Our resident Dreamcast expert Faith is back to review a game we’ve always been curious about but never had the facilities to play (online). Phantasy Star Online continues to roll on a full nineteen-and-a-bit years later. It was ported to other platforms but would you really wanna play it on GameCube? Yeah, me neither.
Back at the turn of the century the idea of a games console playing games online seemed ludicrous. There had been attempts in the past to bring consoles online but these ventures were usually niche items with limited connectivity. The world of online gaming belonged to the PC crowd but Sega was looking to switch things up. They had just released a new console with an in built modem and provided software to get online for every user. Their flagship in-house studio, Sonic Team, had been testing the Dreamcast’s online functionality with Chu Chu Rocket. It was a big success and proved that four players, from around the world, could challenge each other seamlessly.
Sega knew that they had something special on their hands and asked Sonic Team to create a whole new game to showcase the technology. Nobody would expect a masterpiece to be the first real online game on a console. We take it for granted that most of our console games these days will have an online function. But back in 2000 this was a special moment and the online crown was snatched from PC users for the first time. Phantasy Star Online is an incredibly ambitious game and succeeds on every level. A huge sprawling world with great graphics, controls and intuitive co-op play. Phantasy Star Online represents the turning point of console gaming.
You start the game creating a customised character. All the usual RPG options of colours, hair and faces amongst others mean you can create a unique avatar. You have three types of character that all play differently. The hunters specialise in hand-to-hand combat, rangers are gun gurus and force types use magic, spells and other tricks. There are also different races to pick that affect what items can and cannot be used. Once you are ready to go the story starts and you find yourself in the middle of a mysterious world. You and the rest of humanity are searching for a new home and the first settlers sent out have gone missing.
The space cruiser, Pioneer 1, was sent ahead to find a new planet to inhabit. You’re on Pioneer 2 that meets up with Pioneer 1 on Ragol. This new planet can sustain life and it is your job as a hunter to make it safe before the rest of civilisation sets up camp. But first you must find out what happened to the others. The story is quite lacklustre for a game of this type; it takes a firm back seat to the actual gameplay. Ragol is broken up into several different levels each with an abundance of missions. You can start the game offline and work your way through the light-touch story mode. Each level has about fifteen quests and a boss to defeat.
After each quest you’re sent back to your ship to fill up on supplies before heading out again. There are a few shops that sell everything from weapons, armour and consumables. You learn fast to keep a good stash of hit point potions, as the early stages of the game are tough with a low-level character. If you die during a mission you are sent back to base and must start the mission over. Defeating the end of world boss opens up the next area that has its own unique monsters and quests. Playing offline does become repetitive quickly and most players will finish the offline story mode in a few days. But it gives you the opportunity to level up your character and store up some items in your personal item bank. This game is called Phantasy Star Online so this is where the magic happens.
Once you are accustomed with the controls and your character you can hop online and join a team of up to four hunters. The levels, quests and monsters are the same as the offline mode but playing with others allows tactics beyond the single player game. The online game runs smooth and it is impressive how Sega have made such a vibrant world come alive. The textures are quite basic but this allows for quick loading and less framerate drop when playing with others. There are a few pop-up issues but this does not affect the game as it only happens to item boxes and in game switches. You’re able to use the Dreamcast keyboard to type simple messages that appear on screen and these are even translated into one of five languages automatically.
Similar to the single player experience, once a quest is complete your team is warped back to the lobby where you can select a new mission. You can also trade items with other players in the lobby or just hang out to chat. This is a full online experience with a real community of players. Servers, run by fans of the game, are still available to log into to this day. You make real friends with players and the only feature lacking is a player vs. player option. This might have been hard to include, as some players are higher levels and would have a huge advantage. If this game was released today this feature could easily have been implemented using tiers, but this would have been difficult in 2000.
The ease of logging into the server and getting into a game makes this accessible to any player. Even if you’re a low-level character you can join a team and go hunting. The wealth of items and missions gives Phantasy Star Online lots of replay value and just like MMORPG games of today the world goes on forever. There is so much to love about this game and every aspect is well balanced. It is also tough at times with some boss battles lasting up to half an hour but this is where team tactics need to be developed. If you do not have the right mix of hunter, ranger and force type units you may be ill equipped to finish your task. But you will just keep coming back, making new friends, trading weapons and getting back out on the hunt.
The music is excellent in Phantasy Star Online and never drops out even when the online play has lots going on. The graphics are fine but basic in places. This can be forgiven though as Sega have chosen smooth online gameplay, with quick loads, over detailed visuals. The colourful Sega style is present and correct and you even have a familiar called a MAG that aids your quest. You can feed the MAG items that allow it level up in its own way. Their main use is to provide a super move that charges up as you take damage and attack enemies. It is a nice touch that adds an extra layer to the already complex gameplay.
Overall, this ambitious effort could have fallen flat on its face. But not only is this an incredible game and it is also important to the history of console gaming. Phantasy Star Online literally opened a world of players to join up and enjoy one of Sega’s greatest titles. The fact that you can still get online with either the Dreamcast or GameCube versions just shows how much love this classic still holds. Those that played it at the time will have fond memories but those playing for the first time have an incredible experience just waiting to unfold.
All screenshots taken from Moby Games.