Phantasy Star Universe PC Review

Online gaming these days is big business; chances are if you’re reading this then you’ve either dabbled with a MMORPG, shared asphalt with a handful of strangers for a few laps, or perhaps you’re a veteran of Xbox Live who’s about to graduate from the legendary ‘School of American Smack-talk’. Or maybe, like me, you’re one of the few who remember the golden era of 56k console gaming, and the swansong of the Dreamcast: Phantasy Star Online. Now ok, chances are if you’re reading this then you’ve played PSO religiously at some point; finding yourself lost in the hypnotic rhythm of the game, succumbing to its hugely repetitive but intensely gratifying cycles of grinding. If you haven’t played PSO, then first of all you’ll think I’m freakishly obsessive, and secondly I think it’s about time you stop reading this review right now, and go and download Blue Burst from Sega’s website. Now this’ll be the point at which any Phantasy Star Online fans reading will feel their heart collapse like a wet paper bag full of soggy biscuits:

PSU isn’t as good as PSO. I hate to say it, part of me is surprised as hell that I have to say it; but it’s the sad truth. Now we all know that sometimes it’s hard to come to terms with the loss of a good franchise, especially those that clearly had so much potential. Devil May Cry 2 broke my heart, and left me bruised and battered in a ditch; but then Devil May Cry 3 came out, and I began to find myself having hope once again: I was one of the lucky ones. Others haven’t been so lucky, and I’d like to tell you about poor little Peter; The innocent boy who spent his whole life collecting Sonic games, only to find himself in a web of his own denial trying to convince himself that the 360 iteration was “a good game” which was “worth forty pounds“. I laughed at poor little Peter; we all did. But that was before I almost fell into the trap of Sega nostalgia myself…

I desperately wanted it to be the game I’ve waited years for, and I honestly did my very best to lie to myself that I was having fun, and that it was a great game. Then I found myself two hours into the single player game, and wanting to kill something. Now, whilst I mean this in the sense of wanting the characters to all shut the hell up with their inanely pointless chitchat and let me kill some monsters, I’m sad to say that by this point in the game I’d lost interest, and simply wanted to throw something out of the window and beat a stranger to death with my keyboard. My choice of keyboard was fairly premeditated here, as the PC version of PSU doesn’t support a mouse. You heard me right, it doesn’t support MOUSE. So, unless you’re fond of pain I’d dust off a USB controller right about now, or pick it up on the Xbox 360 instead. ‘Story Mode’ absolutely astounds me, because it manages to be infinitely more awful than the single player of PSO, which was arguably one of the most flawed and empty single player RPG experiences that I’ve ever seen, and being that I’m not actually a homicidal maniac most of the time I can’t help but think that it’s the fact that they’ve somehow taken the most broken aspect of PSO and made it MUCH worse leaves me in such a state of disbelief that my brain decides it’s about time to go a bit mental.

Now, am I being unreasonable here? You tell me, as I take you through the whirlwind adventure that is the first few hours of PSU’s Story mode… Right, first of all you’ve got the main character- he’s an annoying prototypical American “D00D” who’s a bit feisty, instantly unlikable, and pretty much resembles every other generic computer game protagonist that you’ve seen in the last 10 years- He’s even got the whole: “My father died and I’m angry” vibe going on and hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if the end of game boss turned out to be the bloke who killed daddy. In fact, the only thing which differentiates the main character from [INSERT UNMEMORABLE MAIN CHARACTER HERE] is the fact that the voice actor sounds like he’s constantly tanked up on special brew; whilst he’s mumbling and slurring like a tramp, it’s actually fairly funny watching the cutscenes, although sadly it does nothing for the fact that I want all of the main characters to die horribly so I can kill some monsters in peace.

