It's anyone's guess as to why Sega decided to roll Phantasy Star into their idea for an offline/online RPG cash cow. Brand recognition probably had something to do with it, but the modern day interpretation of the series is a far cry from its inception (and three sequels) in the eight and sixteen bit eras. Whatever their reasoning, Phantasy Star Online ran away with the hearts of many back in the Dreamcast's twilight, solidifying its brand of loot collecting and monster bashing as the new identity for the franchise. The original Phantasy Star Portable, released a little more than a year ago, sold well enough to warrant a sequel developed entirely by Alfa System. So here it is, and here I am to tell you if I felt differently than Nathan Steven's thoughts on the original PSP incarnation.
Three years have passed since the events of the original Phantasy Star Portable. Poor planning throughout Gurhal has lead to an acute lack of resources, but, quite luckily, this is happening right as a new system of interstellar travel is gaining popularity. Hindsight is always 20/20, because said system of sub space travel also opened the channel to a menagerie of atrocities previously thought vanquished by the events of the previous game in the series.
Or something. Lamenting the tropes of Japanese RPGs has nearly become a cliché unto itself, and Phantasy Star Portable 2 certainly isn't immune to similar criticism. It's plot is detail rich, but ultimately composed of the same trite filler that's been trying to rationalize forcing the player down an endless session of ambiguous hallways on the way to collecting better things to kill bigger guys. If you're cool with a somewhat insecure genre ripping off anime/itself and selling old stories inside a fresh cover, great, but know before you go in that, despite a considerable effort rendering the sights and sounds of the world(s), Phantasy Star Portable 2 falls victim to the genre's constant Achilles’ heel; a purveying feeling of sameness pulsing through every vessel, and anemic motivation to explore it.
Despite a rough landing on the narrative end, what's left of the presentation is fairly positive. A wealth of customization options await the character(s) you choose to create, detailing everything from eyes to underwear. The variation is awesome in lieu of creating a unique soul in an online arena, which gives each player a chance to standout amongst their friends and enemies. The game also looks quite nice, and definitely feels like it’s pushing the PSP's technical limitations in a few areas. Art direction is sound, but derivative. The set pieces mesh with the music, but you've visited the interstellar space stations and organic planets many times before. It might not have a soul, but it’s certainly easy on the eyes.
If you're a fan of the series, which, if you've made it this far, you no doubt are, you're interested in how well the latest iteration of the series pulled off the multiplayer elements. Answer? Quite well, albeit by comparison to the previous game. Phantasy Star Portable 2 firmly chooses evolution over revolution, with revised mechanics and a streamlined interface taking priority over fresh content.
Combat occurs in real time. Bringing up the menu in the midst of combat allows you to switch between melee, ranged, and magic weapons on the fly, which is great for areas sporting a few different enemies. The sheer variety between classes and races, combined with the different approach with character building, defaults to a relatively dynamic combat experience. Along with loot acquisition, the variation behind your potential approach to combat is one of Phantasy Star Portable 2's greatest strengths. Playing with your friends as opposed to the considerably stupid AI is a must, but the solo missions are nevertheless in great supply.
Fourth verse same as the first
Phantasy Star Portable 2 makes an interesting argument regarding what makes a good game, or rather, a game "good." Let me first state that I had fun with the time I spent online. It was entertaining, even with random people and lackluster communication. You go on missions with multiple people to kill things to get equipment to get better at killing bigger things. It's a long standing paradigm, and, in a certain sense, if it isn’t broke, don't fix it, but it lingers along the same lines as fast food. After I was done I felt like I was full while simultaneously realizing I didn't actually eat anything of value. My main issue with the sequel is that it offers an experience that I've had several times before, through both Phantasy Star Online and other RPG's.
Phantasy Star Portable 2's fresh ideas are mostly composed of obvious steps forward or accessibility considerations to make it more like the current genre champion, Monster Hunter. A new class, a different (and more reliable) way to upgrade weapons, Photon-Arts as a catch-all for abilities, a manually controlled shield and dodge, variable partner AI, and different ways to equip armor may seem new to the franchise, but fresh ideas they are not. Even PSP2's most coveted feature, a legitimate infrastructure mode, is standard by any other measure. It stands out here because it's one of the few games on the PlayStation Portable to offer such an immense experience in terms of online multiplayer, but in terms of game design it seemed like an obvious move to make, maybe even one intentionally left out of the original to justify a sequel.
Worse, there's already news of more Phantasy Star Portable on the horizon. Whether or not Phantasy Star Portable 2 packs in enough fresh content to completely distinguish itself from the previous release is debatable, but it's disheartening to see Sega of Japan already talking up Phantasy Star Portable 2 Infinity as well as a true console sequel with the recently announced Phantasy Star Online 2. Even if you ignore the content overlap with the original Phantasy Star Portable, it diminishes the value of this release, making it feel like developers at Alfa System were simply going through the motions to crank out a half hearted sequel.
Whatever the case, it leaves Phantasy Star Portable 2 in this weird gray area where rules in regard to scoring vary in with respect to interest level and/or tolerance for a marginal upgrade. The lack of pure competition in the genre or the platform lends credibility toward its existence, but that's not quite enough to justify a $40 price tag on a relativity niche title that will possibly be obsolete with an inevitable sequel with bigger and better features. Compounded into all of that is the near-requirement to get a few of your friends playing simultaneously. With the traditional lobby system gone, level matching a reasonable chore, a cumbersome chat interface, and the inconsistency of random adventurers, friends are an absolute must to fully enjoy the game. Granted, that's quite a few "if/then"'s, but this criteria is still a legitimate cause for concern.
If you're reading this and getting upset, you're not who I'm trying to talk to. If you enjoyed Phantasy Star Online in the past and want to reignite that fire, this is the game for you. If you like going on basic quests in an action RPG with friends, this game is for you. If you want a sliver of an MMO experience on a PSP, this game is for you. My criticism is geared toward what Phantasy Star Portable 2 brings to the table, and how archaic game design shouldn't suffice for a $40 product. None of this may bother fans of the genre, but it left a profound impression on my time playing it.