When Sega announced Phantasy Star Online 2 during Tokyo Game Show 2010, I was pleasantly surprised. The Phantasy Star franchise was enjoying a decent run on the home/portable consoles and I didn't understand why there was any real need to make an online-only numbered sequel to the original game that first appeared on the Dreamcast. After spending a bit of time the Japanese Open Beta for PSO2 though, I'm actually rather glad that they did.
Gameplay in PSO2 is distinctly old school and doesn't stray very far from the formula that the franchise has been maintaining for the last 10 years. Most of the game consists of accepting quests from the hub and then heading off into a public (or private) instance dungeon to do what needs to be done. If you've played Monster Hunter, God Eater or Phantasy Star Portable, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Now before most of you start groaning about the obvious grind and inevitable monotony of instance dungeon hell, the game does pull off a few (sometimes spectacularly amazing) tricks to spice things up during quest runs.
Some of the things I've encountered over the last few days include randomized cutscenes, poison traps, friendly gunships that shoot enemies for you, Rappies that need capturing, NPCs that will appear to briefly aid you in combat, weather that changes suddenly, Giant Space Bugs™ that take 15 minutes to solo and (last but not least) an invulnerable enemy you need to evade for 2 full minutes. Events like these occur often and really help to keeps things interesting during what would normally be boring search-and-destroy quests. Successful completion of them will also net you some extra experience points and meseta (in-game cash) which is always a good thing.
Apart from just performing quests, PSO2 also has a storyline that players can gradually unlock through completion of in-game achievements. Early in the game, I received a 'Matter Board' from a creepy NPC who sounded like she's stalking me. This peculiar item occupies a permanent slot in the game menu and gives a visual reference of how close the player is to unlocking more story content. Players will then need to perform specific tasks like getting a specific item drop or viewing a specific cutscene during a quest to make progress in the storyline.
Just like the recent console iterations of the Phantasy Star franchise, each player has their own home that they can decorate to their hearts' content (but you have to pay before you can access it). Also present is the service to alter your character's physical appearance, though some features (like changing your body proportions) require you to pay real money to perform. Mags, a mainstay of the franchise, are also present in this game and can be acquired at level 5 after completing a special quest. As with previous games, the Mag acts like a pet and will occasionally assist in combat. I'm still in the midst of cultivating mine and hope that it evolves to something more useful than just healing me once in a blue moon.
For players hoping to refine their characters into a specific 'build', you'll be happy to know that there are plenty of options available to do so. Aside from being able to switch between the 3 standard classes (Hunter, Ranger, Force), it's entirely possible to build a Jack-of-all-trades class with Skill Trees of all the classes (e.g. Hunter class that has access to Force and Ranger Skill Trees) or stack multiple Skill Trees of the same class. You'll just need to pay a bit of cash to make it happen. By the way, re-specs also require cash.
In addition to the normal communication methods, players can actually set automatic messages to play during specific events like someone leveling up, completion of a mission, low health, etc. It's an interesting feature, and one that's probably a lot more relevant to the polite conversational nature of Japanese players. For example, instead of having to type 'GratZ~!' each time someone levels up, you can just set it up so the game does it automatically for you. There's even an option where players can flex their artistic skills and create custom artwork that can be displayed in a speech bubble. No importing of images though, you'll have to draw everything yourself (or copy-save the ones created by other players). Some of the artistic creations I've seen so far include the 'Yaranaika' man, Nyaruko-tan's 'Uuuuu Nyaaa!', Cure Peace (from Smile Precure) doing her rock-scissors-paper thing as well as the infamous cardboard box Gundam-man.
All in all, I'm having a really fun time in the Japanese Open Beta right now. The community is a just a joy to hang out with and there's usually something hilarious going on whenever groups of players bunch together. There are an abnormally high number of female characters at the moment (for obvious reasons), so there's no lack of 'eye candy' for the guys. Despite a few minor issues here and there, there's plenty of stuff to love in PSO2. It's probably not going to appeal to some of the younger gamers out there, but for those of us who are fans of the franchise or remember powering up the Dreamcast (and buying the keyboard peripheral) to play the very first PSO, this game truly feels like a bona-fide successor.