Phantasy Star Online 2 is a game that many in the west are only just getting introduced to. While the game has been released in Japan for nearly 8 years, this SEGA institution still garners a substantial amount of fanfare from its admirers around the globe. Now with a PC launch looming, and years-worth of content to explore, is Phantasy Star Online 2 worth the wait, or is it too little too late?
As a Phantasy Star Online fan that chose not to play on Japanese servers over the years, SEGA’s Phantasy Star Online 2 is a mixture of familiarity from previous Phantasy Star games with some new expanded features. Phantasy Star Online 2 isn’t an MMORPG by traditional standards. PSO2 is primarily a PVE focused game that plays in a similar manner to dungeon crawling ARPGs, with mostly randomized levels increasing in difficulty as your level increases.
Communication and Community
Players start out on a ship, which acts as the main hub. Each ship has dozens of instances that you can swap to if you’re looking for a larger community feel. The early instances, 1 – 10 are generally the most densely populated, with the later ones being far less populated. If you really have the need for a general chat feature, or just feel like you want to see a bunch of other players, the former instances will give you way more than you bargained for. While Phantasy Star Online 2 on the Xbox One does have keyboard support, Phantasy Star Online has always been known for its Symbol Chat feature, which is an unquestionable mixed bag of fun, lewdness and horror.
With Symbol Chat, think of it as if it were a “make your own emoji” system. Players can go into the system and create exceptional works of art, mimicking anything from your favorite Anime’s, to their personal feelings, to actual emoji’s. As with anything custom, this also leads to other problematic symbols, such as phallic shapes, naked women, and derogatory remarks. In previous versions of PSO, there was a cap on the number of symbols you could use to create your symbol chat, which didn’t give players a lot to work with. In the new Symbol Chat, you can get extremely detailed. Symbol Chat is one of the best and worst communication features in an online game today. Just like an emoji, it’s a quick way to get information out, or express yourself, but as with most features in online games, if it can be abused, it will.
Another great communication feature is that of Auto-Chat. Auto-Chat is a feature that works similarly to macros in other MMOs. You can setup an Auto-Chat to display a message to your group or surrounding area when something specific happens. An example of this would be if you’re a melee or ranged character with limited healing, that isn’t in a group, and you’ve just been hit really hard and can’t heal yourself with a consumable. The Auto-Chat could be utilized to display something saying “Need a heal please!” when a specific condition like that is met, announcing to nearby players that you could use assistance. As Phantasy Star Online 2 is a PVE centered game, players are very willing to help you out when out in the world and on tough missions. Despite a few bad apples that all online games experience, PSO2 is well known for its positive community.
A good place to unwind if you’re sick of questing is the Casino. The Casino has a bunch of different games, from slots, to roulette, to blackjack, and some other silly mini games, that will let you earn coins, hang out with other players, and eventually, if you make it big, get some pretty decent rewards. While you may not spend a majority of your time in the Casino, there is a lot of fun to be had if you’re sick of questing for a little while but still want to wind down with some lighter, less interactive gameplay.
Community events, such as live concerts, are meant to bring players together. Similarly, to how Cantina’s used to work in Star Wars Galaxies, special live concerts appear as events roughly every weekend. Players meet in the shopping area by the stage, where a concert will play. After the concert has concluded, players who attended will receive a 10% buff to their rewards. While this may not be a huge buff that can’t be missed, it certainly speaks to the type of community SEGA is hoping to encourage with Phantasy Star Online 2.
Combat, Classes and UI
Even way back when Phantasy Star Online was on the Dreamcast, combat revolved more along the lines of an action-combat design. Phantasy Star Online 2 is no exception, in fact, the combat has been ramped up and is faster paced than ever before. Players will be required to dodge, and make use of different abilities if they expect to stay alive, and even in the best of circumstances, you won’t ever be truly invincible in all situations. The way you play will roughly be dependent on the classes you pick, and all of those decisions are changeable as you progress.
Phantasy Star Online 2 has a fairly robust class system. There are classes that will appeal to those wanting to strictly stay far away from their enemies and bombard them with munitions, like the ranger, or if you feel like you want to get up close and personal, there are both ranged and melee characters that are made for just that kind of play style. Each character will also have a variety of weapons at their disposal, all of which have their own sets of skills, and skill ranks that you will need to find if you want to make the most of your preferred weapon choice. Skill are split between two types, Photon Arts, which are primarily for weapon skill characters, and Tech, which are essentially spells.
Depending on your class, you can have a fast and frantic experience, or a more laid back one. With several characters under my belt at this point, each has their own strengths and weaknesses. During the course of combat, you can swap in and out of whatever weapon set you want, which I didn’t find necessary in most cases. While each class can slot 6 primary abilities that map well to the Xbox controller, and a host of additional abilities that you can put on your sub-palette which includes consumables and other boosts, I found that I really only utilized about 3 different skills, not including any high cooldown abilities such as my MAGs Photon Blast.
My force character had the most diverse skill set for certain, but the class became somewhat boring as I get to the higher levels as each battle came down to the simple operation of finding whatever weakness the enemies had, and utilizing the strongest ability I had for their weakness. If they were weak to fire, I use my strongest fire skill, if they were weak to ice… well you get the picture. I threw in some heals and offensive and defensive buffs to keep things interesting, but most of my play time revolved around charging up my most powerful skills and letting loose repeatedly.
I also tried a Ranger and a Braver. Both of they had some major benefits, such as the rangers intense single target damage, or the Bravers amazing mobility with a katana. Each different character opened up new ways to enjoy the content, and brought new challenges as well. The combat allows for some complexity, but mostly, the biggest challenges come from knowing how to defeat the enemies you are put against, and timing your attacks and recoveries properly to make the most of what you’ve got. The combat isn’t too hard to learn, and should be suitable for new and old gamers, even if some classes may feel a little too repetitive after a while.
