Also available on: N/A
Developer: Team Sonic
Release date: April 17, 2009
Sega’s Phantasy Star series has experienced mixed fortunes in its time. Starting life as a traditional role-playing game on the Master System, the franchise has long provided RPG enthusiasts with a sci-fi based alternative in a genre saturated by Tolkien-esque mythology.
In 2000, the series strayed away from its RPG roots with Phantasy Star Online, the first console-based MMO, released for the Dreamcast. The game was a groundbreaker in its day, faring well critically and commercially. Unfortunately for Sega, Team Sonic has failed to get the formula right since, firing blanks with Phantasy Star Universe and its expansion Ambition Of The Illuminus.
Taking the series mobile with Phantasy Star Portable, Team Sonic has boldly stuck to the Phantasy Star Universe blueprint with some streamlining to avoid falling into its stat-heavy predecessor’s pitfalls. Sadly, it falls into some new ones.
The game takes place some time after Universe, casting the player as the newest recruit of an intergalactic peacekeeping force known as the Guardians. Reports of the return of a malevolent alien race known as Seed have surfaced and it’s up to you and your team to investigate.
Before wielding your laser sword and loading up the nearest grenade launcher, you must decide which of the game’s four races you wish to play as. It’s a choice between Human, Newman, CAST, and Beast, all of which offer unique attributes. In addition to selecting your species, there is a wealth of other options and character customisations at your disposal. Everything from the colour of your amour to the sound of your voice can be manipulated, and there are plenty of bonus bells and whistles to add to the mix as the game progresses.
It takes a while before you get to sink your teeth into the meat of this one. At first, having so many options at your disposal gives rise to a welcome feeling of interactivity, but it steadily becomes a chore as you are bombarded by dialogue boxes and tutorial information.
Proceedings start on a space station known as the Colony, which acts as your base of operations. From this navigation centre, you can embark on missions, customise your team and access important information. It takes longer than it should before you see any real action. Tedious character interaction and a wafer thin plot mean that many will lose interest before the real gameplay begins, and when it finally does, the tutorial system compromises the pace of the first mission.
The core gameplay is fairly intuitive but it seems that somebody forgot to tell the developers this. Throughout the first level, you find yourself buried beneath a mountain of needless tutorial information. Obviously some degree of guidance is required, but much of it is superfluous. For instance, even though you have just spent some time breaking barrels to collect objects concealed inside, the developers still felt the need to interrupt the gameplay to explain how to do this when you enter the next zone.
Standard RPG mechanics apply. Combat is of the hack and slash variety and defeating enemies yields experience points for levelling up your characters. There are items to seek, puzzles to solve, dungeons to plunder and towns to spend your gains in. In many ways, the game has as much in common with the like of The Legend Of Zelda as it does with traditional RPGs like Final Fantasy.
During early missions, battles are dependent on little more than button mashing but they steadily grow more complex. Your party consists of four members, all of whom learn their own special abilities and garner an impressive arsenal as the game progresses. Weapons and abilities are accessed through a comprehensive menu system, which is easy to navigate during the heat of battle. Timing nuances also add another layer to skirmishes, with the successful execution of special combos dependent on how carefully they are delivered.
The action is fast paced and instinctive but does get slightly tedious due to recurrent enemy types and repetitive level design. An inconsistent targeting system can also let you down, but it is the friendly AI that will leave you at a serious disadvantage. Teammates will often fail to heal themselves at crucial times and stand idly by under a barrage of enemy fire, resulting in their inevitable defeat. Watching them snag on scenery is more laughable than it is frustrating but it’s testament to how useless your computer-controlled allies can truly be.
Production values aren’t as high as they could have been. Rather than use cut scenes, the storyline is played out using lacklustre anime stills. Couple these with voice acting that would make Capcom blush and you end up with a work of science fiction that’s more Plan 9 From Outer Space than Star Wars.
The game does include a multiplayer mode, which allows you to embark on missions with three other players over a local wireless network. Unfortunately, being based in Europe, the likelihood of finding three friends with the correct hardware is slim, rendering this feature null to most players in PAL territories.
For all of its faults, Phantasy Star Portable does have all the ingredients of an adequate RPG. The AI, storyline and overall presentation may not be all they could have been but fans of levelling up, item seeking quests and dungeon exploring will get some kicks out of this one. Scaling down a series with this much scope for a handheld platform was no easy task for Team Sonic, and although the end result is far from perfect, RPG enthusiasts at least have another alternative to elves and goblins.
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