Phantasy Star Online 2 preview: the galactic pretty boy adventure
Phantasy Star Online 2 (PSO2) had its first closed beta test this weekend, and playing the long-awaited English version was simply phantastic.
The closed beta test ran for nine hours a day over the weekend, and there was a noticeably large online crowd in the evenings consisting of people who have been waiting to play an English version of the Japanese game.
An overwhelming percentage of the crowd consisted of new players, so a lot of people were asking questions about progression in the game or how to get a certain weapon, and nobody was really looking for parties to take on missions in, because most of the early game missions were pretty easy to clear solo.
Character creation in PSO2 is deep, and offers a wide variety of options to create your ideal avatar. Each of the three races (Human, Cast, and Newman) are geared towards different specific classes and have different stat growth values, so it’s actually really important that you pick the right race for maximum synergy with your desired class.
Aside from picking between a male and female character, you can choose to make your character young or old, tall or short, and skinny or fat. The game gives you more options than you need, but hey, who’s complaining? There are even options to finetune your character’s body type by making his or her arms longer or thicker. And of course, the facial customization options give just as much editing freedom.
You also have to pick your initial character class at this juncture, and your choices are between the melee-oriented Hunter, the sharpshooting Ranger, or the spellcasting Wizard. Later on in the game, you can expand further into the next-tier of classes, or switch your class entirely.
You may choose to do a tutorial which goes through the basics of playing the game, which was perfect for me seeing as how I’ve never touched the Japanese version of the game before, or skip it if you’re a veteran from the Japanese server.
Getting my first view of the game world and seeing my character interacting with it was a pretty cool experience, as if I was Gepetto watching Pinocchio being brought to life. And I have to say that while the graphics are not mind-blowing like some of the other MMORPGs out there (such as Blade & Soul or Black Desert, PSO2 is still pretty visually impressive, and the futuristic design motifs are cool. The game also ran very smoothly for me as the required specs to run the game are not high at all, and I cruised along on the highest graphic settings with no issues on my 2-year-old rig.
Apart from introducing the game world, the tutorial also teaches you about combat, and each of the 3 starting classes have unique play styles:
Combat in this game is pretty straightforward for the Hunter class (at least at the early stages): you have your standard left-click auto-combo, and right-clicking unleashes a photon-powered special move. This is the standard melee warrior class, and it excels in the front-line.
The Wizard class plays like an orthodox mage-type class, attacking from a range with elemental spells. The class is much more PP (mana) dependent than the Hunter class but it can do a lot more damage by exploiting elemental weaknesses more easily. I watched a Wizard cast a fireball on a monster which dealt burning damage for a few seconds afterward.
The Ranger is more similar to the Hunter class, where the type of weapon you choose to wield determines your playstyle. The difference is the Ranger attacks from a distance with bow or gun-type weapons, so it’s even more important to keep a good distance from the enemy.
I chose a Hunter class for this playthrough, and found that when playing the Hunter class and taking on boss characters, it was a lot less risky to take shots at the bosses using my Gunslash in gun mode, even though the damage output was less than if I were to use a melee weapon. This is simply because the boss characters do a huge amount of damage in large AOEs, so it was easier to kite them and take potshots.
In addition, all classes must abuse a system that lets them perform a more powerful attack with stronger knockback properties against monsters by timing your attacks ala triggering in Final Fantasy VIII. This eliminates mindless clicking or button mashing and rewards you for rhythmically timing your attacks.
Up to three weapons can be equipped at a time for switching around in battle using the R and F keys, and the three weapons you pick have a huge impact on your playstyle. For the Hunter class, I personally favored the Wired Lance, a type of long distance whip-like weapon which was great for attacking from a distance, as well as the Gunslash, a basic sword which can also change modes into a gun for shooting from a distance. Additionally, weapons can be augmented or given titles to help maximize your damage output.
Double-tapping on a directional key lets you evade, and you can switch weapons on the fly. You can also switch between a standard fixed targeting view or a free camera view, the latter of which allows you to shoot more precisely when using long-range weapons. And of course, you have access to a hotkey bar, which you can either fill with special moves or health potions.
