Reunited & it Feels So Good - Phantasy Star Online is Back & Better Than Ever - Preview
Brandon J. Wysocki
, posted on 16 March 2020 / 3,414 Views
Recently, I told our Editor-in-Chief that I have a number of half-finished (or more) articles, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, I failed to finish and/or submit them. One such article compared the disappointment of seeing your heroes fall to that of videogame series falling off. In it, I compared the delight of watching two of my favorite fighters growing up - Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. - looking nearly unbeatable before they, at different times and for different reasons, came crashing down, with the experience of some of my favorite gaming series going through much the same process. Among games like Splinter Cell, Super Money Ball, and Fallout, I also mentioned Phantasy Star Online.
Some noteworthy background is that I love Phantasy Star Online. Though I was interested in the Dreamcast release, I didn't actually play it until it released on GameCube. I was immediately enthralled. However, when I eventually circled back to it on Xbox and went online (I had been playing solo or splitscreen offline until that point), it quickly became one of my favorite and most played titles of all time – something it remains to this day.
In fact, in the years since the game went offline and was largely left behind in the sixth generation, I returned to playing the GameCube version on Wii, and subsequently ripped my (original) GC save file and continued playing it through emulation on my PC. I still have the original character that I began with way back in 2003, and occasionally boot up the game and continue the grind. In some ways, Phantasy Star Online is the perfect game for me – a flawless blend of challenge and fun, as well as simplicity/accessibility and depth.
Unfortunately, its successor, Phantasy Star Universe, failed to recapture the magic of the first game. In retrospect, I can’t help but see PSU as the uncanny valley of the series. In so many ways it checked all of the boxes, and might even pass as PSO (or as a worthy replacement) at first glance, but ultimately, even if to this day I can’t articulate exactly why, something about it was off. I was far from alone in not being able to buy into the game.
When I first saw information for an ostensibly proper PSO follow up I was only cautiously excited, particularly because it was only announced for Japan. As I began to see gameplay, it appeared more similar to PSU. Perhaps it was confirmation bias of sorts, but I seemingly convinced myself that I wasn’t missing anything. I always expected it to arrive in the west, but over the years, namely as I became a bigger and bigger fan of the Monster Hunter series, and even while I played the original PSO, I dismissed Phantasy Star Online 2.
The 2019 E3 announcement that Phantasy Star Online 2, released in Japan in 2012, was coming to the west on Xbox (and free to play no less) was genuinely surprising, but not particularly exciting because of the stance I had, admittedly arbitrarily, taken on the game. When I saw news of a Closed Beta on Xbox, I figured why not sign up. I also encouraged my son and a few friends to do the same.
When the day - February 7th - came to hop on the Beta, we were met with server issues. So, we opted to play PUBG while waiting for updates on the server issues. One friend in the group, hereinafter referred to as Jeff, was no longer actively in our match, and he decided to boot up PSO 2 once again. This time he succeeded in getting into the actual game. As we wrapped up our current match, I asked Jeff how it was. I was incredulous when he said it was a lot like the original. He and I grew up together, and pretty much played PSO together from the first time I brought it home and booted it up on GameCube, and we both still heap praises on the game.
I didn’t believe him, not so much because I don’t trust him (although I definitely do not), but because of the perspective I had coming into the game, and also that I tend to be fairly cynical and skeptical by default. Shortly thereafter, the rest of us also loaded into the game.
What I was greeted by initially was a slight mix – the character creation is deeper than ever, which is of course welcomed, but the voice-acting and writing is more PSU-like than I’d prefer. But, sure enough, once I was actually playing, I largely agreed with that lying bastard Jeff.
The combat is faster and deeper than before. Eschewing the mistake of PSU, timing your attacks is once again rewarded by more damage being inflicted. Yet, at the same time, the combat is more frenetic than either PSU or PSO. You can actively dodge strikes and juggle enemies while unleashing extended attacks, of which there are a greater variety than ever.
Pure, good old-fashioned red boxes return in all of their glory, but they're also complemented by outright red/rare weapon drops (another nice mix of old and new). In addition, some of the crafting aspects from PSU return, but like other aspects of the game, they are vastly improved.
Perhaps the thing that best captures that paradigm is the Casino. While it provided some fun in PSU, it now offers a variety of incredibly enthralling activities. Despite the limited time we knew we had in the Beta, more than once we struggled to pull ourselves out of the Casino. And we weren’t alone!
I could go on, but the principle remains the same. In the nearly 20 hours I clocked in the game over a single weekend, it proved to be what I would have never imagined it could be – a worthy successor to the original Phantasy Star Online. The combat experience is a microcosm of the game as a whole: it captures the magic and positives of the past while simultaneously being deeper and better than ever, while also remaining every bit as accessible as the original.
The bottom line is there’s so much to do and enjoy. After the Closed Beta came to an end I, and many others, were pining for the Open Beta, which is now at hand. Obviously, I may be biased, but I highly suggest you at least give it a try if and when you’re able to do so, especially if you were a fan of the series in the past. Not at all to make light of a serious situation, but with so many people dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, staying inside and giving this game a try seems like a great way to spend some time. The North America Open Beta begins March 17th and I can’t wait!
Brandon J. Wysocki longs to write a science fiction novel when he grows up. In the interim, in addition to being a (neurotic) father, husband, and self-employed contractor/carpenter, he plays a lot of videogames and sometimes rambles about his experiences with and opinions of said videogames.