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Phantasy Star Portable 2
Score: 70%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Alfa System
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 4 (Online)
Genre: Online/ RPG/ MMORPG

Graphics & Sound:
As a reviewer, I find it incredibly frustrating to receive a game, that during the course of my playtime, I realize that I should be enjoying myself, but I'm not. A game that, on paper, seems like it is perfect for my needs, but for one reason or another, I can't fully support. Such is the case with Phantasy Star Portable 2, an online J-RPG on Sony's PSP. Confusing acronyms aside (PSP2 on PSP?) I ultimately find myself asking whether or not I have grown too old or matured to a point where I can't appreciate the offerings of modern J-RPG's or whether the genre has just left me behind because I couldn't keep up?

What I found is that it might be a mix of both. While Phantasy Star Portable 2 is definitely a forward thinking approach to what is possible on handhelds, it gets too bogged in minutiae and cluttered menu systems to effectively utilize the portable nature of the device.

At first glance, Phantasy Star Portable 2 has some the best production values the PSP has seen, rivaling the likes of God of War and Metal Gear. The hand drawn anime characters and stunning CG cut-scenes really make you wonder how they were able to cram so much detail into such a small package. The custom character-creator is deep, with lots of unique options to personalize your dungeon crusading avatar. You can choose from a bevy of different space-age races and beings ranging from cyborg humanoid to magical elven space-fairies. You can even customize a small robot partner that accompanies you around your travels. I chose a robot butler because the idea of a small, whiny girl tagging along with me didn't seem quite right.

While the visuals may be striking and the graphics are stunning on portable horsepower, the music and voice acting are.... rather cliche. Voice acting and dialogue are typical of the heavy anime influence. Hard to pronounce locations and concepts create a confusing landscape of back story and exposition and, of course, all of the main characters are either brash and cocky space captains, exotic and buxom space beauties, or shrill and timid space teens. So it sort of makes sense, given that some of the influences can be traced back to anime classics like Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop. With that said, anyone who is interested in the visual style of Phantasy Star Portable 2 can probably look past some flat and uninspired voice acting. It sort of comes with the territory.

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.

Phantasy Star Portable 2 is downright impossible solo, which is only exacerbated by the fact the menu systems make it harder to get the details you need to make the game easier, like monsters' weaknesses, new equipment to better protect yourself, or new party members that can accompany you during your trials. It takes a few hours to get settled in and figure out where everything needs to be before it all comes together. The difficulty curve is steep, but it just takes a while to get over a few humps.

Online is a totally different story. Finding lobbies is sometimes a pain, but for the most part, it is much easier to clear dungeons if you have a full party to pillage with you. In my case, I joined a group that included someone who was Level 98 (out of 200) and they helped me power level myself to an accepted range so I could go finish some of the single player stories on my own. So with the exception of the intentionally difficult boss monsters, online difficulty largely depends on the quality of your crew.

Game Mechanics:
While I have documented the problems with the menu system to no end, there are still two other mechanical issues that keep Phantasy Stay Portable 2 from true greatness. The first and most important issue is the camera system, and the second is an unintuitive lock-on targeting that simply fails to do its job most of the time.

While the physical limitations of the hardware prevent a second analog control scheme to manage the camera, I can't help but wonder if there could have been a better way to remedy the problems with what is available. In a fully 3D world, the camera needs to be able to swing around freely, but most importantly, it needs to be able to put focus on the main character in a pinch. Usually, the easiest method of overcoming this obstacle is to have a auto-lock targeting system that re-centers the camera behind your character. So you can see why the lack of a proper targeting system affects the flow so much. It either targets the wrong enemy across the map or it refuses to lock-on to an enemy that is literally on your back. It simply doesn't work, and that is a shame because the combat is already streamlined to a satisfying pace, but the abrupt stops in momentum because of camera placement really drag the good times down.

As a strictly value proposition, there is a whole lot of game to be had in Phantasy Star Portable 2. You can build your characters up to 200 levels and the true online nature through wi-fi means you always have someone to play with around the world, provided you speak a few different languages. The typical nature of the story and heavy anime influence unfortunately paints a rather bland and generic portrait of what Phantasy Star Portable 2 offers, and what it offers is a full-fledged pocket-sized MMO experience. If you can look past some genre cliches, there is a good time here, albeit only after a long while. For most people, there isn't anything here ground-breaking enough to justify the time sink and price tag.

-HanChi, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Hanchey

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