Well, after an inordinately long wait — about eight years, to be exact — Phantasy Star Online 2 has finally arrived, for both Xbox One and PC players… and possibly with other platforms to follow.
To say that English speakers have been eagerly awaiting this game is something of an understatement. The Dreamcast original, being one of the original breakout successes in online gaming — and many players’ first experience with cooperative, social online gaming — is a widely beloved game, so in the eight years since Phantasy Star Online 2 released in Japan, people have been finding increasingly creative ways to get their fix, with particularly dedicated fans even going so far as to provide translation patches.
Now, none of those workarounds and fiddly tweaks are needed; everyone can just play Phantasy Star Online 2 as they please. So I thought it would probably be a good idea to jump in on the PC launch day and have a go. Read on to find out how that all went.
Your first encounter with Phantasy Star Online 2 — after the lengthy patching process, that is — will be the shockingly in-depth character creator. Since characters in Phantasy Star Online 2 can switch classes at will Final Fantasy XIV-style, you’re probably going to get quite attached to your “main”, and as such it’s worth spending some time getting things right. There is an in-game salon for changing your appearance after you’ve started playing — plus a time window of a few hours for making free modifications immediately after you begin — but many options in this area require the expenditure of premium currency.
Yes, if you weren’t aware, Phantasy Star Online 2 is a free-to-play game. That means that you can download and start playing for free, but there are optional microtransactions available that allow you to acquire one of the game’s two premium currencies: ARKS Cash (also known as AC) and Star Gems (also known as SG). Star Gems can also be acquired in-game through various means, but ARKS Cash can only be bought with real money.
Before you run away screaming, it’s worth noting at this point that anything locked behind ARKS Cash or Star Gems is completely optional, and not at all required to enjoy the game; both tend to provide more ways to customise your character through outfits and the like, or ways to enhance the experience of more hardcore players by expanding your available inventory storage space. There’s also a Fortnite-style “Mission Pass” implemented, where you earn “stars” for completing various tasks in the game, and additional cosmetic rewards can be obtained from this by purchasing a Gold Pass using Star Gems or one of the ARKS Cash “Premium Set” bundles of benefits.
In other words, this isn’t a “pay to win” game. At no point will you find yourself obliged to reach for the credit card in order to progress through the game normally, and at no point will paying up give you a distinct or unfair “advantage” over anyone else — not that this is a competitive game, anyway.
Anyway. Once you kick off your time with Phantasy Star Online 2, you’ll be thrown straight into action alongside an AI-controlled character and introduced to the basics of combat. Nothing like first-hand experience to give you a feel for what it’s all about! The initial quest is fairly straightforward and set up in such a way that it’s impossible for you to “fail”, so it’s a good time to experiment with the abilities of your starting class and get a feel for what’s possible.
If you have no idea what’s going on, however, you’ll get a better opportunity to learn once the first quest is completed. This initial scenario is the game saying “This is Phantasy Star Online 2; welcome, and enjoy yourself” rather than immediately bombarding you with information.
Phantasy Star Online 2 has a very distinct feel to its combat. It’s definitely an action game rather than a cooldown-based MMO, but it has something of a deliberate, rhythmic pace rather than being a button-masher. In particular, the game’s “Perfect Attack” system, which encourages observation of an on-screen marker to time your next attack in a string, gives battling a pleasingly weighty feel and rewards you with increased damage for proper timing. It’s not difficult to perform, but it’s satisfying when you do; a nice balance between accessibility and encouraging skilful play.
Movement is very important in Phantasy Star Online 2. While the game lacks Final Fantasy XIV-style visible telegraphs on the ground for powerful moves your opponents are preparing, observing the actual animations of your enemies allows you to prepare for what’s coming next. Some moves can be interrupted with an appropriate attack — rock-throwing gorilla-like enemies can’t do much if you shatter the rock they’re about to throw at you, after all — while others can be avoided with a well-timed sidestep.
There’s a “quick dodge” button that will become your best friend during many battles, as it allows every class a strong degree of mobility as well as a few invincibility frames to get you out of trouble. Again, this is not something you need to worry about timing absolutely perfectly, but it’s satisfying to just zip around the battlefield and see what looks like a devastating enemy attack sail right past you. Playing as a Force as I have been, this is especially useful if I want to hit the enemy with a Rod weapon to restore ability-fuelling PP, then dash back to a safe distance to hurl some more Techniques.
Each adventure you go on will be a little bit different. Certain aspects of the map are randomised, you may encounter different types of enemy that are native to the planet you’re exploring and, of course, the loot drops will be different each time. Plus, there’s a significant game mechanic called Emergency Orders that frequently keeps things interesting.
Every so often as you work your way through a Quest, you’ll get a notification than an “Emergency Order” has started. There are several different types of these, and they usually task you with accomplishing something against a time limit. Exactly what that “something” is can vary quite a bit, however — sometimes it’s simply defeating some specific enemies that have shown up, while at other times you might be using drilling rigs to gather valuable mineral samples.
The nice thing about the latter type of mission in particular is that because Phantasy Star Online 2 is built on the foundation of an action game rather than a cooldown-based MMO, it can have sequences where, for example, you need to hammer a button with the appropriate timing rather than simply interacting with something and waiting for a progress bar to fill up. It makes for a much stronger feeling of direct involvement with the game world, and provides fewer instances of, say, absurd-looking situations where characters take 5-10 seconds to perform a simple task like opening a door.
