Phantasy Star 0 DS Review

Any of you who listen to the DarkZero podcast will know that me and Andi really, really like Phantasy Star Online. In fact, we like it so much that when we managed to get Michael Pachter on the show, we bored him to tears by ranting for twenty minutes about why PSO is probably our favourite game of the last decade. And while there have been a number of sequels since its release in 2001, they’ve mostly failed to recapture the magic of the Dreamcast classic. Bogged down by dreadful, unskippable cutscenes and the removal or alteration of certain quirks that made PSO as unique as it was, the Phantasy Star Universe titles left a lot of fans feeling a little upset. So, does Phantasy Star 0 (we’ll call it Zero from now on, to avoid confusion) buck the trend, or represent yet another missed opportunity?

I sometimes forget that not everyone played PSO. It was an action-RPG title for the Dreamcast, with a Diablo-style structure. This meant you could happily spend dozens (or, in my case, hundreds) of hours cutting down monsters, levelling up and grabbing better weapons to kill more powerful monsters, level up some more, get even better weapons, and so on. And once you’ve finished the game on the first difficulty level, you take your character and equipment to the next one. And the next. And the next. It was wonderfully addictive and, for many, the first ever experience of an online-heavy game on a console.

But what of Zero? Initial impressions are almost entirely positive. There’s the usual wealth of character classes and races to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, although the appearance customisation options are a little restrictive – you can change your armour colour, hairstyle, voice… and that’s about it. Still, it hardly ruins the game. And once you start playing, you might actually begin to find yourself believing you’ve found the true sequel to PSO – everything feels the way you remember it, albeit with the handy addition of dodge-roll and lock-on abilities. Not only that, but the game kicks off with the sort of breadth that you didn’t see in PSO until you’d put a fair few hours in. Right off the bat you’ll find yourself experimenting with different weapon types, understanding their idiosyncrasies, and many items that were pretty rare in PSO are now dropping all over the place – in other words, Zero feels like it’s beginning where PSO left off. Clearly this is great news for series veterans, but it works out pretty well for newbies, too – while PSO‘s approach of ‘one new weapon type every six hours, if you’re lucky‘ felt hugely rewarding back in the day, it probably wouldn’t hold the attention of your average modern gamer.

The return of the mag is also entirely welcome. For those who aren’t aware, the mag is a creature that hovers next to you, acting as a pet of sorts, and buffing your character. The mag has its own set of stats, and they have a knock-on effect on those of your character. You raise your mag’s stats by feeding it recovery items from your inventory, and in doing so you can shape the mag’s – and your own – development. On top of that, if the mag likes you, it’ll give you extra attack/defense buffs during dire situations, and even sometimes resurrect you if you die. It’s a wonderful little idea, and I struggle to think why no other RPG has tried something similar.

Zero features a fairly a rubbish story that makes a token effort to prevent you having any fun, but the dialogue is easy enough to fast-forward through. Basically, you wake up with amnesia, and there are some monsters and an irritating girl who needs your help, and ancient ruins, and… Christ, I don’t know. I tried to follow the story at first, but I soon got fed up and now I can’t even remember any of the characters’ names. Good job, guys!

Still, that’s not really the point. The highlight of any Phantasy Star game (from 2001 onwards, at least) is teaming up with your mates and knocking the crap out of a load of monsters, levelling up and grabbing better gear along the way, like any good dungeon-crawling action-RPG. And this is sort of where Zero‘s real troubles begin to unravel. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the multiplayer mode itself, mind you – so what’s the problem, exactly?

Well, it’s on the bloody Nintendo DS, isn’t it.

I’ve nothing against the platform itself, shovelware aside. But Zero is an in-depth, online action-RPG. Now, how many of you have your DS set up to work online? Be honest. Because the DS’s baffling inability to support WPA encryption over wireless networks means you’ve got a fairly limited set of options. You can set your router to use WEP encryption, but that means allowing your home network to be hacked by pretty much anyone who can use a PC. You can buy another USB wi-fi stick and share the internet connection through it to the DS, but it’s a pain in the arse to set up, and it means leaving your PC or laptop switched on while you’re playing. Then there’s the third option – not bothering, and just leaving online play to the consoles that do it well. And that’s the one that people usually run with.

So, faced with a DS game that’s clearly decent, but really needs to be played online to get the most out of it, you’ll find yourself wondering if you should bother, or just trade it in. And soon, you start to ask yourself more questions. Like, why are the graphics so rubbish? Why can’t I do voice-chat with my friends instead of pissing about drawing picture-messages for them? And why are all the missions so long when I’m quite clearly only going to play this on the toilet or during the occasional train journey?

Phantasy Star 0 is actually a pretty great video game, and it almost perfectly channels the dark magic that made Phantasy Star Online so compelling all those years ago (and veterans can still relive the glory days, thanks to the chaps at SCHTHACK). But unless you’ve got a bunch of nearby friends with their own DSes and copies of the game, the bizarre choice of platform means you’re highly unlikely to get the most out of it. While it perfectly scratches that Diablo-esque dungeon-crawler itch, you’re still going to feel an idiot playing it for hours whilst sat in front of your PC or home consoles, and the game is simply too demanding to be worth playing while you’re on the move. Or the toilet.

Get a home console version on the go, a la Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce, and I’ll buy the shit out of it. As it is, Zero is far too hampered by Nintendo’s handheld to be worth a hearty recommendation.

6 out of 10
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