Despite Phantasy Star Online being ahead of its time as the first MMO to work on a console way back in 2000, the franchise as a whole has seen better days. With a recent string of mediocre games, Sega seems like they're getting their act together in turning things around for Phantasy Star Online 2. We checked out the recent closed beta session for the PC version and found new things to get excited about while traversing space and killing waves of indigenous alien creatures and evil spawns called Darkers.
You have three standard classes to pick from: the close-ranged Hunter; the long-ranged gun-toting Rangers; and the magic-wielding Forces. You also get to pick your races. Humans are adaptable to any class and have balanced stats, while the Newmans are better at spell-casting roles since their physical form is as effective as a wet paper towel. The robotic CASTs race is better-suited for more physical roles, which means they are terrible at handling magic.
It has been ages since we've played a Phantasy Star Online title, so we picked the easiest class to explore with: the Hunter. As for our race, we decided to go with the CASTs because, hey, when you have a chance to pick a cyborg race in a space-based MMO, you just go for it. While we didn't spend much time on the character creator, we did see that the customization options were plentiful, from facial morphing to tweaking eyelashes and body proportions. Fans can lose themselves creating their perfect space opera anime avatar.
The tutorial mission was set in a forest area. We were given the standard guidelines on how the game's controls and classes work. PSO2 feels more action-oriented due to the addition of jumping, guarding and evasions.
Each class has their own special combat maneuvers: Hunters can block, while Forces can cast area-of-effect spells. The Rangers can go nuts with the long-reaching grenade shot skill. All of these abilities require the PP meter which regenerates decently after a second of usage, and we found that mapping the quick swap weapon option to the mouse wheel helped switch up combat faster and more efficiently.
Using our Hunter, we alternated between using a two-handed sword and our fists for variety in combat. The quick switch also allowed us to use our entire combat arsenal to go as far as to juggle foes to the air, which is also new to the series. Blocking was also a good way to deal damage; we had to time it just right before the enemy's strike made contact.
We also had a chance to play around with the Forces class, and she came with her own array of spells like Fire Blast and Frost Attack. The former only allowed us to attack a single target but inflicted the enemy with burn status which deals damage over time. Frost Attack dealt less damage, but could be used to hit multiple foes in a straight line, and also has a chance to freeze them. Bum rushing as a magic user is suicide, and we avoided getting close unless we knew we could finish off our target with a few melee strikes.
Randomness plays a significant role in PSO2. While the geographic nature of the map stayed the same, enemy positions, level layouts and item drops were dynamically scattered, altered and distributed during our second and third run in the forest level. Furthermore, PSO2 introduces interrupt events to shake things up when you least expect them. These include crashed space ships or high-level groups of Darkers teleporting within the vicinity. Other times, the game can throw a type of interrupt event where you duel against a boss (usually a few levels higher than you), regardless of whether the current quest you're in contains a boss or not.
These bad boys usually require a four-person group to take down efficiently. Fortunately, gamers can gain access to multi-party areas, where up to twelve players can complete quests in the same zone. The catch is that the difficulty of the interrupt events will scale according to the number of players in the area. Players can expect to stay in their designated questing areas a lot longer than usual thanks to these random occurrences.
We found this concept fun and challenging, and our personal interrupt event experiences weren't too dangerous because we quested in areas with two to three other characters. But, the potential to experience big and memorable events were there. As long as others in the area don't mind being neighborly, solo players may find strangers lending a helping hand when things get hot.
After completing our first quest we assigned ourselves to the Gate, Phantasy Star Online 2's hub. We were shown the Matter Board, a device that shows how much of the narrative a player has completed. You will need to complete a certain number of quests to move the nodes forward. Think of it as a grocery list of quests that need completing before advancing the story, which in turn opens up new quests with bigger enemies to fight and better loot to acquire. However, players are required to complete the same quests multiple times to get better drops from defeated enemies to fulfill the criteria, which we found slightly repetitive.
Fans will also be pleased to know that the flying AI companions known as MAGs return. Having these little fellas next to you boosts your stats exponentially; players are able to get them via a quest at the Gate as long as they're at level 10. Feeding them different items will make them evolve into different and powerful forms. Getting them to higher levels can make them shoot out Photon Blasts, and different types of attacks are available depending on how they evolve. So far, we've seen MAGs recover PP meters faster than usual, rush enemies ahead of their masters, and even perform an area-of-effect attack.
PSO2's developer Satoshi Sakai recently mentioned that there will be a desert planet called Liliipa available for exploration in the open beta phase of the game, complete with new story quests and items up for partaking and looting. However, he has yet to announce the actual date of the open beta. In any case, while a few may find PSO2 akin to a cheap throwback of the first game at a glance, a deeper look into the core system may prove otherwise.
The developers are taking a chance with their interrupt events system, multi-party areas, and action-heavy conflict systems to make their core online RPG series relevant again. We're hoping that because of this, Sega plans to expand their user base outside of Japan.
For now, Japanese players can expect Phantasy Star Online 2 to be out for PC this summer for a grand sum of zero dollars. iOS and Android users aren't left out of the loop, as they can check out a version of PSO2 from this winter. The Vita version is slated to be out next year and will feature cross-platform play with the PC version. Stay tuned for more details.