Some of my fondest memories of playing videogames involve the Sega Dreamcast. Oddly enough, like its name implies, my memories of it seem short, hazy and dreamlike. I remember Resident Evil, I remember Soul Caliber, I remember Crazy Taxi and above all else, I remember Phantasy Star Online. PSO was the first game I ever played with friends that weren't sitting next to me, but who were instead, miles away. There was something magical about having to unplug the phone from the wall to get the 56K modem hook-up to work. I'd have to warn everyone in the house not to pick up the phone to make a call. Phantasy Star Online holds a special place for me. Anyone who's read my Guild Wars review or countless others knows what high esteem I still hold it in. It was a landmark title that really changed the way I looked at videogames as a whole and it made gamers out of many of my friends. Now, five and a half years later Sega gives us the next chapter in the Phantasy Star series; Phantasy Star Universe. Before all the original PSO fans get excited though, it's wise to note that PSU is not the product of five and a half years of evolution. In fact, PSU looks, plays and feels like a game that should have only existed way back when but was released in 2006 as a slap in the face to nostalgic PSO fans just to milk them out of a monthly fee and countless hours of their lives grinding to the next level. Yes, I've rarely been angry about a game in my life, but after playing PSU and really wanting it to be great, I have to admit that it simply fails on all fronts.
It seems that five and a half years were spent trying to add a decent single player mode to PSO. Unfortunately, it's just an overly long, infuriatingly annoying, badly voiced, poorly written tutorial that will last you 30-some odd hours. There's a story involving The SEED (bad guys), the GUARDIANS (good guys) and our HERO Ethan Waber (biggest loser ever in a video game) that is overly predictable, cliched and boring. While it may start full of promise with neat little anime episode-like "next time on" interludes and feature self-contained "episodes", the story will make you cringe and fill you with complete rage as you sit through yet another asinine exchange between the main characters. And yet, you will have to play through at least four of these episodes before the "extra" mode is unlocked. This is not to say that PSU doesn't feature "some" decent characters, because all the female cast members are fine, it's just that the plot focuses on a Top Gun-like rivalry between two male hot-heads that I wish would have died in the first levels. At the very least, the designers should have given us a tool to create our own character for the story mode instead of giving us The Waber.
Lets completely cast aside the dreadful story mode (which unfortunately has to be completed if Xbox 360 owners want their achievement points) and focus on the "better" aspects of the title. As mentioned, Extra Mode is an unlockable mode that enables players to play the game as if they were "online". In this mode, you will have access to the same worlds, missions and equipment as the online community, but you'll be all alone with AI controlled characters. If it makes you feel better though, you're not missing much. The online portion of PSU is an infuriating mix of grinding and locked content.
The highlight of PSU is undoubtedly its central hub inside the Guardian Colony. Much like in the original PSO, in this area you will be able to see every other PSU player as well as gawk at the beauty and complexity of the architecture. Here you'll find various shops and access to your "room" and you'll be ale to take on missions and party up with other players. Like in hub-towns of traditional MMORPGs, PSU's hub is always bubbling with life, characters running around in various forms of undress and inane dialog cluttering up your HUD. While you have several options for communicating with others, each one feels limited. 360 and PS2 owners (without keyboards) will be forced to use the very small, very slow and very unintuitive on-screen keyboard. And while 360 owners (who share 360-exclusive servers) will be able to use voice chatting, its implementation is not well realized and it's actually easier to just use text macros or not say anything. PS2 owners share server space with PC owners and believe me; it's always easy to tell who has a PS2 without an external keyboard.
