GameCube's only Online game gets a full workout ... but is it worth the money and effort? Read on ...
Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II (PSO) is certainly an odd choice to launch an online initiative with. Although it’s not entirely clear that it was Nintendo’s choice as much as Sega needing to get a revenue stream going. Nintendo is still looking at the market to find a business model that works, but Sega was determined to get the game onto the market despite numerous delays.
Still, it’s the only game you can play online with the GameCube, but at least it’s a fairly solid one. Online play is fairly seamless and fluid, even with a modem connection. However, much like how letter writing in Animal Crossing was needlessly tedious due to Nintendo’s lack of a keyboard for the GameCube, communicating with other players in PSO is cumbersome and slow. Easily half of the people online would make a comment at some point about needing a keyboard. Right now, the only option is to import the ASCII Keyboard Controller from Japan, which are in short supply and cost $70 (not including shipping) as of this writing. I think everyone would love a simple USB adaptor for a standard USB keyboard. While the game is fully playable without one, any sort of coordination or sense of community is nearly impossible.
The game itself is nearly a direct port of the Dreamcast version that many gamers are already familiar with. The Version 1 and Version 2 discs are both included on the GameCube version as “Episode I”. The GameCube Episode II is an entirely new set of adventures specifically for the GameCube version. Otherwise the game is a lot like its previous incarnations.
Before you can start playing, you’ll create your character from one of three available classes: swashbuckling Hunters, gun-toting Rangers, or mystical Forces. You are given the possibility of being male, female, or android, and a wide variety of looks on top of that. There are even hidden “dress up” options as well. After you’ve picked a suitable character (or up to a maximum of four), you can either start playing online, or play a single or multi-player offline game.
The offline game can either be a free-for-all where you just run down to the surface and run through the areas with a very loose plot guiding you on. However, the quests offer you a chance to do some different things (like an escort mission, finding people, etc.) and earn some money doing it. It’s a good way to build your character for your first trip online.
Once you’ve connected to the online network, you’ll be given the option to choose a Ship and a Block. This basically serves to segregate the players onto different servers, so you can use a specific block and ship for meeting with friends by picking one in advance (much like PGC did in our recent PSO Weekend). This will drop you in a lobby, which is the only place you’ll be able to chat with people not specifically in your four-player adventuring party. You can chat, sit in your ethereal “Photon Chair”, or (if you have the keyboard) use any of several pre-programmed emote actions.
Chatting is done in a variety of ways for those lacking a keyboard. You can pre-program chat shortcuts to be fired off with the D-Pad or a combination of the D-Pad and the shoulder buttons. You can also create chat “smileys” that can convey different emotions or fun pictures. Lastly, the best way to communicate complex thoughts is with the “Word Select” method. All of which pale in comparison to a true keyboard text input method. You’ll quickly find that the chattiest people all have import keyboards, while most of the rest will complain that they don’t.
Once you tire of talking with people, you can go up to the desk, and either join a game already in progress, or start your own. You are limited to four-people in a party, which helps to keep the framerate and data transfer high, but does limit the “online” feel somewhat compared to typical online RPGs on a PC. However, in the console space, it works, and works pretty well.
The main problem you’ll find is that communicating with others online is a real hassle without a keyboard. It’s unfathomable why one couldn’t have been ready for the US launch. Heck, even a GameCube-USB adapter would work well for letting people use their own. Sony supports keyboards, Microsoft has voice … and as of right now, Nintendo has NOTHING. It’s extremely disappointing, and damages the game in a fairly major way. It’s very difficult to create any sort of attack plans, aside from your pre-programmed chat shortcuts and the Word Select chat method. Even Word Select can’t cover everything, and is still too slow in the heat of battle. Having multiple people healing or using items simultaneously is commonplace.
Playing the game online offers none of the quests of the offline game, but does have specific online quests and even some downloadable “events”, such as the Halloween event where you have to retrieve Cake for the kids on the ship. It’s much harder to earn money in the online game since you can be splitting possible loot with up to three others, and none of the quests offer nearly as much money as the offline ones do.
Episode II is a GameCube only exclusive series of areas and creatures, but even these changes are largely superficial. The first two bosses of the “VR Areas” in Episode II are differently textured clones of the Episode I bosses, with a couple different tricks up their sleeves. Once out of the VR Areas and into the main part of the new episode, things get much harder and the new critters have much more variety.
Still, playing online is very much a “hack and slash” affair with little plot driving the game forward. It’s certainly nothing sweeping or even remotely epic like Sony’s upcoming Everquest Online Adventures or most online PC RPGs, and being able to only play with three others at a time very much limits the online experience. But it’s much better than playing offline multiplayer, which is a huge mess. The screens are too small and the camera, especially in boss battles, is nightmarish.
The game is clearly a near-straight port from the Dreamcast versions and while looking a bit cleaner overall, exhibits some of the same graphical flaws as its predecessors. Namely, the frequent pop-up of items and especially the “blood” textures, which destroy the illusion of graphic quality very quickly. There isn’t any real excuse for it, since there isn’t a lot driving the game engine. The camera is also horrid, and user control is limited to centering the camera behind you.
The game’s sounds and music are decent enough, but nothing to get excited about. Episode II adds some fun little J-Pop tunes, but they are very short and repeat quickly. They’re catchy enough to get you humming or singing along, but bad enough that you’re going to curse yourself when you do.
Phantasy Star Online can be a fun little romp either online with some friends or solo, but it comes at a price. The game itself will cost you $49.95, and for simple offline play, which can be worth it for a very simply RPG-like experience. Online play is less forgiving, requiring a network adapter at $34.95, and an $8.95 a month fee for the online services (your first month is free, however). Add to that the eventual cost of a keyboard, when imports are running upwards of $80, and all of a sudden, PSO is a lot less fun for your money.
Whether or not PSO will be worth it all is a matter of taste. Some people may find the pick up and play nature fun and engaging, while others will find it quickly growing monotonous. It’s not a bad first online effort for the GameCube, but all the same, everyone knows that it’s just a hold over until the real online games arrive, which can’t come fast enough.