2018-Nov-01: Phantasy Star After IV

After Phantasy Star IV, we wouldn't hear a whole lot about the Phantasy Star franchise for about six years. In 2000, Phantasy Star Online would break the silence and begin a new era of PS game that'd see fairly regular releases right up to present day. These games would leave the universe of the Phantasy Star core series behind, as really PS4 neatly wrapped up the series and its plot by ending the 1,000 year cycle that'd been seeing the rise of Dark Force since the start of PS1. Phantasy Star Online, instead, could be considered a reboot or alternate universe. After a period of success, PSO would be followed up by a series of other games of a similar play style, across a series of different plot lines and universes; some related and some not.

PSO marked the beginning of a new style in Phantasy Star games. Instead of being menu driven, PSO was a third person action RPG. Instead of taking place in a roughly medieval fantasy world with hints of technology, the game takes place on a generational star ship mired in magic-technology. PSO introduced (or maybe more accurately canonized and named) the concept of Photon power and the hard-light toy-looking equipment that came to be the norm for all future Phantasy Star titles. Everything we'd know about the series for two decades (and going) started with PSO.

Almost 20 years after the release of PSO, it's not a lot to look at today. The graphics were pretty solid for the Dreamcast era, and the thought of an MMO on consoles was groundbreaking at the time. However the game itself is slow, clumsy, and frankly lacks content. The first release of PSO came with four areas roughly the size of a single WoW dungeon each. Each area ended with a boss, and each area was home to about half a dozen quests that consisted of traversing one linear zone from specially selected point A to specially selected point B, at which either an object or NPC would be found, or a special fight would occur. Most of the 200 experience levels would be gained by grinding the areas in free exploration mode, running them from beginning to boss over and over again across the multiple difficulty levels. Sure it's not a ton on paper, but it was huge at the time, and despite being 95% grind, there was something endearing about seeing every level-up, every rare drop.

PSO would eventually expand to include four more areas on most releases, and yet another four exclusive to the PC port. So at least at the end there was a decent amount of variety, though most people on the grind for level cap spammed the same repeatable quest over and over. Having revisited both Blue Burst (Online through... means), and the Dreamcast version after my core-series exploits, I can say for sure that I have no interest in really getting deep into it in 2018; it just has not aged well.

PSO later received a spiritual sequel for the Nintendo DS called Phantasy Star Zero (which I'll call PSZ instead of PS0 for people with fonts that make that ambiguous). Released in 2008, PSZ would take a lot of the shortcomings evident in PSO and soften them somewhat, without eliminating them entirely. The lack of bindable buttons present in PSO would be dampened by a reduction in the number of total abilities you had, and the crunching of some abilities together into "press" versus "press and hold" configurations for the same button. The game would come with eight areas instead of four, and the quests involve more plot and interaction than PSO's "Walk through a chunk of an area" fare. However PSZ is still a case of taking a quest and doing the same area for the fifth time to complete it. It's interesting enough to hold my attention though, having randomly generated areas and a compelling story line with the vantage point changing depending on the race of your hero.

Backing up a bit though, in 2006, yet another alternate universe and series would hit in the form of Phantasy Star Universe. This title, released for the PC and Playstation 2, would introduce a continuing series and change things up a bit by having the main plot follow a single protagonist that the player did not generate and build on their own. The protagonist, Ethan, would eventually reprise in the two titles that make up the Phantasy Star Portable series on the PSP. PSU, anyway, solidified the concepts of attaching techniques to weapons instead of having access to every technique you know at all times, as well as quick-switching weapons for the situation at hand. It would also introduce the concept of Line Shields in place of armor, allowing you to customize the clothing of your character in any way you saw fit.

PSU fixed a lot of the problems of PSO with full on mechanic changes instead of tweaks to existing mechanics from PSO, which makes it a little baffling that they chose to return to the old systems for PSZ two years later. PSU though still suffers from slow movement and combat and especially suffers now in that a ton of its content is simply not accessible now that the MMO servers for it have been shut down. The offline mode is still available but mostly guides you through a hand-full of plot missions dotted around a ton of repeatable missions needed to grind up to stay on pace. Also being unable to create your own hero damages the experience quite a bit, though you can even in offline mode once you finish the main plot-- kind of late. Unfortunately due to a save corruption issue I did not finish PSU, so I can't talk too much about its plot or final experience.

Phantasy Star Portable however is where they got it right. Expanding from PSU in both plot and system mechanics, PSP tightened up the gameplay and gave the player more agency in character design and build even in its main story mode. The only complaints I really had in my complete playthrough of it were that the ally AI was abysmally stupid, often refusing to attack at all unless you were in the thick of things, despite the game giving you many options for ranged and magic combat, and that the final mission is a severe difficulty spike that took me from easily slaying everything to needing to grind fifteen levels to finally win. The story was pretty samey too, I guess, but the new Phantasy Star games are all about that online content and the story mode is mostly a bootstrap to get you there, so I guess it's to be expected.

Since PSP is a portable installment, its content gating for online play isn't nearly so severe. Once you finish the plot, you gain access to most everything you'd get in online play too, though access to certain gear seems to be gated to number of players in a mission (at least if I'm reading the wiki right). You tour a good chunk of things just finishing the plot (largely because of the grind wall before the finale, but meh, what can you do).

PSP would receive a sequel in the form of Phantasy Star Portable 2. PSP2 is the most "More of the same" game in the collection, though that's fine because PSP mainly got the formula right. I haven't really started this one, so I can't speak too much on it, but it's definitely on my list... once I finish PSZ...

The sad thing about this entire collection of games is they leave behind the somewhat gritty and grim motif of the core series where a dying medieval fantasy galaxy struggles against an overbearing recurring foe and replace it with a space-faring aesthetic where hard light is your weapon and your armor, so it's entirely feasible to be rocking a maid uniform and hitting enemies with frying pans with "photon emitters" on them. Don't get me wrong, that level of style and choice is neat, but sometimes I wanna just have armor and steel and overbearing powerful foes and grim situations and things like that. Plus, the classic menu based RPG hasn't been a thing in the Phantasy Star series in almost 25 years now.

I'd really like to see a Phantasy Star 5.