Luckily, after creating a party, you'll have very little need to talk. Every mission, level or stage is simply a repetition of the last one you just did and everyone knows the drill after a few tries. The greatest need to communicate stems from the confusion that everyone faces when trying to take on a mission from a counter that has none and then wondering what conditions haven't been met. Which leads to the ultimate problem with PSU: there's no point to it anymore. In all there are three modes of play, all of which feature the same planets, levels and missions. While PSO was a leisurely online time waster that could be played with friends, the prospect of paying for PSU's online portion, which initially had less content than the offline "extra" mode is insulting. While PSU is not considered an MMORPG, you do have to pay a monthly fee to play it. This leads to PSU's biggest fault: it's not worth paying a penny for. There is no evolution to the missions, worlds or levels. There is no exclusive content yet worth paying for. There is no point in playing other than to see a different level next to your character profile. To achieve this you'll have to play the same short, boring, bland levels over and over and over and over (and over and over) again. PSU is mind-numbingly dull and there is no apparent purpose to playing it. Unlike any other game that carries a monthly fee, there is no evolution to be found here, no incentive to really keep playing (and paying) and if you really want to play games with friends, get Test Drive Unlimited (free online servers) or any true MMORPG on the market. Need to pick one? Get WoW, get FFXI, get City of Heroes/Villains, get Lineage 2, get whatever, they're all better than this infuriating mess.
A note of caution to those who play this on the 360: it may be easy to sign up for the monthly fee through the Marketplace dashboard, but there is nothing easy about canceling your account. While PC and PS2 owners can manage everything through the online page (canceling for a month, etc), Xbox 360 have to jump through hoops, probably to keep as many gamers committed to the monthly as possible. Try canceling through the Marketplace dashboard and you'll hit a wall soon enough. Try to send an email to Microsoft as the online account management page will instruct you to do (the Xbox Live page) and you'll find frustration in the nice response stating that PSU must be canceled by calling the 1-800 number. Call the number and get to the billing department and they'll put you on hold while they transfer you to the special people in charge of driving you crazy while your PSU License is NOT being canceled. Yes, eventually I did speak to a very nice man who did cancel my license, but by then I hated this game even more than ever.
In a time of next-gen gaming, PSU feels like it would have looked barely cutting edge on the Dreamcast itself. The game's controls are very unintuitive with a camera control that will frustrate many and make others sick with its jerky movements. Not to mention the targeting system only seems to work half the time and seems to disengage without any rhyme or reason. The levels are bland, repetitive, uninspired and suffer from the same problems the Dreamcast version suffered from - almost six years ago: they load in clumps with terrible draw-distances (on outdoor levels) and even while playing offline, frequently incur terrible slowdowns when more than three enemies are on-screen at once. As an aside, I feel the need to mention the terrible idea of adding flying enemies in a game with a backwards camera system and an offensive targeting system. But sure enough, PSU has it and it just makes an awful experience even worse.
While I encourage anyone who is still brave enough to play PSU to simply enjoy it for its offline portion, those who wish to play online should probably pick the PS2 or PC edition to avoid maximum frustration. The 360 version frequently has server access problems and forces you to quit the game (back to the start menu) several times in a row until it will finally let you connect. Once connected though (with any version), you'll realize how much the online portion offers nothing different from the offline portion except for a friends list and the ability to decorate your room with more options and visit friends' rooms as well.
In the audio department, PSU features voice acting that is all over the map. This is a two-fold problem since the written dialog is so terrible it really takes a great voice actor to make it even mildly respectable. Unfortunately, The Waber's dialog is asinine and unbelievably hard to bear without yelling at your monitor and calling him all sorts of colorful names. The music, while thematically good, is overly repetitive and the childish theme song, while clearly falling into the anime-expected fare, starts to get annoying after six "episodes".
In the end, it's hard to see anything remotely good in Phantasy Star Universe for the simple reason that nothing has been improved in the six years since PSO. Worse still, PSU actually managed to take steps backwards (level design, story, online play, mission counters, equipment, mags, etc) and ruin the memory of the Phantasy Star legacy. Since the Dreamcast version, we've seen PSO ported to the Xbox and the Gamecube (for a fee as well) and I can't help but think that either of these versions ported to the PS2/360/PC would have been better than this. If there wasn't a monthly fee associated with PSU it may not leave as bad a taste in many gamers' mouth's (it's still a terrible game though), but in a time when almost every title is playable only (usually for free), PSU's anemic this online content is maddening. For fans of PSO, remember it for what it was and stay as far away from PSU as possible. For new fans to the series, you have been duly warned.