Phantasy Star Portable 2 (PSP Review)

Game Review: Phantasy Star Portable 2
Release: 9/14/2010
Genre: Action RPG
Alfa System
Available Platforms: PSP
Players: 1 (Online 1-4)
MSRP: $39.99
ESRB Rating:
T (Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes)

Note: The game is entirely in English (and very well localized, I might add); the screenshots are Japanese because that’s what was available.

Taking place 3 years after the events of Phantasy Star Universe, SEGA’s Phantasy Star Portable 2 is set in the Gurhal system and your hero (which can be imported from Phantasy Star Portable to get a spiffy weapon as well as minor story references to your past work with GUARDIAN) will quickly go from innocent bystander to working for mercenaries who saved your bacon.  You’ll start out doing odd jobs to give credibility to the rag-tag bunch of thugs known as Little Wing, and take on a partner who, while flighty, is more than meets the eye.  Taking on these jobs, you will inevitably end up working to uncover the mysteries behind a sinister plot that threatens the very existence of every living being in the universe.

You will  start off creating your character, and will be introduced to a running theme in PSP2: depth and customization.  You have quite a bit of personalization you can give to your character, and will be able to choose between 4 races and 4 classes.  The good news?  You can change just about everything later in the game (for a cost), so you can truly select what seems most appealing at the time.  Gameplay itself is done from a third person perspective with a controllable camera, and buttons and gameplay concepts are rolled out to you through a series of tutorials that will appear when appropriate (rather than all at once).  One suggestion: Play the game for about 10 levels and THEN read the instruction booklet.  Believe it or not, you’ll get a lot more out of the booklet after playing the game a little bit.

Once you get settled into the game and are able to take on missions, you’ll have access to a nice hub that has all the major things you’d need in one place:  shops, your own personal room, a mission control panel, and much more.  Again, customization is impressive here in every way: your room can be decorated with themes, furniture, pictures and even music.  Your weapons can be upgraded to increase their usefulness.  Armor and weapons can be linked to other items to increase their protection or ability.  Your personal assistant can be upgraded to be a healing machine or a fighting powerhouse.  You can change your class, upgrade abilities, wear new clothes; pretty much ANYTHING that you could think to customize can be customized.  And all of these things have unique looks; an impressive feat for the UMD based format of the PSP.  I am floored by how much depth there is  to this game.

Gameplay will progress through a series of missions that you take on either as story missions or as other mission types that you can take later.  Completing these missions quickly and efficiently increases your mission rank, which increases the rewards for the mission.  Some missions can be repeated, and often have several difficulty levels to them so you will always have something to do as you increase in level (did I mention there are 200 character levels?).  Because of the excellent layout of the central hub, you are always a few steps from the action, and can also quickly access any of the functions of the game that you need.

One aspect that makes this game unique is that you can play online via Infrastructure mode, which means you can create or join games with other people around the world with nothing more than a basic wireless internet connection.  Once joined, you can take on missions with a party of up to 4, and experience and items you gain can be brought to single player (and vice versa, your single player character is used in multiplayer).  There isn’t much in the way of conversation due to the obvious limitations of the PSP, but the quick text options (which are customizable) work well, and communicate what you need.  Connection was decent when the action was happening, but I did experience game drops from time to time, particularly when loading from one  section to another.  Fortunately, if this happens you can still save your progress, so you don’t lose experience or items, you just lose your teammates.

Combat is easy enough to pick up, and is explained through in-game tutorials.  You have two basic attack functions, and while the combo system may seem basic (you can string 3 normal attacks together), you get some depth by timing your shots, and closing combos with power attacks.  Ranged fighting works well too, and you do get the use of spells, so every character type is covered, and the game allows you to actually play as these types, as opposed to having the option to play as a ranged character only to have everything close in on you, forcing melee combat.  Your party members will do a good job fighting on their own, and can be given basic commands as well.  Combat is fast, and boss battles are appropriately epic.  Finding the weak spots and learning how to dodge or block will be critical, as you will quickly be defeated by the bigger enemies if you don’t.  Fortunately, even in death you still retain experience and items you acquired, so you’ll never feel like you should reload an old save if you fail.  And in some missions, you can resume your progress at the expense of getting a lower mission grade.

To say this game is deep and customizable is not doing it justice; it’s like SEGA sat in a room and thought of every single thing that an RPGer would want to do or wished they could do in an RPG game, and put it into this title.  I’ve mentioned a few above, but there is so much more, and it is all impressive.  The graphics are also very good, and with minimal load times (and you have the option to install a part of the game to your memory stick to speed things up more), you don’t get punished for the pretty pictures and lights.  Sounds and music are also good and varied, and you’ll need to use sound to pick up on enemy cues for when to block or dodge.  The story is told through excellently rendered CGI cut scenes and in-game dialog that moves things along well without bogging down the action too much.  You get some choices you can make during the conversations as well, but generally its more for eliciting different responses rather than having any lasting effect.   The items and weapons in the game are impressively varied, and everything is customizable, so you will have a Diablo-esque feeling of replaying missions for loot that you can then upgrade or customize how you see fit.  The online component is an excellent addition, and allows you to experience this incredible depth with other people, so you aren’t just pimping out your character for you.

The level of depth in this game will be very intimidating at first, especially to those new to the series.  While everything in the game is explained at some point, you are given access to nearly everything right off the bat, and people who often like to explore (like myself) rather than advance the story right away will ultimately end up coming across advanced techniques before they’re explained, and may waste some time (and money or skill points) experimenting.  The lock-on camera can get a little wonky at times; you will have to make judicial use of the camera-lock button to spin your character around when an enemy rushes behind you and you’re left staring at a wall.  Things can feel a little cramped on the PSP (at least, the original PSP I have) when trying to use several buttons at once, and extended gameplay is tough without some cramping – a break from time to time is needed if you want to go all night.

vttym’s take:  Phantasy Star Portable 2 is absolutely amazing.  I’ve never played a deeper RPG from a character development and customization perspective.  Every aspect of this game feels like it was created with the gamer in mind; convenient menus, huge storage space, clear directions, personalization options, and the ability to swap classes.  It’s clear that SEGA has created their masterpiece in the series.  The ability to share this experience with others in the online space means you don’t ever have to compromise between enjoying the single player experience and playing with others: you get both in one package.  It’ will be tough on people new to RPGs, and fans of western RPGs will need some adjustment to the JRPG style (where it’s perfectly acceptable to have a pizza shop in the middle of a battlefield), but both groups will find this game an incredible experience after some time, and you do not need to have played previous titles to enjoy this one.  This is, without a doubt, one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough to any fan of the genre.

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