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On the plus side, fighting remains the game’s strongest feature. Unlike most RPGs, the combat system is a real-time affair, with three buttons used to trigger basic melee attacks, power attacks and ranged attacks with side-arms, rifles and assorted projectile weapons. It’s a refreshing change from the majority of RPGs where you essentially trigger a particular attack then watch as it plays out, feeling more direct and – thanks to the over-use of glowing trails and impact flashes – looking more spectacular. In fact, the promise of buying more impressive weaponry and upgraded special moves is one of the few things that keeps you in the game; there’s always a temptation to see what that next ‘photon skill’ or upgrade to your arsenal will do.
While I’m dishing out compliments, I might also mention the fact that the sound effects and music are pretty good (bar the execrable voice acting), with strong orchestral themes and generally exciting battle noises. It’s one area of the game where I have little to complain about.
Sadly, it’s about the only area. If you’re looking for a single-player RPG, there are so many other options on the PC that you’d be crazy to opt for this one. On the PS2 or Xbox 360, meanwhile, this isn’t fit to lick the boots of Final Fantasy X or Dark Chronicle, let alone The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Having seen Mass Effect in action, it’s gob-smacking that Sega felt this was good enough for a 2006 audience.
But then I can’t imagine anyone buying this for the single-player mode. No, the hook here is what Sega terms the Network mode. Now, Phantasy Star Universe still isn’t what you’d call a proper MMO; like the original Phantasy Star Online and more recent efforts like Guild Wars, it’s more what you’d call a cooperative RPG, where players band together in an in-game lobby, then go off on instanced quests. It’s a nice way to cut down on the lag that’s still experienced when thousands of players occupy a single server, and you can see the potential of the game. It’s a simpler, more immediate affair than World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI or even Guild Wars, with the real-time combat giving it that fun, pick-up-and-play factor that these more complex, skill-based games often miss out on. I can imagine that with four-players coming together to tackle quests and generally kick monster butt it would be an entertaining experience, albeit a fairly limited one. There’s not the depth or hardcore character development that makes these bigger online games so satisfying in the long-term.