Review by: Mike Laidlaw
Published: March 17, 2001
No matter your opinion on Sega as a company or as hardware developers, you really can’t accuse them of standing still. Whether they succeed or fall flat on their face, their corporate philosophy seems to be one of innovation and progress. Take, for example, the gutsy decision to ship the Dreamcast with a built-in modem. While it took a while to bring the games up to speed, one can’t deny that it was Sega that blazed the trail to the promised land of online gaming for console systems. Given their adventuresome spirit, it’s compellingly appropriate that Sega will also be remembered as the first developer to release an online RPG for the living room crowd as well. Building upon an established and critically acclaimed lineage, Phantasy Star Online is the latest evolution of a series that first appeared in Japan in 1987.
As a carefully constructed cinematic explains at the beginning of Phantasy Star Online, the people of your character’s planet were faced with a frightening prospect: the loss of their home. In a desperate race against time, probes were sent out to the furthest reaches of space searching for another planet to harbor the refugees of a dying world. When one probe sent back word of Ragol, an ideal candidate for the transplantation of a society, the colony ship Pioneer 1 was dispatched immediately to investigate and establish a starter colony. A few years later, Pioneer 2 departed for Ragol on the assurance that the planet was ideal. Essentially an Ark-ship, Pioneer 2 ferried all those who had not traveled with the first wave of colonists. In retrospect, it may have been unwise to put an entire planet’s eggs in one basket, but with the looming destruction of the home world and constant assurances of suitability, the decision was made. As Pioneer 2 entered orbit it established a link with the central dome of the colony on Ragol; seconds later, a massive explosion rips across the surface and all contact with the first settlers is lost.
Fortunately, with an entire planet’s population on board of Pioneer 2 there’s no shortage of adventurers willing to help discover the fate of the colony. The player takes on the role of a Hunter, a generic term for one of three professions dedicated to dealing with harsh conditions and adverse situations. In addition to the general term, a Hunter is also a specific class and they specialize in bladed weapons and hand to hand combat. As might be expected, Hunters are the most durable of the three classes, as their up-close fighting style has lent them years of experience at avoiding enemy attacks and patching up wounds. A Ranger’s training lacks such rough and tumble hardiness, but is no less useful in a combat situation: like their fantasy counterparts, the Ranger is the master of attacking from a distance. Rounding out the triad are the Forces, a group of mystics who spend their lives in pursuit of mastery over techniques, which are essentially spells of great power.
In addition to choosing a profession, a new player of Phantasy Star Online must specify their race as well. Humans are, as always, the generic choice, since they are equally proficient at techniques and combat and are the only race that has all three professions open to them. Androids, however, lack the necessary connection with nature to perform any techniques at all, eliminating them from the Force profession. Built for combat and far more durable than their fleshy comrades, the android excels as a Hunter, and superior coordination makes them the most accurate Rangers. The Newman race is the exact opposite: a Newman Hunter exhibits far more aptitude with techniques than a Human, and as a Force the race has found its niche. While physically weak, these Elf-like creatures are masters of the mental arts surrounding the practice of magic.
Through various combinations of race, class and gender a total of nine archetypes are available. It’s unlikely that a character in Phantasy Star Online will appear all that generic, however, since a unique customization system allows players to change the outfits, hairstyles and facial features of their adventuring avatars. Using a set of Red, Green and Blue sliders, hair color and outfit combinations may also be customized, ensuring that players opposed to the anime-inspired pink and green hairdos may shift to more normal shades of brown, blonde and so forth. Further ensuring the unique status of each Hunter is a size adjustment, which can warp the body between slender and fat as well as adjusting the height. At first, this might seem like useless aesthetics, but after a few minutes in a group it becomes very clear that this customization is a vital and necessary way of carving out one’s identity in the game’s online mode.
Before dwelling on the Internet-ready portions of this title, we should establish a clear explanation of the difference between the single and multiplayer components. In truth, there’s very little difference at all. Any character may be used in online or offline mode and experience earned and treasure found stays with the character as he or she makes the switch. Offline is a solo effort that uses the same mechanics as the primary mode, and offers an increased number of side-quests through an area known as the Hunter’s Guild. Typically, these quests require the player to rescue another hunter, retrieve an artifact or open up a sealed location. Each quest recycles various locales with changes to the enemies and, occasionally, include the presence of a friendly NPC or two who will offer advice and assist the player. Online play puts a much smaller emphasis on these side quests and thus encourages its participants to work their way mainly through the central storyline.