat system and set out to make its Japanese RPG stand out from the crowd by becoming the pioneer of real-time combat in the Dreamcast hit Phantasy Star Online.
The foundations laid down by previous games in the series are still at the forefront of Phantasy Star Portable for PSP with dungeon crawling and real-time combat taking up the main bulk of the gameplay. With level grinding, questing, monster-slaying and looting also back on the agenda, Portable delivers a slimmed down version of the Phantasy Star Universe. Like many RPGs, Phantasy Star Portable’s gameplay can be very addictive as you strive to move up the levels and access better weapons and equipment, but in the process of converting the series to a handheld, the Universe has lost a little bit of its shine.
The sci-fi cyberpunk setting makes a return as Phantasy Star Portable picks up immediately before Phantasy Star Universe: Ambition of the Illuminus, the latest expansion pack for PSO. While the generic tale of good vs. evil, on paper, appears to be an interesting enough premise, it’s over-complicated by the myriad of menu and sub-menus that are littered with acronyms which will mean little unless you’re familiar with the franchise or you have the manual handy. Presentation is poor with wooden NPC interaction and mission introductions that are told via reams of text by an inanimate drawing of a character’s head on-screen, doing little to sustain your interest in the plot. Once the action begins, however, fans of Phantasy Star and indeed the RPG genre will find it difficult not to become engrossed in its familiar gameplay. Like us, you will probably lose track of time slaying beasts, gathering loot and hunting for rare items. Despite its shortcomings, Portable’s addictive hack ‘n slash, dungeon-crawling gameplay and visual anime charm can’t be denied.
Before the action begins there’s a comprehensive set of customization options that allow you to build a character from the ground up by choosing everything from his hair style to voice pitch. After you’ve picked one of the four races — Human, Newman, CAST and Beast — and chosen one of three classes — Hunter, Ranger and Force — it’s onto the battlefield for a series of dungeon missions. Despite periods of typically slow RPG gameplay, there’s more of a focus on combat in this latest Phantasy Star game as you move from one arena to the next slaying a range of monsters and humanoid enemies. Thankfully, the refined control scheme means that combat generally relies just as much on your timing and positioning as it does your ability to hit the face buttons rapidly and simply button-mash your way through enemies.
While combat can be a little repetitive and visually lackluster, racking up combos by using melee attacks is fairly satisfying, and you’re kept motivated by the incentive of discovering precious loot, such as weapons, healing items and even costumes for your character that you can pick up from the bodies of fallen enemies. The lack of an auto-targeting system is a poor omission, and especially frustrating when you’re using a ranged weapon, but you’re able to switch between the classes at will without losing your EXP or loot, which gives you the welcome opportunity to test out the Hunter’s swordsmanship or the Force’s spell casting ability, as well as the Ranger’s skills. The action palette, a feature that allows you to toggle between different gear and pull off a range of normal and special attacks, also comes in very handy during combat and lets you access different weapon configuration swiftly and intuitively during battle.
The crafting mechanic of Phantasy Star Online has paved the way for a random drop system, which gives combat a welcome unpredictability. Meanwhile, weapon and armor customization, plus the vast array of weapons available, from whips to spears (all of which have different levels of power and accuracy during battle), means that there’s a good deal of variety in combat. However, Phantasy Star Portable lacks variety in general gameplay; you spend the majority of your time moving from ‘A’ to ‘B’ though linear arenas wiping out enemies. The lack of scale also means that there’s not much room for exploration as you travel around a bland 2D map picking and choosing where to travel to rather than making your own way there. It just lacks the epic feel of Phantasy Star Online.
Where Portable fairs better is with its multiplayer game mode. Phantasy Star Online paved the way for online co-op play on consoles, so it’s disappointing that you can’t hook up with anyone online. You can, however, jump into a co-op local game with four friends and and participate in the decent range of missions on offer. Furthermore, it’s far more exciting gathering loot and slaying monsters together rather than relying on some of your AI party’s questionable path-finding skills.
Phantasy Star Portable is a bit of mixed bag. While it retains the pleasant essence of the Phantasy Star Universe, it offers nothing new, but rather strips down what it already had, skimps on presentation, and tries a little too hard to make it appeal to the handheld crowd by making combat the main attraction. However, the refined control scheme and the addictive leveling system can’t be denied. Furthermore, the lure of some sweet loot will undoubtedly ensure that RPG fans will be motivated to grind through this sci-fi Universe, and they’ll enjoy doing so.