But no, ladies and gentleman! There’s no time for killing monsters in Story Mode, because these masters of yarn spinning have got some cracking tales lined up for you! Sit back and watch as the protagonist chases what appears to be a sexually confused tramp! Gasp as your sister predictably gets stuck behind some rocks or something! Cry as you once again lunge towards the keyboard to fight a boss, only to find that there’s no need, they’ve put in a CUTSCENE THAT DOES THAT FOR YOU. Sections where you’re actually playing can be equally painful, often having to flick through a small set of menus just to use a Metroid Prime style visor to detect weakpoints in piles of rocks. (It seems that even when swinging about a sword the size of a small country I was completely unable to break through debris without first having a gander through my magic goggles…)

But that’s enough about the story; this is all you really need to know: They’ve taken the main criticism of PSO not having a story, and they’ve obviously tried pretty hard to fix that- but after 20 minutes of playing it you’ll just be wanting to get back to the old PSO single player- mindlessly ploughing through dungeons over and over again with not so much as a whiff of characterization or plot. Aside from the awful characters and story the game world isn’t too bad- the music is pretty patchy, some of it frankly sounds like someone sat in front of an electric piano having a fit, whilst other tunes are more in the same vein of the original: Pretty bad, but I’ll let it slide.

Graphically the game’s nothing mind blowing, but it’s fairly pretty aside from a few graphical glitches that pop up here and there- although it does suffer from some of the worst horizon popups I’ve seen in years, and the strange inclusion of generic NPCs in cities who actually fade and disappear when you get close to them rather than when they’re far away which just screams: “Don’t try to talk to him! We haven’t scripted stuff for them to say!” Walking around these soulless lobbies full of ghostly characters gives me a strange feeling that the PSU servers will before long be mimicking the emptiness of the universe they’ve created.

PSU single player grabs you by the reins, holds your hand and doesn’t let you go out of your depth. And I HATE that. For me, the reason I kept going back to PSO over and over was because I liked to push myself to the limit; the game gave you a set of very simple controls and let you choose your own pace- you could go through forest over and over until the dragon didn’t stand a chance, or you could whip up a HuCAST and go through Forest, Caves, and Mines in one afternoon and beat Vol. Opt at level 6. That was what made PSO special, the simple but rhythmic combat and the predictable enemies combined with the lure of better items just being in the next tier up meant that you were constantly pushing yourself to the limit, the simplicity of gameplay giving you an immense sense of control over everything; allowing you to survive in areas which the game deemed you to be not even nearly ready to handle at your level. PSU’s online mode still allows you to do this, but the system which made PSO such a beautifully simple game seems to have had its fingers broken. The rhythm based tapping to attack is inexplicably missing: The weapons still strike in their trademark PSO pace but the timing requirement is gone, the game encouraging you to just hammer the button.

Nice new additions to the combat system include the ability to strafe in a basic manner, allowing you to spread machine-gun fire across enemies – a luxury that PSO did not permit and the ability to customize weapons with elemental power – essentially providing more effective versions of the ‘special’ functions on many of the rare weapons in PSO, but are constantly in effect rather than being triggered by an alternate button. These 2 changes are very welcome in the fact that they make playing as a ranger much more fun than it ever was in PSO, allowing you to John Woo it about; holding back a small horde of enemies with icy greasegun bullets. In fact, despite the story mode being utterly dire the online mode of PSU is actually quite good; despite having lost many of the aspects which made PSO such a great game it still brings out those familiar addictive qualities, and whilst I enjoyed seeing some of the scenic new levels I was more than happy just repeatedly playing through the same areas over and over again just to get a little bit more cash for that upgrade. In this respect PSU feels like the younger brother of PSO, it’s tried so hard to be something better; to stand up tall and proud alongside the big players in the online market, and for this it’ll inevitably be kicked in the teeth.

I sympathise with the guys who were making PSU, times have changed since the days of Dreamcast online gaming and PSU doesn’t even nearly make the standard as a decent MMORPG and in many ways it would have been better if they hadn’t tried to keep up with a plethora of pointless and badly implemented extra features such as the first person camera, which allows shooting but no movement…

But even though this younger brother aimed so high and fell so far, if you put in a few hundred hours into PSO like I did then you’ll still find yourself hooked to it just like you were on its predecessor, and if you can dig up a few old Ragol comrades it’ll be almost as much fun as the good old days, because you have to remember: PSO was horribly flawed too, we just learnt to forget about that. It’s nothing special and compared to WoW or Guild Wars it’s dire; but if you’re prepared to switch your brain off, sit back with a joypad and grind with a few friends then it’ll give you hours of entertainment.

Same flavour, different recipe. Just stay the hell away from Story Mode.

7 out of 10
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