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Platforms: PC, PS2 & Xbox 360 - PC version reviewed.
The Phantasy Star series has rightfully earned a place in the gaming hall of fame. First the initial run of Megadrive games proved instrumental in first introducing Western audiences to the joys of the Japanese RPG (not to mention the superb Master System original – ed.), then Phantasy Star Online showed that online role-playing and consoles could mix. Nothing Phantasy Star Universe could do can mar either of these achievements, or the Phantasy Star name.
But Sonic Team’s latest effort certainly tries its best.
You can certainly see the thinking at work: let’s update Phantasy Star Online for a new generation, and simultaneously give solo players a taste of the experience. The result is effectively two games – a single player campaign complete with storyline, non-player characters and unfolding chapters, and a more traditional Phantasy Star Online network game where players gang up to tackle missions on the three worlds of the Gurhal system. The problem is that neither portion works quite as well as it should. A lot has happened since Phantasy Star Online appeared – the appearance of Final Fantasy XI, the rise of MMORPGs on the PC – but Sonic Team appears to have been working in a vacuum, content to let the advances of the last six years drift by, while essentially reworking the same material one more time.
Arguably, it’s the single-player offering that proves most disappointing. The Sci-Fi meets Fantasy setting still has magic, and the decision to give the whole thing the feel of a high-class Anime series is a great touch, with chapters divided by cool opening sequences, and nice linking segues to take you from one part of the universe to another. However, the content itself is the worst sort of trite Japanese RPG nonsense, with a particularly irritating example of the archetypal surly teen hero, hideous stretches of over-talky exposition, and a range of secondary characters of bewildering crapness. What’s more, the levels themselves are spectacularly dull affairs; simplistic dungeon crawls with tiresome secondary objectives, featuring creatures of no discernible intelligence and forcing you through some of the most laborious key-finding, monster-bashing, area-scanning tosh in eons. It’s a game you’ll be bored of within the first hour, and it doesn’t get better with time.
What’s more, the overall look and feel is horribly dated. It doesn’t help that the PC version appears to be the laziest port imaginable of the PS2 version, nor does it help that – on this evidence – the PS2 version isn’t a standout title on that platform. Both the interior and exterior areas are flat and poorly textured, and while the monster and character design show signs of Sega’s usual flair, the execution is surprisingly basic. Cut-scenes in particular, are hideous affairs, with non-existent or minimal lip-synching and the sort of dancing-oddly-while-I’m-talking rubbish that should have ended in the 32-bit era. Worse still, the controls have been lifted directly from the console version, ignoring the classic mouse and keyboard combination in favour of oddly-mapped keyboard based commands. Without a joypad, even movement is a chore, let alone fighting, and while the menu systems might make sense on a console, they’re surprisingly hard work on the PC.