Phantasy Star Portable PSP Review
The Phantasy Star series has been around for over 20 years, but it did not start out as a game that was heavily focused on online play. The first title came out in 1987 on the Master System, which played like a traditional Japanese Role Playing Game. Since then the franchise has spawned numerous sequels. Then in 2001 the series took a huge turn when SEGA released Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast. It was no longer turned based and instead was more action oriented. Also, as the title suggests, there was a huge focus on online play.
Step forward a few years and you’ll notice the online series of Phantasy Star has had a few sequels, with the likes of Phantasy Star Universe and the add on, Ambition of the Illuminus. SEGA’s next step for the franchise is to bring it to the handheld market, with the latest instalment Phantasy Star Portable for, funnily enough, the PSP.
Phantasy Star Portable is a continuation of the Phantasy Star Universe storyline timeline. Unlike the last game, which in single player had you taking control of a specific character, you are given the ability to create a user-generated hero who has recently joined the GUARDIANS. What follows is a story of terrorism where an unknown woman is causing SEED monsters to reappear throughout the Gurhal System.
You can tell that the story isn’t the main focus of the game. It’s not complex, deep nor full of twists and turns; instead it’s simply there to move you onto your next lot of missions. During your adventuring you will meet a lot of the cast from Phantasy Star Universe, as well as a few new faces. It’s nice for fans to see some of the characters they know, but players don’t need to have played Universe to understand this game.
There are two main modes, story and multi. Story mode takes your created character into the game’s story and you’ll play out story missions to push the plot forward or free missions to gain some new equipment and level up. Multi mode is for multiplayer cooperative play for up to four people, ad-hoc only.
The key word above is ad-hoc; the online aspect of Phantasy Star is removed from the handheld version. It’s a strange decision which means you can no longer go online to get your fix of dungeon crawling. It didn’t have to be a full service like its console and PC brethrens, where you would pay a subscription to take Phantasy Star online. Instead they could have just allowed players to go online to continue their multi mode game-playing. Maybe doing this would raise questions over the premium MMORPG fees of other games.
The game allows you to create and save up to 8 characters. Starting with selecting your race and gender, you move on to changing the appearance of your character model through size, hair, facial features, clothes and lastly selecting what type of class you are going to be. Phantasy Star Portable’s creation features are just about varied enough to ensure the people you meet won’t look the same. It’s not the largest or most customisable, but there are enough options there to please people who try to create something unique.
Delving into story mode means you have to deal with playing with the computer rather than human players. At the start it doesn’t seem that bad, but as you get to the longer, harder missions, problems become visible. Characters like to get stuck behind objects when the maps get complex. What’s even more insulting is that when you go back for them, they act as if it was your fault. When they come out with lines like “Did you get lost?”, you just want to slap them for it. Other problems are down to attacking. The A.I seems to have a problem detecting when to attack an enemy. They won’t attack for a while, instead just sitting there and not do anything whilst you do all the dirty work. They also don’t instantly heal you when you have low health, which can be annoying on the harder boss battles if you run out of healing items. These are rather major problems but thankfully you won’t encounter them too much over the course of the 20 hour story mode to get that infuriated with them.
Multiplayer is where most of the goodness shines out of Phantasy Star Portable. There’s no story whatsoever. Multiplayer is just you and mates as you group together to do some dungeon crawling as you try to exceed the mission, while at the same time gaining the best weapons possible. Not having to worry about random AI problems makes for stress free playing
When you look at Phantasy Start Portable there isn’t really that much to it. Gone is the 3D hub exploration, where all the shops and Non-Player Characters (NPCs) hang out. Instead that has been replaced with a 2D overview map, where you just simply click on the symbol you want to interactive with, be it a shop or a NPC. The only 3D movement now is when you go on your mission into the battlefield environment on whichever planet you’ve selected.
Battling is done in real time. Phantasy Star Portable boils down to a few things like exploring, killing monsters, finding items, rare equipment and keys. You’ll repeat this until you pass the mission requirement or kill the boss of the mission. That’s all there is to the gameplay, which has been similar since Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast. There are of course new items, weapons and so on; it feels old, yet it’s still fun to play when you’re doing it all with friends.
A neat touch for Phantasy Star is the action palette. Holding down the circle button allows you to bring up a list with weapons you’ve assigned to the action palette, making it so much easier to switch weapons on the fly. Items can also be used this way. This means you don’t have to press start, go to inventory, select items and then scroll down and find your healing item. It speeds everything up and keeps Phantasy Star Portable feeling fast and fluid when exploring the dungeons.
Presentation is a mixed bag. On one side you’ve got a game that graphically isn’t all that bad looking. The character models are detailed and good looking, with a bonus of being able to have a variety of looks to them through the character creation and clothes you will find or buy. The art style is mostly attractive, especially in the weapon and item departments where you get to see them close up through your database. There’s a huge selection of weapons ranging from energy swords, lasers, pistols all up to fancier battle techniques involving whips and fists.
On the flip side of things the environments are a bit bland looking, there’s some nice locations, but these could have been better with the help of more things to fill in the surrounding areas around your player. It also suffers from pop-up in large areas. In addition to that are some awful character portraits during dialogue scenes.
There’s the traditional Phantasy Star soundtrack that’s charming, pleasant and relaxing to play along to. The voice acting is passable, but a couple of the characters just seem annoying when they speak. I got this strange feeling of dislike every time Laia talked to me and her picture looked straight at me, it’s hard to explain, but you might also feel it, it’s just how she looks and speaks. The main character you create is silent, even during the story scenes. The player you make will just either say “?” or “…”. It feels impractical when characters are talking and all you do is reply with those two sayings; at least the characters acknowledge this and comment about it. The sound effects sound like they are reused from Universe, so they aren’t all that spectacular, but do the job fine.
In the end Phantasy Star Portable will only appeal to people who can play it with friends. As a single player game is feels rather mediocre as you traverse through the dreary story. It feels samey also, especially if you’ve played Phantasy Star Universe, as it uses a lot of those locations. If you’ve got friends who have a PSP and are interested in the series or action RPGs like Diablo and Dungeon Siege, then those guys are going to enjoy the simple gameplay of raiding dungeons in Phantasy Star Portable. It’s so much more enjoyable with friends, even if you’ve experienced it all before.