With Phantasy Star Portable 2
being my first attempt at the series since Phantasy Star
on the Sega Master System, I am totally left in the dark about what is going on in regards to the story. The setup on the back of the box says Portable 2
takes place three years after the events of Phantasy Star Universe
, with the player becoming a mercenary with the intent of saving Gurhal, a failing solar system overrun with corruption, evil, and other nefarious concepts. Within the first hour, there are also large plot points centered around mysterious artifacts and extra-dimensional beings pleading for help. Suffice it to say, this is way over my head.
The sales pitch is much easier for me to grasp; Phantasy Star Portable 2 is a portable MMO with no monthly fees attached. Your created character can either complete storyline quests solo or venture online, either ad-hoc or over wi-fi, to obtain the best gear or uncover the story (whatever the reason you play MMO's.) To boil it down further, this is Monster Hunter in space, but in a good way.
Most story missions are designed to be tackled with at least two people, whether they be bots or another human player, and each mission follows tried and true dungeon crawling templates. Walk down corridors, kill monsters, find key cards, kill more monsters, kill stage boss. Repeat. There are actually a handful of mission types to accommodate your gameplay needs. Story missions obviously unfold the ever-confusing story of a ragtag group of mercenaries trying to save the Gurhal system. Open missions are free-form mission types that can be replayed over and over again to gain more experience or items with small difficulty tweaks along the way. Challenge missions are specifically quest-type missions where you need to complete specific objectives to claim victory. There are more mission types with small variations depending on the size of your group, if it is competitive or cooperative, or if you prefer more tactical challenges.
Phantasy Star Portable 2 is insanely deep. Nearly every aspect of gameplay is packed with choices and options that can be a little intimidating for someone who wants to just jump in and play. For your character, you can customize your class, skills, appearance, weapon proficiency, weapons, magic, and even your own personal living quarters on board the mercenary ship, Little Wing. At this point, I realized that Phantasy Star Poratble 2 is most definitely not an instant gratification feeling, but rather a very slow burn that rewards players who can stay on top of all the stat management that is so pervasive throughout MMO's. As your character levels up, you can also purchase weapon upgrades if you haven't found better loot in a while. Very quickly, it becomes a cycle of upgrades and completing more missions, because both lead into one another so well and honestly I can easily see the appeal. Phantasy Star Portable 2 plays off the same ideas of dangling the proverbial carrot that many other MMORPG's use, most notably Monster Hunter. At any time, you are always so close to leveling up something that time slips away as you push back your personal deadline in favor of "just one more."
The online experience is really the heart of the entire experience. Grouping up with three other people to take down a massive boss or raid a huge dungeon is actually quite a lot more fun than the single player would lead on. Your ship, the Little Wing, acts as a hub world for everyone in the party and the party leader chooses the missions from there. Communication with the other players is sometimes awkward. The pre-set list of emotes and basic verbal commands work well enough, but the full keyboard text feature is very cumbersome in light of the idea that the action never stops. It would have helped a bit if you couldn't take damage while typing up messages, but what's there works well enough.
However, it does need to be mentioned that the biggest problem Phantasy Star Portable 2 faces is communicating ANY information to the player. Menu systems are so cluttered that some of the most often used sub-menus are sometimes four or five levels deep when they should be in the foreground as much as possible. The user interface is also a mess on the tiny screen because so much information is shown at any given time that it is a miracle you can see anything at all. In it's defense, most screen U.I.'s go away after a while of inactivity, but it is often frustrating having to squint at the screen to see which of my party members is poisoned or has enough magic points left to cast a life-saving attack. I could be willing to look past all of that if I were actually allowed to pause the game at any point. I understand if you play online, you can't pause the action for everyone, but during the single player, navigating the menus does not stop the action around you and you can, in fact, take damage or even be killed while trying to find the new armor that just dropped from a tough new enemy. It is almost as if Phantasy Star Portable 2 is intentionally hurting the single player experience to force you online, which is a shame for some players without wi-fi access or friends without a copy of the game.