It’s been almost a decade since Phantasy Star Online elevated the Phantasy Star series to new heights, and while there have been sequels and new entries in the series for every console from the Xbox 360 to the PSP, few games have managed to capture the magic of the original Dreamcast title.
Phantasy Star Zero is essentially a spiritual successor to that original online foray into the Phantasy Star series, and it does a pretty damn good job of recreating that magic. It’s built from the same fundamental building blocks, and it managed to conjure up that exciting feeling of searching for that next piece of awesome loot and waiting for that next exciting ‘ding’ of a level up.
At the same time Phantasy Star Zero also puts a focus on the story in an attempt to return the series to its single-player roots. There are quite a lot of cutscenes and text-based exposition thrown at players to propel you through the story when perhaps the exhilaration associated with new loot and levelling up alone would be enough to have you continue to play.
The story is relatively serviceable and you’ll have the traditional JRPG anime portraits pop up to accompany a character’s speech. Essentially the story is merely a vehicle to send you on a quest when flying solo and it does what it needs to do fairly well. Fans of the pure Phantasy Star Online experience may find it all a bit distracting, long-winded and unnecessary, though – and that’s because really it is.
While the story leaves a lot to be desired, graphically Phantasy Star Zero truly impresses, and is a welcome addition to the ranks of visually impressive DS titles that manage to squeeze some impressively vibrant design out of the tiny machine. The characters and world have a decent variety, and the designs of some of the gigantic boss creatures are truly awesome.
If you’re unfamiliar with how the Phantasy Star Online titles play, they’re essentially Action RPGs that play out a lot like any other MMO on the market. You have six buttons that you can assign moves to – A, B and Y, and then those three again while holding down the right shoulder button. Initially you’ll just be hacking with light and heavy swings of your sword, but as the game continues you’ll be unlocking items, spells and special abilities to equip to those buttons.
The control layout is incredibly similar to the rest of the Phantasy Star Online series, and it’ll be instantly familiar to long-time fans. Better still, it’s simple – and so it’s easy to pick up. Despite that it is a tad disappointing that little has been done with the DS touch screen in terms of actual gameplay.
You’ll create a character, have a variety of skills at your disposal and accrue more as you level up and become more powerful. Loot acquired by slaying enemies and completing missions will also go a long way to making your character more powerful.
Phantasy Star Zero has fourteen different combinations of class, race and gender to choose from, so it’s easy to mix and match to find a style of combat that matches your preferences and there’s a limited amount of actual customisation of the look of your hero as well, though that selection is so bare as to disappoint, especially coming off PSP’s Phantasy Star Portable.
Appearances don’t matter that much as the core of the game isn’t about how you look but how you develop as you level up and purchase new weapons and equipment. Better gear allows you to tackle bigger, more powerful enemies, and defeating those enemies will afford you even bigger, better loot. It’s a never-ending, highly addictive cycle – the MMO gameplay model.
While Phantasy Star Zero isn’t an MMO, you can wander out into its dungeons and fields with up to three friends who have a DS and a copy of the game. While Phantasy Star Zero’s single player is competent, like any Phantasy Star Online styled title it really begins to show its quality when you’re playing with a full party of four.
With a full party you can ditch the rubbish, stupid AI party members and designate roles and play the game it’s meant to be played – and it makes taking down a massive boss all the more satisfying when you do it as a team with a designated tank, healer and so on – just like an MMO in your pocket.
The multiplayer is sadly marred by the fact that you’re forced to use Nintendo’s difficult ‘Friend Code’ system, meaning adding a friend to play online requires a difficult to remember 12 digit code and navigating a bunch of convoluted menus.
You can use matchmaking to play with random people, but the game has features removed in this mode including the ability to chat, and honestly the only way to play Phantasy Star Online is with a team that you can actually work with, rather than a party of four stand-alone vigilantes.
The chat system with random players allows you to send a selection of preset phrases, while playing with friends opens up a pictochat-styled system where you can scribble on the bottom screen and send it to your party. It’s a nice feature in lieu of voice chat but beware: combat doesn’t pause while you’re writing!
When you finally manage to get multiplayer working with four friends it is an absolute blast, and as mentioned earlier feels like the closest thing to the magic of Phantasy Star Online.
Being close to that magic drags along a couple of the flaws with it including a camera straight out of 2001, an inventory system that leaves a fair bit to be desired and the baffling lack of a pause feature, even when playing offline. There’s also the aforementioned plot, which feels like it’s straight out of the Dreamcast era – a massive rift between the improved qualities of many modern RPG stories, even the cheesy ones.
While I have a ton of complaints, ultimately Phantasy Star Zero is an incredibly fun game and I’ve enjoyed the many hours I’ve spent with it so far. It’s a loving tribute and true sequel to the original Phantasy Star Zero, which in turn gives birth to both the best and the worst of the game.
The bottom line is if you’re looking for a fun loot-grabbing RPG to pour some time into or you’d like a decent multiplayer experience on the DS this is definitely one to grab, even in spite of its problems.