Phantasy Star Universe Review
Written : Thursday, November 01, 2007
By: Alan Pettit (GT: The Pants Party)
Our beloved 360 has not had a very big selection of RPGs thus far, and unfortunately what little we have has not been that great, but the one things that has remained steady is the unique gameplay that can be found in them. Enchanted Arms gave us a unique hex-style/turn-based battle system not found in too many traditional RPGs, while Phantasy Star Universe offers a free-action fighting system, reminding me very much of Secret of Mana for the SNES. This is where the game truly shines. Encounters are not random and unexpected as you may be used to, though the encounters tend to provide a map through each mission, making the overall gameplay feel very linear. To break this up, you are tasked with various Time Trials, where you still progress through the level as normal, but if you do it quickly (while still killing as many enemies as possible) you can be rewarded with a unique weapon or upgrade to help your quest.
Since the encounters aren't random and you can always see your opponents right away, you have a bit of a tactical advantage, but this does not usually mean you can avoid them. You have plenty of time to react, situate yourself and move about to plan a good attack, but there is little option but mowing them down, often using the same button combination over and over. Once you've cleared any area of all enemies, a locked door will open, allowing you to continue forward. This system gives a much more "hands-on" feel to your quest, but it also makes things a little more frantic. There is nothing more frustrating than coming to just before a save point and being frozen, then pummeled to death before you can bring up your item menu to heal yourself.
Free-action battle in... action.
The other unique aspect to the game is its customization, namely your weapon choices and character classification. Most RPGs you're stuck with a hero who can only use his five-foot sword, but here you have the choice of not only a number of melee weapons (including knuckles, claws, daggers, swords and bigger swords), but also a few select ranged weapons (bows, dual-pistols, BFG-esque gun). Along with changing your weapons, you can change your character class to suit your playstyle. Choose a hunter, you better equip a melee weapon, because your ranged attack power just dropped tremendously, and when switching to a ranger, you best go back to a ranged weapon because you'll be hitting like you're holding a limp noodle. On top of that, you can equip the weapons themselves with a number of special attacks called photon arts that will give them a super-attack, as well as the ability to upgrade the overall weapon stats. The photon arts are by far the best thing to master in the game, as the skill will level the more you use it. Finding a weapon you like and sticking with it will help greatly down the line, so it almost feels like all the customization they added in could hurt you if you experiment too much. Sadly, to simply beat the game, you may never have to even mess with these features, but for someone who enjoys feeling out a game completely, they are a nice bonus.
Also present in the game is the familiar online aspect, made popular by its predecessor Phantasy Star Online. An MMORPG is a rare thing on consoles, and it is so for a reason. Console players seem to be more of a game-to-game animal, and only recently with the achievement craze have players really explored unknown aspects of games to drain every last point from them. However, seeing as there are no online achievements, coupled with a $9.95/month price tag, this feature lays mostly dormant on most consoles. The game does have a dedicated following online and with the addition of an expansion early next year it will continue to have success, but without some major improvements it will not appeal to most console users.
Yeah, I live in a mall. So what?
The story is probably the biggest setback for the game, as we've played it a million times. A simple guy (Ethan Waber) gets drawn into a big war against evil, falls in love with a girl, who just so happens to be royalty. The only twist in that equation is that the girl didn't know she was royalty (most games they just hide in plain sight as a normal girl), but that's not exactly living dangerously with your storyline, is it? While not a unique story by any means, that doesn't really imply that it is a bad one at all. The basic overview is this: The Gurhal System, a group of three planets and a large city-like space-station are enjoying their 100th year of peace (after a large war between the three planets ends with a truce), when they are attacked by an alien life-form called The Seed. There's some business in there about A-Photons (small, but powerful energy source) and a group called the Endrum Collective who seems to be using both the Seed and A-Photons to their advantage, but truth be told, it's all very stale. The only thing that truly stands out in the story are its heroes. There is a very good connection between all the characters, which provides some decent cutscenes, though the writing may be a little cheesy.
Though the writing and story are bad, the dialogue is carried out surprisingly well for this type of game. There are the occasional awkward pause during cutscenes, but those are somewhat scarce to begin with, so it's not that noticeable. The music is extremely bad, forcing elevator-type music on you during missions, with a grand Japanese ballad between levels, which they didn't even have the heart to translate to English. The sound effects are hardly noticeable, but if you pay attention, they're sub-par at best.
The graphics aren't terrible, but they look like they'd be more at home on a PS2. As a matter of fact, the whole game has a very PS2-feel to it. It was a duel-release with the PS2, so I wouldn't be surprised if they did all their testing on that system and just made the necessary changes in code to get it ready for the 360 afterward. Cutscenes are somewhat nicer than the in-game play, but if they couldn't pull that off, they'd really be lost. Even so, they're still nothing to swoon over.
As I mentioned above, there are no online achievements, which is a very good thing since the online is a pay-to-play feature. Final Fantasy XI is a perfect example of that, creating achievements that take a lifetime to get, trying to extort achievement players. All of the achievements come automatically as the story progresses, somewhat slow at first, but then a large chunk comes in the last few hours of the game. The game might take anywhere from 16-22 hours, depending on how in-depth you explore the features and if you want all the cutscenes.
Bad music and sub-par sound effects are somewhat offset by some pretty good voice acting. However, the voice acting is somewhat scarce, making the sound overall very poor.
For a cutscene-heavy game, it does not appear they invested too much of their budget on graphics. They're good, but only PS2 good, not really 360 good.
The story is driven heavily in one direction, so it's not difficult to figure out where to go or what to do. Most of the unique features can be ignored and you will still be able to progress without much trouble, so it truly is a pick-up-and-go type game.
For RPG fans, it was a decent effort (and a much needed one) but it doesn't hold attention for more than one play-through. Most of the missions are tedious and repetitive, but the free-action battle system at least keeps it interesting.
They really couldn't be any simpler. Much Like King Kong, you simply have to beat the game and you've got the full 1,000.
For non-RPG fans, this might be a little more tolerable because of the free-action battle system, and even for RPG fans it's at least a small departure from the norm, but aside from that, it really is the norm, and doesn't offer anything we haven't seen before.