Published on July 9th, 2012 | by Rhys Wood1
Phantasy Star Online Retro Reflection
Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: 2002
Genre: Multiplayer Online RPG
Stars In Your Drive
There was a time when Sega were known for a lot more than mediocre Sonic titles. In fact, the creators of the blazing blue hedgehog were once heralded as pioneers, with a reputation for making significant strides in the gaming industry.
In the Dreamcast era, Sega were responsible for the development of many innovative titles such as Jet Set Radio (arguably the first game to use cel-shaded graphics alongside the PSOne title Fear Effect), broadcast-em-up Space Channel 5, Skies of Arcadia, ChuChu Rocket, Sonic Adventure 1 & 2, and the ambitious yet insanely brilliant Shenmue, a game whose fans crave a third instalment more than a World of Warcraft player craves Cheetos.
Despite the Dreamcast’s infamous commercial letdown, one could make a solid argument that Sega were at their best during the white wonder’s short lifespan. All the aforementioned titles (among many others) went on to become cult classics in their own right and are still greatly respected and played to this day.
However, there was another particular game which Sega created for the Dreamcast; a game that has a legacy so prolific that it’s widely considered one of the most influential RPGs of all time… that game is Phantasy Star Online, the world’s first console MMORPG.
Phantasy Star Online is a futuristic online (or offline) action-RPG. You play a hunter who is contracted to investigate the planet Ragol after a large refugee vessel, Pioneer 1, disappears after a strange explosion on the planet’s surface. A second vessel, Pioneer 2, acts as your main hub from where you will accept quests, shop, manage inventory, and ultimately beam down to the area of Ragol of your choice.
Much like the recent Dark Souls, the story largely takes a backseat and is virtually non-existent when playing online. It’s only when the player digs deeper via quests and the offline story that the pieces start to come together, as the game is crammed with lore, origin and backstories to provide a dramatic and downright creepy backdrop for this excellent game. A veteran hunter led down a long path to an untimely demise, a giant worm that infects and mutates innocent wildlife, and a mad scientist obsessed with creating and unleashing freakish lifeforms onto the planet’s once-existant population are among just a few of the detailed storylines on offer, and all serve to make the game that much more atmospheric.
The game begins with the player creating a character to best suit their playing style. There are three main classes: hunter, ranger and force, all of which play differently from one another. Hunters are at their best with melee weapons such as sabers, daggers and large swords; rangers like to employ firearms such as handguns, rifle and dual SMGs (called mechguns in the game); and force characters rely on magic to provide buffs and heals, or to dish out serious damage to enemies.
Within each class are four sub-classes, meant to essentially fine tune your playing style. For example, a HUmar (human male hunter) is a good all-round choice for beginners and can even use magic, but lacks the higer attack and defensive power of android characters (known as CASTs). On the other hand, a CAST normally has higher offensive and defensive attributes, but cannot use magic. Force characters excel at using magic, but their weapon usage and defensive capabilities are limited. All in all, PSO’s class system was incredibly deep and offered something for just about everyone.
Much like the game’s story, PSO’s gameplay is simple on the surface. It’s not until the game progresses significantly that it suddenly becomes deceptively deep. The game is split into two episodes, helpfully labelled 1 and 2. Each episode has one main hub area and four combat areas. In Episode 1, hunters will explore a luscious forest, a network of caves, an underground mine and ancient, living ruins. Episode 2 sees hunters take on two distinct VR training areas (an ancient temple and a spaceship), an island with jungle, beach and mountain regions, and lastly a secret underground laboratory where the aforementioned mad scientist carried out his devious experiments. All of the areas are unique and while some can grow samey and feel like a chore to run through (and notably, the action and diversity picks up dramatically in Episode 2) the prospect of levelling up and gathering loot never grows old.
Phantasy Star Online ‘s main draw is without a doubt the action itself. Combat is incredibly simple; hunters can use a standard attack for moderate damage and high accuracy, or a heavy attack for an increase in damage at the cost of some accuracy. On top of this, some weapons have special attacks with varying outcomes, such as confusing enemies or having a chance to kill them in one hit.
All hunters come equipped with a trusty MAG, a small, robotic Pokemon-like thing that follows the player, and constantly needs feeding by way of your hard earned items – imagine a mechanical version of the little lizard guy from Cut the Rope, only a thousand times more productive. Your Mag will want feeding often if you wish to make the most out of your selected character.
The MAG system is one of the deeper mechanics of PSO. Mags have four main attributes that contribute to the player’s overall stats. For example, feeding items that add power levels to the Mag will boost the player’s attack, whereas feeding it dexterity-boosting items will go towards increasing your accuracy. Eventually, as your Mag levels up from all the gobbling it’s been doing, it’ll evolve into more powerful Mag variants (and at the same time altering its own diet), granting you access to screen-clearing Photon Blast attacks. On top of this, your Mag will buff your attack and defense sometimes during boss encounters.
The bosses in PSO are what set it apart from other MMOs on the market. In single player, bosses’ health and attack power are significantly toned down to allow for a sensible challenge. But online, you’ll need to be armed to the teeth with your best gear and plenty of recovery items because these guys mean business. An ideal party is two hunters for taking and dishing out major damage, a ranger to attack from distance, and a force for reviving any downed players; and yes, this is an incredibly hard game once your levels start rising and you have access to the harder difficulty levels, which of course grant much more experience points and siginificantly better loot. You will endure one-hit KOs often during boss fights, so a healer is an absolute necessity online.
Then of course, there was the loot. Although the progressive story, boss battles and deep mechanics of the game tied it all together, the looting in PSO was something to die for. The eternal quest for loot kept players coming back for more – even twelve years after its initial release. Similar to Diablo or Borderlands, loot could be found in boxes (you wouldn’t believe the tussles me and my friends would get into over ‘the last box in the room!’) or from fallen enemies. The loot was made up of weapons, armours, recovery items and money. On harder difficulty levels, however, enemies sometimes dropped a special red loot item. This is what PSO veterans play for, as red boxes mean rare loot, and in turn, rare weaponry.
Finding the perfect rare weapon for your character gave you a rush like no other, whether it be the feeling of equipping and using it for the first time, or the mad, hour-crammed play seesion to get your character to meet its requirements, rares are PSO’s perfect drug. You’ll want to keep taking it, even after all the story and quest content has been exhausted.
Quest Of The Best
The great thing is that people still play this game! There is an online server dedicated to running the Blue Burst version of the game. This PC release came with everything from the previous versions, and threw in tons of content such as weapons and quests that were previously exclusive to Japanese players.
SCHTHACK is a free PSO server that still caters to a few thousand players; some of which have been around since before Sega closed the original servers, while others came in from the Gamecube version, or are simply new to the scene and interested in this landmark title’s epic legacy. If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself as a gamer to try out Phantasy Star Online, a monumental piece of multiplayer gaming history.