Japan has just started its second alpha testing stage for Sega’s upcoming online title, Phantasy Star Online 2. The first one I’ll say went rather smoothly and created an enjoyable atmosphere for players keen to the action-RPG genre as well as that old-style feeling to the classic PSO that veterans were anticipating. Alpha test players were able to point out issues that hindered positive user-experience. An active community combined with a team of developers that are on top of fixing and polishing the game leads on to a rather well-received second alpha phase.
The game is obviously incomplete and players don’t have full access to everything, but based on what I’ve been hearing, browsing around the game’s community, I can say that PSO2 is looking to shape up into an incredibly fun game that caters to not only its die-hard fans but players who enjoy the fast-paced kind of RPG as well. Trust me on this, PSO fans like to point out the slightest slip-ups and mistakes, even in their own game so I’d be telling you if it was lacking.
New game. Old feeling
PSO2’s alpha opens up with a rather dramatic opening cinematic involving a HUmar (Human Hunter) walking down a hall, jumping into a warp hole, then getting crystallized onto some planet’s surface. The cinematic ends with a fight sequence introducing the races as well as revealing the simplified choice of classes; Hunter, Ranger, and Force. Of course, the intention of the trailer is to increase the hype of the game which it does as most people ended up skipping it, eager to play the game.
It can be argued that the original Phantasy Star Online series was superior to any of its successors, creating an atmosphere at the time that far exceeded expectations. I’m not going to say PSO2 does that, as the game has plenty of competition, but I can say that the game brings back that classic feel to it. The new features don’t hinder what the game was designed to do which really is to just beat naughty creatures into bloody pulps and somehow find rare weapons from their bodies, with friends of course. Often times, new features to a game cause chaos, but PSO2 blends them quite nicely.
The level design is larger to accommodate for the faster combat sequences and the alpha test brings back levels most PSO fans are familiar with, the caves and the forests. Also, Mags will make a return as visual aesthetic machines that enhance character stats. This is a big one because everyone anticipated the return of Mags and were anxious to see if Sega would take the classic approach instead of the combat partner machines PSU had to offer.
Improved Combat Mechanics: Faster and Fun!
The combat system is fast, fluid, and exciting. The game’s predecessors were also action-RPGs but PSO2 takes the “action” in the genre and puts it on steroids. The game is very fast. Incredibly fast actually. Fast enough for me to say it three times. The characters move faster especially with the new addition of jump and the ability to dash. The monsters have improved AI as well. They will actually hunt you down and pummel you if they are to reach your body instead of lazily walk up to you and striking you a few times.
Aside from the simplified combat system we’ve seen before, quite a few tweaks were made to its mechanics to increase the speed of the action. Hunters don’t change much as far as basic combat goes; you can still use basic attacks and even time them to do increased damage. You can now customize your abilities so that you may use pieces from different skills and combine them into one combo which is a neat feature if you’re familiar with the fixed combo system of Phantasy Star Universe. So for example, you can take move #1 from skill A and chain onto move #2 from skill B, a completely different move. This adds just a tad bit more flavor from using the same skill sequences over and over again.
Forces can cast spells like normal and actually hit things with their staves much like the old game, so they aren’t reliant on magic alone. You can also combo techniques with your melee moves, so you can strike > strike > Fire. A neat feature is being able to power-up your spells by charging them. You do this by simply holding the button. It appears charging them gives them benefits like making the fireball hit an additional target aside from doing more damage.
Rangers on the other hand got a complete make-over in terms of gameplay mechanics from their past selves. It’s a lot faster and based on what I’ve seen, requires a little bit more precision as well since bullets will go where you aim much like in a shooter title. Rangers seem to be very agile and hard hitting. They don’t take hits very well and now they actually have to reload every few shots, which isn’t really a big deal.
New Features add so much flavor
PSO has never really been a true MMO in terms of true customizability. I can say Phantasy Star still has more character customization capabilities than most games that recently came out but you could never really customize their abilities much like today’s MMOs. PSO2 changes that with the addition of new skill trees for each class. It’s still unknown if skill trees will lead on to advanced classes, but for now, know that you can customize your character’s abilities to further suit your playstyle.
Monsters now all have weak points or breakable parts. This has been seen in previous installments of the game but has never really been a noticeable feature as you could simply damage the creatures and they just slowly break apart. Now, specifically damaging parts of an enemy, even basic creatures, will increase your effective damage. This is not as easy as it sounds as the monsters are smarter, move faster, and have ways of moving you around.
The levels are also randomly generated and the weather can change at any time, which could be detrimental, helpful, or do nothing to your party. Speaking of parties, aside from supporting the usual group of 4, certain areas will let you take in a group of three parties for a total of 12 players.
Socializing and online play
The biggest thing about any MMO, especially Phantasy Star, is the social factor. PSO has never been overly complex in a sense that you could have fun hacking and slashing, and still have enough outside focus to have a very casual conversation. I still know all my friends from the classic Phantasy Star Online and it’s been almost 11 years since the game’s launch.
Text chat will make a return as expected and will have the facial expression feature from PSU. Whether or not voice chat will be implemented like it was in PSU is still a mystery but that shouldn’t be a big deal with a good number of third-party voice chat programs out there.
Rooms will make a return much like in PSU and will hold up to 12 players. You may add furniture and items as you see fit. You can also connect up to two other rooms which can each have their own themes and furniture.
Lobbies will make a return for players to chat and assemble parties for missions. Lobbies will hold billboards for announcements and perhaps advertisements and will also contain large motion picture screens. Perhaps I could watch Star Wars 3D with my PSO2 buddies? No one knows yet but I’m sure they’ll plan something fun to abuse those giant big screens you can’t possibly miss.
Killer new features, a faster gameplay, and more customization define PSO2. The classic feeling has returned as well as the addition of new mechanics that don’t hurt the game at all, but rather enhance it as any addition to a game should.
The game is looking great and it hasn’t even entered a closed beta yet much less unveiled all of its features. I for one am excited to see how the final version will turn out and can’t wait to try the full game out for myself. No window for the release of the final version has been announced but we’re sure to see it some time this year. I’ll be paying close attention to the game so you can count on information here as it comes out.