Well, it’s online. That’s a good thing, right?
The sequel to the GameCube’s first online game, Phantasy Star Online III: C.A.R.D. Revolution is definitely not for everyone. If you were expecting an extension of PSO I & II, you’ll have to look elsewhere. PSO III takes the series in an entirely new direction: turn-based collectible card gameplay.
Instead of gearing up your own personal character created via PSO’s extensive Character Creation System, you create battle decks to challenge foes and other players online. In doing so, players will choose the battle card of one of their allies and then build a deck around his or her strengths. Depending on which side is chosen, players will either battle it out as HEROs or ARKZ. HEROs equip items onto their character cards, while ARKZ summon familiar PSO monsters to attack their enemies. As players complete offline story quests, more characters and cards become available.
Unfortunately, Sonic Team did very little to graphically upgrade PSO III from the first two games. What makes it worse is that PSO I & II didn’t look very impressive to begin with. PSO III recycles all of the character and enemy models from PSO I & II, and the backgrounds have little to commend them. Shimmery textures and low-poly environments somehow manage to make the GameCube chug incessantly. Framerate drops aren’t uncommon, and they can become thoroughly annoying while the camera decides to take one more pan. Conversely, the card illustrations are quite beautiful, and can be viewed in higher detail when you press Z whilst browsing your deck (after winning new cards after a battle).
On the sound side, PSO III runs in Dolby Pro Logic II, much like its predecessor. Lots of futuristic beats abound but, unfortunately, the overall score isn’t as good as previous Phantasy Star games.
As mentioned earlier, players build decks and battle against foes, online or off. Facing opponents in variously sized arenas, the objective is to defeat the Story Character as quickly and efficiently as possible. There are five stages per turn. First off, players roll dice and then assume a certain amount of Attack and Defend Points. Next, players can set cards to their character. After that, the Move phase allows players to move their own characters and any monsters they may have summoned. Finally, the Action phase allows the player to attack their opponents. Each of these phases eat up Attack Points, so players must ration them wisely. At the end of the turn, players will be allowed to discard any cards they do not need and then draw enough cards to fill the hand. During their opponent’s turn, players can use Defensive Cards to help protect themselves at the expense of Defend Points.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest flaws within PSO III becomes quite apparent once a battle begins. Everything takes an inordinately long amount of time. Setting items or monsters requires the GameCube to do a fairly accurate imitation of the "DreamCast Whirr" (no, PSO III isn’t killing your GameCube... at least I don’t think it is) and then pan forever and a day before the card is summoned. This can get annoying at an astonishing rate. Sonic Team should have quickened the pace in some manner, whether by reducing the playing field to a 2D grid with an overhead-only view, or by improving their loading requirements. Simply put, PSO III has a battle system that is slower than even Skies of Arcadia. Folks, that is NOT the sort of record you want developers to top.
Because of this slowness, playing PSO III offline in the extensive story mode can be an excruciatingly painful affair. Unless players clear the offline quests, it is impossible to unlock new (and better) characters to build decks around. This means having to play through some of the most boring battles known to man.
Things do pick up slightly when players head to the online mode. There, they can meet friends and battle against each other’s decks. Each rule can be modified to your liking, and up to four players can battle it out via 2-on-2 matches. Tournaments are very popular with the online fanbase, and players can even view matches if they wish. Unfortunately, things return to the tedium that is offline gameplay if you do not possess a GameCube keyboard. Talking through the endless panning and loading is the only way to endure that horror.
Though I find PSO III an incredible bore, lacking strategy or any real redeeming value, there are many people who are addicted to creating newer and more powerful decks. My significant other has spent hours upon hours refining his Hunter decks and greatly enjoys the tournament options available. Though he admits the game plays slower than a tortoise in the 100m sprint, the appeal of battling an innumerable amount of opponents and building all sorts of themed decks innately appeals to him. In the end, I noticed his eyes glazing over while the game decided to pan some more, and whirr a bit louder. Ungodly amounts of patience appear to be required to play this game.
PSO III is an interesting take on the traditional card game. Though most collectible card games (CCGs) are played in person, PSO III allows CCG fanatics to take their obsession online. While the rules and cards have been well thought out, the horrible problems that plague PSO III will make it a trying time for those trying to get into the title. These issues should have been resolved long before release, and unfortunately, Sonic Team allowed them to slide. If they had been fixed, PSO III would have been a stellar title. As it is, PSO III has many good points, but unfortunately, the title is dragged down to mediocrity by its faults.