Sega's Phantasy Star Universe has been taunting fans for quite some time now. The upcoming original entry in the beloved Phantasy Star series was first announced in May 2004, with the platforms it was slated to appear on not being revealed until almost a year later. While we've had the chance to get brief tastes of the forthcoming game at the past two E3s and Tokyo Game Shows, Sega hasn't done much to give us a feel for what the proper game is going to be. Thankfully, we finally got our hands on a work-in-progress version of the game and have been able to log in a good chunk of time with the first three chapters in the single-player game. As longtime fans of the series since its days as a simple 2D Genesis RPG and through its evolution into a groundbreaking online RPG, we've been curious to see what's next for the series. The three chapters we've played through so far haven't cemented our opinion just yet, but one thing's for sure: Phantasy Star Universe is definitely changing things up for the franchise.
To those who haven't followed the Phantasy Star series, don't sweat it. While you probably should have played some of the previous entries in the series as they're quite cool, knowledge of the previous games isn't a requirement for PSU. The original game draws most heavily on the look and feel of the last two good entries in the PS series Phantasy Star Online (yes, we're glossing over Phantasy Star Online Episode III C.A.R.D. Revolution). However, as far as story goes, PSU is its own unique beast. The game's single-player experience casts you as Ethan Waber, a 17-year-old kid who, when we meet him in the game's first chapter, is, frankly, a bit of a punk. However, Mr. Personality gets an attitude adjustment when an alien attack endangers his sister Lamia. Despite his unexplained hostility to the local law enforcement, known as the Guardians, Ethan winds up working with one so that he can help his sister. As he makes his way to help her, he has a change of heart about the Guardians and decides to become one.
The remaining chapters we played find Ethan finishing up his enlistment process by engaging in some field work with fellow cadet Ryu Hyuga and his teacher, Karen Nerra. In the midst of his training, Ethan gets a better understanding of the trouble caused by the mysterious and hostile aliens, called the Seed, who attacked at the game's start and are continuing to stir things up. It seems the unfriendly E.T.'s are causing all sorts of trouble by mutating wildlife and generally disrupting the natural order of life in the Gurhal solar system. As if all that wasn't enough, the creatures appear to share a bond with the mysterious ruins of an ancient civilization.
At present the story is obviously setting things upso a lot of questions are being raised, and information on Ethan and his crew is being laid out to give you an idea of what they're all about. So we now know that the chip on Ethan's shoulder toward the Guardians is due to the fact that his father used to be a member and died while on duty. His teacher, Karen, is the same age, having become a Guardian at 14, and is an orphan. On the more shallow front, Ryu is a walking hormone who tries to pick up anything female. We expect the unlikely trio to bond as the game progresses.
As far as the gameplay goes, PSU is taking a fairly rigid linear path, like most old-school RPGs. The story unfolds via a copious amount of cinematics that pop up as you play. At present, Ethan operates out of a Guardian colony in space--a massive five-floor city that serves as a hub. Besides housing the Guardian barracks where Ethan lives, the colony features shuttles to the planets in the system, which you can only access if your license is cleared for travel to that particular location. At the moment we've been venturing to the planet Parum, which is where the first three chapters take place. Parum's main city features its own regional Guardian base, as well as several different shops and useful spots like the flyer base, which you'll visit to select missions and travel to their specific locations on the planet. The game is broken up into seriallike chapters, complete with narration to set up and close the action, which play out roughly the same. You'll get a mission, head to the planet, go to the flyer base, head to the specific location, do your mission, and then return to the colony. So far the missions we've played have been pretty standard stuff and involved a lot of killing, exploring, and finding keys to let us progress.
The mechanics in PSU are, for the most part, very accessible and owe quite a bit to the user-friendly scheme introduced in Phantasy Star Online. You'll have a collection of attacks that you can chain together for combos. Depending on the situation, you'll need to swap out weapons and tools as you play in order to best deal with a situation. For example, you'll have to toggle between your weapons and goggles to examine objects for clues while on a mission. As far as weapons go, you'll find several different kinds on the adventure that you can swap between on the fly depending on the situation. For example, we've been switching between a massive (though slow) two-handed sword that's extremely powerful and a dual-wield set of a handgun and saber.
Though not as powerful as the sword, the gun-and-saber set is faster and lets us use a special "photon arts" attack. An "action palette" lets you toggle between your different gear pretty quickly once you've set it up properly. You'll basically need to slot in weapons, equipment, and items to it. After your palette is set up, you can call it up during combat and use whatever you want. Gear such as your goggles will have to be swapped with weapons, as you can't use both at the same time. Items are quick-use items you'll need to restore health or photon energy.