Anyway. That opening Quest will provide you with a bit of experience of all the game’s major combat and exploration mechanics we’ve just talked about in a safe environment. It’ll get you used to how the game presents information and what various notifications mean, which will, of course, mean you’ll be ready and able to deal with all sorts of situations when you get into the game “proper”.
Once that first Quest is out of the way, let’s talk about what happens when you first arrive on the ship you’ll be calling home for the next… indefinite period of time.
I’ll be frank here: likely your first reaction upon arrival would me “oh my goodness, this is completely overwhelming”. And that would be an understandable response. Phantasy Star Online 2 has been around for eight years, after all, and the English version comes ready to go with pretty much everything the Japanese version has had added since launch. That means that when you arrive there are a lot of possibilities placed in front of you, and it can be very easy to feel like it’s not clear what you’re “supposed” to be doing.
Take a deep breath and focus, though. The game actually has an extensive set of tutorial tasks given by NPCs (known in-game as “Client Orders”) to follow through. Not only do these do a great job of gradually introducing you to all the game’s possibilities one at a time, they also provide you with extremely generous rewards of both experience points and consumable items. Follow through all these tutorial Client Orders and you’ll probably find yourself happily sitting around the level 20 mark without too much difficulty — plus you’ll have had some hands-on experience of how all the main aspects of the game work.
It might not be immediately obvious where to start with these tasks, but once you’re on the train there’s a straightforward and logical progression to follow. The “Mission” system in the game should be your first port of call in this regard — it tells you specifically where to go and who to talk to in order to accomplish various tasks, and rewards you for doing so.
It’s important to get your head around the terminology here, because it’s a little different from other online RPGs. Here, “Quest” is used to refer to a single, discrete run through a dungeon with a specific objective to complete; Missions are global, game-wide objectives that guide you through Phantasy Star Online 2 and encourage you to check it all out; Client Orders are requests given by specific characters that task you with accomplishing a more granular objective during your other activities.
Client Orders are especially important as a lot of them unlock various game features along the way — including the important ability to equip a second “subclass” to boost your stats, broaden your capabilities, emphasise your strengths or perhaps cover your weaknesses. There are also a number of class-specific Client Orders that encourage you to learn about the intricacies of playing that particular class both solo and in a group, and these are complemented by some excellent Practice Quests that allow you to “try out” a class under expert instruction before committing to changing in-game career path.
This initial set of tutorial Client Orders gives you an idea of how overall progression in the game works. There are several aspects to this that all need to be used effectively in order to keep yourself fighting fit: class level, skill trees, abilities and equipment.
Class level is straightforward: earn experience as a specific class, gain a level at various milestones. In the early stages of the game you’ll probably find yourself earning more experience through Client Orders than anything else, but there’s a constant trickle of experience through combat and other activities (such as gathering materials) during Quests.
Skill trees represent your class’ unique capabilities, and allow you to build your character as you see fit. You get a skill point on each level up, and this can be invested into various nodes that boost your effectiveness in certain areas. Most of these are passive skills that provide bonuses to various abilities.
Abilities are learned through acquiring disks either as loot from enemies or purchasing them from a shop on the ship. Abilities have levels, and thus you’ll want to keep an eye out for more effective versions of your favourite Photon Arts (physical attacks) and Techniques (spells) as your character continues to grow in strength. That said, abilities do grow with you to a certain extent; overall potency tends to be expressed as a percentage of your melee, ranged combat or technique statistics rather than doing a set amount of damage — these percentages are just higher if you are fortunate enough to obtain higher level disks.
Finally, equipment comes in the form of your weapons and “units”. Each class is able to equip three different types of weapon, and with the subclass added to the mix, you can add three more to that list. You are able to configure up to six “weapon palettes”, each with a particular weapon associated with them, plus up to six abilities; you’ll probably want to keep one of those reserved for a basic attack, though, as basic attacks restore the “PP” resource that is used for Photon Arts and Techniques.
Units, meanwhile, attach to various body parts and confer various bonuses. They’re armour, basically, except they tend to be represented as various floating “parts” around your character rather than actual outfit changes; outfits themselves are purely cosmetic, and are one of the main things you can acquire with premium currency.
This is a lot of information for the new player to take in, but after an initial bit of “culture shock” most people will figure out what’s going on and how it corresponds to more conventional RPG terminology where the words used differ somewhat. There are also ways to upgrade your weapons, ways to acquire special rings (and upgrade those) as well as a variety of other means of acquiring buffs… but we’ll save discussion of those for another day. You know, once I’ve figured out what’s going on with that side of things!
So far, then, Phantasy Star Online 2 will doubtless appear to have a bit of a daunting learning curve to newcomers — primarily due to the information overload a new player gets upon arrival — but take it a bit at a time and you’ll discover it’s nowhere near as scary as it might initially appear.
There’s clearly a lot to do in this game, though, as well as a lot of ways to customise your experience — and I’m looking forward to exploring it all further. So count on some further reports from the ARKS front line in the near future — in the meantime, though, I’ve got some Rappies to chase down, so I’ll see you in Franca’s Café later!
If you’d like to join me, look up Player ID “MoeGamer” on Ship 1.
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