To those of a certain age, Sega’s Phantasy Star Online is synonymous with breaking new ground in console connectivity. Weaned on a diet of Dreamcast propaganda that culminated in the infamous “6bn players online” marketing spiel, PSO ended up as the only title on the diminutive white console to tap the true potential of that packed-in modem. Above all else though, PSO birthed an entirely new paradigm for developers to consider: the free-to-play console MMO.
Arriving here ten years later on the DS for its second pocket-form iteration, much of that rudimentary blueprint remains untouched. Phantasy Star Zero is still a resolutely online-biased title, although some progress has been made to further solo play in the interim. Whether or not that’s enough to justify a purchase largely depends on your ability to round up a suitable group of friends or strangers to play along, although a willingness to accept the more mundane aspects of grinding and levelling is also required.
In its most basic form, Zero represents as pure an RPG schematic as you’ll find anywhere. Creating your character from one of four different races and a handful of visual and combat customisation options, your newly-minted hero is dumped into a familiar-looking hub world and left to explore. Playing offline, various NPCs lead you through the basics of weapon selection, item management and quest-gathering, before casting you adrift to choose your battles as a Hunter – guardian of a city and general gun-for-hire.
Following a sparse introduction, activating any of the story quests leads the player into one of seven themed and randomly-generated maps, complete with repetitive goals to unlock new areas, defeat roaming monsters, find items and destroy traditional boss characters. Combat is simplistic and real-time, with light, heavy and magic attacks mapped directly to the DS face buttons and a single trigger modifier. Weapons come in various flavours that lend speed or power depending on your preference, but regardless of the style, pacing is slow and methodical; tactics at a premium.
Grouping up to take on various enemies, your AI-driven party members can be somewhat frustrating, exhibiting a stubbornness and unflinching magnetism for wanton self-harm. Playing with strangers or friends online is a different matter, and those problems are partially surmounted with a doodle system that allows for both preset and customised messages to be flashed to your party on-screen. Never has the ‘visual chat room’ MMO observation been more apt, but communication in PSZ is rarely an issue, and that’s no easy feat to achieve considering the screen size and resolution. Player skill however, is as wildly entertaining and annoying as any other online title.
But find yourself a decent group and a familiar raiding rhythm soon takes over. Loot runs continue to form the primary focus of the Phantasy Star template, every session rewarding players with several of the 300+ collectible items to augment stats and make the next excursion that much easier. Repetition soon sets in, but the drive to see what drops is as strong as ever, buoyed on by a colourful and crisp visual design. Those of you determined to play single-player might want to take note that the anime-inspired cinematics are sporadically distributed throughout, and the story predictably rote.
And rather predictably, several interface and camera issues rear up to spoil the party, proving that no matter how much a videogame formula is honed over the years, certain flaws seem to be unavoidable. Zoomed in close in a bid to maximise screen space and frame rate, simply rotating to view your battlefield is far too problematic and virtually impossible mid-scrap. Auto-aim is generous to overcompensate – simply aiming off-screen and hoping for the best is frequently enough to begin your next chain – but it’s hardly an elegant solution. The interface is also fairly poor, cluttered and far too busy to be of any real use.
But regardless of those established issues, PSZ contains a formula and charm that continues to work its magic with varying degrees of success. Sure there are better single-player RPGs, and there are definitely more accomplished online games available even for the DS; but something about the base mechanics of Phantasy Star simply work. It’s primitive, it’s still flawed, but it’s the same experience people have valued for a decade.