As far as the UI is concerned, Phantasy Star Online 2 is a monstrous, confusing mess of menus and systems. Questing is fairly straight forward, until you get into every little side quest, daily mission, sub-quests, advanced quests, urgent quests. It is extremely daunting and more than just a little confusing. Compound that by considering the story itself isn’t much more than short movies, broken up by scarcely laid encounters. You could spend hours watching the story quests, and as much as I love Phantasy Star Online, the story in this respect, just isn’t that good, and requires you to go through several menus and loading screens to progress at a snail’s pace through it.
There are so many different places to go to check information and perform different tasks, knowing where you need to go can get very confusing, and many times, the quest markers are zero help. Sometimes it will tell you that you have to go upgrade a weapon somehow, but the quest marker stays on the quest giver, instead of on the upgrade NPC you actually need to go to. For new players that don’t know exactly what they should be doing, these kinds of situations can become frustrating very quickly.
There is a mission attendant that will let you pick and choose which missions you want to go on. Whether that is the recommended quests for the day, which groups most of the side and daily quests available for that region in one easy mission, or if it’s a timed urgent quest that popped up, you have to check in with the quest attendant before you head out. If you choose to do an exploration mission without going to one of the dozen or so alternative quest givers to pick up quests, you won’t actually net much experience.
While you’re out in the quest areas, there will be public spaces where you will run into other players. You can drop grouping beacons, or even choose to group with an open group prior to entering a level. This makes grouping very fun and really easy to do. I’ve met several players who I’ve become friendly with just by joining their group and questing with them. If you don’t want to join a group, or have people join you, or limit those who join to only your friends list, you can select those options prior to heading into a mission. Just because you’re playing solo doesn’t mean you have to quest solo. You can add bots to your team, invite friends avatars, or level up and play with an auxiliary which is a special companion you create, all of which allows you to take on content that may be tough, but your AI bots will help you through it.
Cash Shop and Customization
As a Free to Play game, many would expect players to find a lot of items available for those looking to pay their way to the top. In actuality, Phantasy Star Online 2 is pretty fair with their cash shop. You can play the entirety of the game free, with some limitations, and still get a substantial number of the rewards. Free players have limits to their bank space, their mission rewards, they won’t be able to start their own shop, and they are limited to taking half of the missions at a single time as players who pay for the premium services.
At fifteen dollars for the premium version, players get many of those restrictions lifted, but not all limitations go away. Perhaps the most helpful addition is that of bag space while you’re out questing. At any time, you can send items you pick up to your bank, but you don’t want to overfill your bank with stuff you may not keep either, as all that does is require you to manage you bank at a later time so you don’t have a bunch of junk in there that isn’t worth it. Keeping it in your inventory is faster, requires less management, but it gets expensive if you have multiple characters and want to expand their storage.
Apart from basic services, they also have some advanced services and cosmetic items that players can purchase. Most of the cosmetic items I’ve seen thus far have been thematic, and none of them have enticed me to purchase them. Like any cosmetic, you may really have to find something that tickles you the right way to lay out any money. The advanced service items or a la carte upgrades are items that aren’t necessary but could be worth it. For example, if you want one character who can do everything, and you want an additional MAG to level up, you have to purchase one through the shop. Then of course, you have the AC Scratch Tickets.
AC Scratch Tickets are loot boxes. While FUN scratch tickets are also loot boxes, those are the free kind, whereas the AC tickets you have to pay for, and they aren’t cheap. While the rewards could be a number of different things, if you get something you don’t want, you can exchange it later on, which is nice, but costly, especially if there’s a particular item that you want that is only available through an exchange. Gacha loot boxes are rarely if ever fun for gamers, and PSO2’s AC scratch tickets are no exception.
Customization with or without cash shop items is still pretty good. You have a lot of different options to choose from when creating a character, and many different attribute pieces that you can customize to make your character very unique. For example, there is a back item that looks like a pair of wings, that I repurposed and placed on my face to create a weird looking mask. These types of customizations are enjoyable as long as you take the time to put them all together. The one major sticking point is with the colors of your items. Many items require that you utilize a color change ticket, which is strangely hard to procure, so you may not always get the exact look you want right out of the gate.
Players also have pets (not to be confused with the summoner classes pets) with their Mags and Auxiliaries. You can level up your Mag, which will grow and change over time, and even reskin it if you find a special Mag skin you like. Your auxiliaries can be leveled and customized at the salon just like your player character can. There are so many different systems that allow for customization, and utilizing the lookbook you can spend your entire day creating different looks and showing them off to others if you so choose.
Solid, but Long Lasting?
Phantasy Star Online 2 is a game that provides plenty of content, without a high cost. The graphics may be outdated, and the combat may be simplistic, but there is depth to the way you build your characters and upgrade your weapons. The majority of your end game will be built around getting the best gear you can, and crafting that gear into better versions of themselves. It is a long process, but one that will surely appeal to those who aren’t averse to some grinding and RNG. While the Japanese version still has a number of features yet to make it in the western release, there seems to still be some room for new content to hit the virtual shelves and keep players invested.
The problem is, Phantasy Star Online 2 still feels like a game nearing a decade old mark. Like man MMOs of our current generation, however fun they continue to be, and however nostalgic PSO players may feel when playing, it still has a quality of being a little dated. Still, there is plenty of fight left in PSO2, and if you haven’t played it, or any version of Phantasy Star Online before, then it’s going to be new to you. Phantasy Star Online 2 is a fantastic game with a lot to offer. With a generous Free 2 Play payment model, PSO2 is certainly one of the best options out there for gamers looking to try something different, without overspending.