My problem is that my actual experience hasn’t matched my imagination. At the time of writing the PC servers are fairly under-populated, and the initial sign-on server seems to hand you off to the least-populated server when you log-on – a bit like a host who sits you in the corner of an empty room at a party, while everyone else is mingling in the kitchen. Switching servers is easy enough, providing the one busy server isn’t full, but even then finding people to adventure with at the right level and wanting to do the same mission is near-impossible. As the missions are hardly solo-friendly, with a distressing tendency to dump you out should you die and force you to redo the whole thing again, without checkpoints, it’s a slightly dispiriting experience.
In the event that you do find a pick-up group to play with, the game suddenly comes to life, but after World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and – particularly – Guild Wars, this doesn’t feel like an easy game to break into. In addition, the actual missions still aren’t that entertaining, being fairly simple dungeon-crawl affairs (even if the ‘dungeons’ are on the planet surface). Compare these truncated, sectioned-off planets to the wide-open landscapes of other online RPGs, and they seem small and horribly dated by comparison.
On the PS2 or Xbox 360, where online RPGs are rare, there’s a temptation to say that at least Phantasy Star Universe gives you a taste of the joys of the genre. On the PC, however, it’s a wash-out, and that’s a shame. With it’s anime style and distinctly Japanese mix of Sci-Fi and Fantasy themes, the Phantasy Star ‘universe’ has real potential, and you can’t help wishing that Sonic Team would look at the likes of Guild Wars and try to combine that game’s larger worlds and player-friendly features with the immediate, real-time combat that can make this Phantasy Star Universe an enjoyable place to visit on occasion. After all, wouldn’t it have been better to –as in WoW or Guild Wars – have a multiplayer game that you can still solo through, rather than a weak single-player mode and an underdeveloped, under populated online one. As it is, Phantasy Star Universe offers a reasonable dollop of nostalgia for those who miss the glory days of Phantasy Star Online, but any newcomers will feel baffled as to what the appeal is. And when you factor in a monthly subscription – with no initial free period unless you cough up for at least a month – I doubt they’ll be tempted to stay long enough for to understand it.
A classic online RPG returns, but the competition leaves it feeling dated. The single-player adventure, meanwhile, is a tragic Jap-RPG disaster.