Phantasy Star Universe: Ambition of the Illuminus PC Review

You might remember that we once reviewed Phantasy Star Universe, sequel to the much-loved Phantasy Star Online. For those who don’t fancy clicking the link, the overall verdict was thus: not a bad game by any means, but we’re pretty sure the story mode was thrown together by children. For those who aren’t aware, the game is a fairly typical sci-fi action-RPG, with a heavy lean towards online play. Not an MMORPG, as such – think Guild Wars rather than World of Warcraft, And yes, that is a good thing.

Just over a year later, we’ve got Phantasy Star Universe: Ambition of the Illuminus (AotI from now on). Question is, is it a sequel or an expansion pack? Well, um, it’s both. If you’ve got an existing Phantasy Star Universe account, you can happily install AotI and port your characters over. Doing so grants you access to a whole bunch of new areas, missions, skills and items, as well as a raised level cap. I’ll warn you now that I won’t talk so much to that particular group, because I’m guessing that anyone who plays the game has already decided whether or not to get the expansion. If you liked that, you’ll like this more. Simple as. If you haven’t played Phantasy Star Universe, though, AotI will still function quite happily on its own – you can start at level one and have full access to the new stuff as well as the old. That’s as far as online play is concerned, anyway – single player is a different matter entirely.

The new single player campaign no longer forces you to play as the entirely hateful Ethan Waber. This time you can create your own character from scratch, just as you would if you played online (though it’s worth noting that online and offline characters are mutually exclusive – you can’t take a character from one mode into the other). Trouble is, there’s still a story. If you don’t think that’s such a bad thing, check the review link above, because you can basically copy and paste everything that was said about the previous game’s story into this review. The dialogue is still utterly embarrassing, the cutscenes still go on forever and are completely unskippable, the characters are still entirely unlikeable, and for God’s sake why won’t everyone just shut up and let me play the game? It’s also worth noting that while you get to create your own character, you don’t actually get to say a word or influence anything that goes on. Mass Effect, this ain’t. Plus, while you no longer play as Ethan Waber, the story still revolves around him – something about him going rogue after trying to kill the president. I don’t know for sure – I wasn’t really paying attention because I was too busy hammering the ‘enter’ key so the game would actually let me do something. Some of you may argue that, hey, maybe they’re being clever and pulling a Metal Gear Solid 2 on us – making us learn more about the main character by seeing him from a rookie’s eyes. But the more discerning of you will just sit there, wondering why Sega keep insisting on ruining their most loved franchises with awful, awful storylines until nobody’s playing their games aside from socially-inept teenagers.

Right, rant over – what’s the game like, story guff aside? Well, it’s a bit daunting for first-time players, to say the least. Where the original game held your hand far too much, AotI appears to have little interest in showing you the ropes, if you want to move away from story mode. And believe me, you will. Still, get over that and there’s plenty of fun to be had. Get yourself online and you’ll find the other players to be surprisingly friendly and helpful on the whole, and the game’s actually a lot of fun once you get the hang of what you’re meant to be doing. This is partly to do with the numerous improvements Sega have made to the original game since its launch, and they’ve continued this trend with AotI. Responding to player’s criticisms, the game now rewards players who carefully time their attacks rather than just mashing the buttons, the game now features improved drop-rates for items and money, and it gives you more experience points for your efforts. Add a whole bunch of depth (new advanced character classes to choose from, item synthesis, and so on), plus the fact that some of the fights are so hectic they make you feel like you’re playing Dynasty Warriors (in the good way), and you’ve got a fairly excellent recipe for an addictive and enjoyable game.

Still, I haven’t reached my word-limit yet, so let’s do some more whining. First up, you really do need a joypad to play this game properly, because the keyboard controls are vile. Furthermore, no matter how good your PC is, AotI looks like a PS2 game. Not much of a criticism if you’re playing the PS2 version, obviously, but still. What doesn’t help matters is that, despite looking five or six years old, the game runs pretty terribly under Windows Vista – after wrestling with it to make it run at a decent speed, I switched back to Windows XP, and the performance increase when playing the game was incredible. Oh, and there’s no bloody widescreen mode, which is pretty bizarre in this day and age. The real stick in my spokes, though, is that Sega expect you to pay up-front if you want to play online. No 14 or 30 day trial here. So if you’ve just coughed up £25 to play the game, you’ve got to shell out another six or seven quid before you can play it as it was intended, and bollocks to you if you’re not yet sure about this online-gaming lark. Plus, if you’re playing the 360 version, you have to pay the fee on top of your Xbox Live membership. It’s just not on, lads.

But if you’ve got that extra six or seven quid, a bit of patience, and a couple of mates who are willing to join you, you’re in for quite a treat. Phantasy Star Universe wasn’t as good as Phantasy Star Online, but I reckon AotI just might be.

A considerable improvement over the original Phantasy Star Universe, and a lot of fun. But you still need to keep away from story mode.

7 out of 10
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