We got our hands on the import version of Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II for the GameCube today. The game is the latest incarnation of the series, which broke new ground for online gaming on consoles when the original Phantasy Star Online was released for the Dreamcast in 2000. As noted by the title, the game includes the original Phantasy Star Online game as well as a second "episode," which takes place after the events in the original game. While we haven't been able to try out the online portion of the game, we were able to try the single- and multiplayer modes in the game.
The game features a new attract cinema that shows off the additional classes included in the game. You'll find new ranger, force, and hunter characters, bringing the total variants up to four for each class. The new ranger character, a Ramarl, is a cute and perky, but deadly, blonde female character who wields her pistol sideways, "gangsta style," showing that Sonic Team is indeed down with the kids. The new force character, a Fomar, is a fashion-challenged character who races about in flowing robes and an unfortunate hat. Finally, the new hunter character, a Hucaseal, is a female android who looks suspiciously like a ninja and is likely to be the coolest new class addition in the game because the combination of ninja, robot, and female just drips cool. As in previous PSO games, you'll be able to modify each character's appearance to suit your tastes and increase their cool factor, but, as we said, there's just not topping a she-ninja-bot combo. GameCube owners should be pleased to see that it will be possible to save multiple characters on a single memory card. We were able to store up to four on a single memory card 59.
When firing up the game you'll have the option to choose on online or offline game. An offline game will offer two options, single or multimode. The single-player game will let you choose between playing the original Phantasy Star Online, listed as Episode I, or the new installment, Episode II. As before, you'll be able to select from game difficulties that start at normal and end up at ultimate, or as veteran PSO players call it, "a quick and painful death." You won't be able to select the various difficulties until you've completed the game on each setting. When playing in multimode, you'll have the option to choose between three game types: normal, battle, or challenge. Normal is a cooperative game that lets you go through both episodes with up to four friends. Battle and challenge are competitive modes for up to four players, much like those found in Phantasy Star Online Version 2 for the Dreamcast.
We initially tried out the normal game in single-player mode and hopped into the Episode II scenario. When the episode starts you're asked to go through a VR temple. We hopped in without bothering to do much preparation, confident that our skills honed during countless hours of playing the Dreamcast version would let us sail through the new episode. This held true for roughly the first two rooms or so. Then we died, many, many times. We became well acquainted with the new Pioneer area, which differs quite a bit from the one seen in the first PSO episode. You'll find a tekker, a bank, a hospital, an item shop, an armor shop, and a weapon shop to meet your adventuring needs. We had the chance to see the shops and the new common area in great detail, as we were brought back from death regularly. On the upside, we're pleased to report that you'll be able to hang on to your weapons after you're cut down in your prime. You'll just have to reequip when you go back to the battlefield. Granted we probably shouldn't have been cocky enough to use a force character, but we expected the start of the game to only be as challenging as the original. We were very wrong. The VR temple, split into an alpha and beta section, throws just about every enemy you never wanted to see at you in rapid succession. Dimenians, hildebears, rappies, grass assassins, and lilies were on hand to pummel the life out of us along with a new, evil, addition--fireball-spewing turrets. The unholy devices spring up quickly and shoot fireballs that are very deadly when your character is at a low experience level. The turrets are just one of several new, and painful, experiences Episode II has to offer that take your expectations of the game and twist them into new and painful shapes. We never thought we'd be expected to deal with enemies in narrow corridors, but the sound of dimenians closing in behind us while we tried to get past an enormous pile driver certainly made it clear it was time to learn.
Following our repeated single-player deaths we tried out multimode, assuming two players would be better than one. The addition of a buddy on a split screen certainly helped our survival, but the sheer volume of enemies kept us from getting too confident. The split-screen setup worked well, although we had some issues with the camera control. Navigating the temple was made a bit easier thanks to an onscreen map you can call up by pressing the Y button. The buddy system got us to the temple's boss, a water-based creature that was reminiscent of the cave boss from Episode I, and it swiftly dispatched us.
Our multiplayer experience did make one thing clear, though: Episode II begs to be played with friends. The one aspect that will take some getting used to is that when one player dies, if he or she opts to return to the ship to be revived, the other member of the group will go along for the ride. It's a quirk that we were able to deal with by using a telepipe, which, when used by the surviving member of the group, revives the deceased character and doesn't set you back as much as returning to the initial entry point in the level would.
Graphically the game looks extremely sharp. The graphics are highly detailed, and the frame rate is constant, although we'll say that it's certainly a dubious comfort to note that the graphics engine is so solid when a distressingly large number of enemies is lumbering toward you. The environments that we saw featured a high amount of detail and a variety of little touches such as light sourcing, reflective water, and an array of particle effects.
From what we've played so far, Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II for the GameCube looks to be as addictive as its Dreamcast predecessors. The new additions to the character classes and gameplay appear to offer quite a bit to engage you offline. If the game manages to offer as solid an experience online, fans of the series should be more than pleased. Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II is slated to ship this October in the US. Look for more on the US game in the coming weeks.