When the original Phantasy Star Online was released for the Dreamcast in 2001, it broke new ground for console gaming. Besides offering console gamers their first chance to play an RPG online, the game changed the way developers approached network games. PSO's unique communication system let players chat with each other using text, symbols, and, most impressively, stock phrases that the game would translate on the fly. Sadly, Phantasy Star Online's release roughly coincided Sega's announcement of its intention to abandon its role as a hardware manufacturer, which limited the game's reach. Fortunately, as Sega's developers began bringing their franchises to other platforms, Sonic Team announced that it planned to bring Phantasy Star Online to the GameCube. Rather than offer GameCube owners a simple port the original game, Sonic Team has cooked up something special. Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II will offer the original game, an entirely new scenario, and content that can be downloaded to the Game Boy Advance. We recently had a chance to check out a previewable build of the game and try it out online, and we've come away pleased by what we've seen. PSO Episode I & II expands on the positive aspects of the original game and throws in a nice helping of extras that should please fans of the series and make some new ones.
The story in Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II is told in two parts. The first episode tells the tale found in the original game, which involves an investigation into the disappearance of a colony ship on the planet Ragol. The second episode picks up where the first leaves off and sends you looking for a mysterious individual who has sent a message to your ship, Pioneer 2, from the surface of Ragol. While chatting with new people is always nice, the communiqué is a bit unsettling for the recipients on the ship, as the sender was thought to have been long dead. Armed only with the knowledge that the local wildlife on Ragol isn't very friendly, you head out to discover what's going on.
If you're familiar with the original PSO, booting up Episode I & II should be like slipping into a pair of comfortable jeans. The game features the same structure as the Dreamcast version and should be easy to pick up for newcomers. Two play options will be available when you're offline: single mode and multi mode. As you might expect, single is a single-player game and multi is a multiplayer game for up to four players. In single-player, the first thing you'll do is choose a character from the three available classes. As in the original game, there will be three classes--hunters, rangers, and forces--to choose from. The game will add one new character to each class, for a total of 12 characters. You'll find a female android called a hucaseal in the hunter class, a perky female called a ramarl in the ranger class, and a disturbingly androgynous male called a fomar in the force class. Once you've selected a character, you'll be able to customize several elements of its model. You'll be able to select from different faces, hairstyles and hair colors, costumes, and skin colors, and you'll also be able to adjust his or her height and weight. Once you've customized your character to your liking, you'll name him or her and be assigned a color-coded section ID that will affect certain factors in your single-player game like the frequency with which you'll encounter certain items.
Once you've picked your character, you'll have to choose which episode of PSO you want to play. Regardless of which you choose, the game will unfold in roughly the same way. You'll check in with your bosses on Pioneer 2 and use the ship's teleporters to head down to the planet, and each area of the planet you come across will be broken up into two to three sections that you'll have to explore before facing a boss. Episode II will differ a bit from Episode I in that you'll be hanging out on a different part of Pioneer 2, and you'll have to go through a test before being allowed down on the planet. The offline multiplayer game will let you play cooperatively with up to four players on split screen in either episode, as well as participate in the new battle and challenge gameplay modes.
When you finally get around to exploring and fighting, you'll find that PSO's control setup is pretty accessible, thanks to the ability to customize most aspects of the control. You'll move your character with the analog stick and be able to configure the rest of the buttons anyway you like. You'll basically have six buttons that you can assign actions to, since the B, A, and X buttons can all have two commands assigned to them. You'll be able to swap between each set of commands by holding down the R trigger. Most characters will have two to three attacks with their weapons: a normal attack, a heavy attack that's stronger but slower, and, in cases where weapons offer special attacks, an extra attack. In addition to physical attacks, you'll be able to use and "techniques," the game's equivalent to spells.
Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II's audio and visual elements are very good. The Dreamcast version's graphics have seen some improvements, mostly in the form of enhancements to already existing effects and the addition of some new lighting and particle effects. The characters models look good, and they animate well, although there hasn't been a tremendous leap in their poly count. The environments from the original PSO feature new touches such as more animated-textures and more lighting effects. However, the new environments in Episode II look quite a bit better, featuring some graphically optimized elements such as transparencies and some very cool warping effects for spells and enemies that can cloak themselves. The bosses we've seen so far are all suitably impressive, although they're similar to the bosses from Episode I. In terms of audio, the game has definitely been improved, as the positional audio is now more apparent and the ambient sound elements are now much more prominent.
PSO's online experience is as solid as its presentation. We had a chance to try out the game using the GameCube's broadband adapter and found the experience to be a good one. The original game performed quite well over the DC modem, although there were the occasional hitches. The setup is pretty straightforward--you just enter your ISP and CD key info, and you're off. The lobby is a completely new open area, though it features the same counters that you used to start your online adventure in the previous game. You'll be able to configure your game to your liking, such as leaving it open for anyone to join or protecting it with a password and choosing which episode you'll be playing in.
In addition to the online game, Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II will allow for connectivity between the Game Boy Advance and the GameCube by offering downloadable content that you can transfer to the GBA. For example, you'll be able to find a special chao in the game that you'll be able to put on your GBA and upload into the chao gardens found in Sonic Advance and Sonic Adventure 2 Battle. One of the coolest elements for fans is likely to be the downloadable Nights game you'll be able to find on a specific quest.
Judging from what we've seen so far, Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II is shaping up nicely. Its graphics and gameplay are as solid as ever, and the game's online performance is good. With its broad selection of content and gameplay, the game is a strong entry in the GameCube software library and a solid step online for the GameCube. Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II is currently slated to ship later this month.