Combat in PSO2 doesn’t sound very complex, because it is not, and shouldn’t have to be. There is enough depth added to the combat when you switch between the variety of weapons, all of which play very differently. The good part is that a wide variety of weapons are easy to find early in the game for you to try out. Each weapon also has unique special moves called photon arts, which can be acquired throughout the game through shop purchases or bounties from taking down monsters.
After more combat and character introductions, you face down your first boss character, a giant bug of sorts that has a strong frontal defense but is vulnerable to back attacks. Once the tutorial ends, you are free to explore the game world and to begin your own path of infinite grinding.
Quests, quests and more quests
As anyone who has ever played an MMO would know, one of the main goals of any MMO is levelling-up to get stronger, and PSO2 is no different. However, PSO2 deviates from the formula a little bit by making the bulk of your experience-point-gain stem from quests, and not monster slaying.
Here are some numbers to give you guys a rough idea of what I’m talking about: at my point in the game, all non-boss monsters were worth roughly ten experience points apiece, but there are quests which can net you as much as 2,500 experience points for completing. Yep, you would have to kill 250 monsters to gain that same amount of experience points. In fact, I gained so many experience points for completing that quest that I levelled up three times.
Granted, not every quest is worth a boatload of experience points; there are many lesser and more mundane quests out there, but their main purpose seems to be teaching the player where certain locations are or getting them more in touch with the game’s system. Quests can be as simple as looking through the menu system and changing your auto-text messages, to completing missions within a tight timeframe.
In addition to quests, there are in-combat mini-quests known as “emergency codes”, which give you a set of tasks to complete to get additional bonuses. The only emergency codes I encountered this early in the game were ones of the assault nature, where I was tasked with the extermination of a set number of monsters, netting me additional experience points.
For my entire playthrough of PSO2, I spent all my time running quests and levelling up, and did very little interaction with the other members of the community. This is mainly because there were a lot of people spewing out lewd images in the main lobby area, and I did not want to get too close to them for fear of being labelled an accomplice.
I did, however, get to battle in parties together with other players, and it was quite a rush to take down a huge boss enemy in a fraction of the time it took me to kill it solo. We didn’t say a word to each other though, maybe because there is no need for words on the battlefield, or maybe because we were all in a hurry to grind as fast as possible.
Deeper down the rabbit hole
There are quite a lot of deeper mechanics to PSO2 that I am aware of, but did not get to fully explore due to the fact that I was still pretty early into the game.
I did get to have my own Mag, though! Mags are hovering robot pets that act as your support in battle, but they have to be fed specific items to evolve into the type of support you need them to be. I got my Mag around level ten through completing a quest, but it seems you can acquire more than one Mag later in the game. You can also summon huge monsters known as “Photon Blasts” onto the field to dish out big damage or provide support, but they are probably only available much later in the game as the only one I got to see was during a demonstration by an NPC during the tutorial.
One of the mechanics I could not understand though was the “Paradigm Matrix”, which is a sort of strange grid with markers showing all the parts of the story you have or haven’t seen. It’s a little complex and the in-game explanation was not very thorough, but the story is not my main concern when playing this game, plus I think as long as I complete every portion of the grid, everything should work out just peachy.
I can definitely see myself picking up this game once it gets out of the beta. It’s not a revolutionary MMO by any stretch of the imagination, but it sticks to age-old formulas that make MMORPGs so fun. Forming a united front with your friends to take down a giant monster has always been an exhilarating experience, and this is one which PSO2 delivers with style.
The only negative thing I can say about this game is that it’s the textbook definition of a grindfest, where you will be dropping a lot of time into levelling up and getting stronger. I personally feel that MMOs that let you max out your character early and have plenty of post-max-level content are the most fun, although I do empathize with the developers in the sense that they probably know a lot of players will feel like quitting the game once they max out their characters.
One thing I would really like would be to see Asiasoft put extra effort into bringing over content from the Japanese version of the game as quickly as they can, although I am doubtful they can do so for every Japanese PSO2 event, due to possible licensing issues.
On the whole, the world of PSO2 is set to be a great place to go, and I can definitely see it being the go-to MMO of the new otaku generation of Southeast Asia.