As with any RPG, you'll level Ethan and his group up by killing things and accomplishing missions. Increasing everyone's level makes them sturdier, lets them learn new abilities, and allows you to use better gear. The new twist on leveling that fans will notice is the ability to level your class. In addition to the normal leveling you'll do on a mission, you'll also be able to level the class you're playing as. So far we've seen the typical three PSO classes in the game: hunters, rangers, and forces. Hunters are strictly physical fighters, while forces are the opposite and rely mainly on casting different technics (pronounced techniques). Rangers are a blend of the two, possessing solid melee skills but also having the ability to cast some technics. Unlike PSO, which required you to permanently pick a class to play as, PSU lets you switch between them by visiting a desk at the Guardian center.
The various missions you take will level up the class you're currently using. Class levels, given each one's unique focus, radically affect your stats. So, for example, hunters have higher physical attacks and armor, while forces are obviously skewed more toward intelligence and the stats geared for casting. It's an interesting system that we've started scratching the surface of in these early chapters. On the one hand, we appreciate the flexibility, but the old-school PSO player in us feels like this might make things too easy for players. We'll see how the mechanic evolves through the game.
Since we're still early in the game, we haven't been able to fully explore a number of mechanics that are being introduced in these early chapters. The shop system seems similar to that of the previous games. We've seen shops for armor, items, and weapons that let us spend our hard-earned meseta on gear. The new wrinkles we've been teased with include a new way to upgrade your weapons by purchasing items called grinders. While this is somewhat similar to the previous games, you won't actually be doing the upgrading yourself. You'll have to buy one of three grinders in a shop and take them to the weapons counter. The new wrinkle is that the process may fail, resulting in a busted weapon you can't use. Before anyone panics, the success rate of the process hinges on the grinder you buy. If you use +1 or +2 grinders there's a chance of failure, but +3 grinders are guaranteed success.
Another new feature is the synthesis shop, which isn't open to us yet. From the sound of it, the shop will let you use materials you'll pick up on a mission to create new weapons, armor, and items. We haven't been able to do much with the party system, aside from exchange cards with our teammates and form a group. The system seems to be a pretty exact replica of the guild card system from PSO, which lets you tap people to group without being near them. We also haven't seen anything on the mag system in the game. In previous games, mags were useful creatures that tagged along with you. If you took care of them properly they would assist you on your adventure by offering up different support effects or attacking enemies. So far we've just seen "Pete," a mag-like automaton in Ethan's room who serves as his personal assistant. Speaking of Ethan's room, we've been briefed on the option to customize it but haven't messed around with that option yet.
From what we've seen so far, PSU's gameplay seems like it's got a lot to explore. As of right now the game doesn't quite have the same pick-up-and-play feel of PSO, despite the similarities in appearance. We're hoping that as we spend more time adventuring, the various systems become second nature.
The visuals in the work-in-progress game we're trying out are looking uneven across the three platforms it's appearing on. The game looks most comfortable on the PlayStation 2, which is a good fit for the graphics on display. The game uses the angular art style seen in the PSO branch of the series and gets a lot of mileage out of few polygons. The catch to this is that the Xbox 360 and PC versions of the game could be prettier. To be fair, the PC game looks a good deal better than the PS2 game, thanks to a higher resolution. However, the Xbox 360 game is lacking that sparkle right now. The game relies a bit too much on assorted filters on the 360, which give the action a blurry look that's distracting. However, despite its low-poly characters, PSU tosses in a generous helping of special and particle effects to show off its unique world. The game's frame rate is generally stable, though it hitches when the action gets too hectic.
The audio in the game attempts to take advantage of the roomy DVD medium, with mixed results so far. The voice acting in the game is sounding like it's going to be retro, in the sense that it's not going to blow anyone away with its subtle nuances. What we've heard so far is reminiscent of the voice acting you'd hear in a so-so anime. There's a hefty amount of speaking and a whole lot of overemoting in places. The game's soundtrack fares a bit better; the in-game tracks we've heard are a good mix of modern-sounding tunes with some traditional orchestrated bits as well. The only "love it or hate it" twist to the soundtrack we've heard are some of the vocal tracks, which you'll hear pretty regularly.
So far, the first three chapters of PSU are getting off to a slow start but certainly leave enough loose ends to be dealt with in the rest of the game. The cast of characters and the offline story haven't hooked us yet, but these early chapters are still setting things up. The gameplay takes some getting used to, especially for those used to PSO, and hasn't won us over just yet. Right now the experience is feeling a little dated. We're curious to go through a bit more of the game to see what the experience is like when we're fully tricked out with a mag and the ability to synthesize things. Look for more on Phantasy Star Universe in the coming weeks. The game is slated to ship this October for the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox 360.