by Joshua Temblett, Onrpg Writer
The Dreamcast started off as a shiny beam of hope for its developer Sega; however the light gradually faded on the new console as Sony’s latest demon (the PS2) began to walk over the horizon and straight towards the little box of gold that was Sega’s new console. Whilst the Dreamcast may not have lasted very long in the gaming world, it played host to a huge variety of mind blowing games and the console definitely made huge steps that not only defined console gaming but also helped to kick it out of the door into the beauty that was “next gen”.
So to say there were no good games for the Dreamcast not only shows sheer incompetence as a gamer but also a lack of history and knowledge about gaming. “Jet Set Radio”, “Shenmue”, “Powerstone”, “Chu Chu Rocket” and “Skies of Arcadia” are but a few of the games you should know about should you take your hobby seriously. There was one title however that stood out among the rest. This was Phantasy Star Online. PSO was Sonic Team’s first attempt at an online RPG, and to say the least, they succeeded. Whilst the gameplay did have some issues and bugs (then again, what Sonic Team game does not have bugs?), the concept and the design were more than enough to get this game off shelves and into people’s homes.
Phantasy Star Online had three classes, these being Hunter, Ranger and Force. The title also had a wealth of customisation options and not to mention a whole host of cool weaponry to play about with. The game focused on player versus environment (PVE) and required the player to team up with three other likeminded gamers to fight back the monsters of Ragol and to get to the bosses and eventually defeat them in order to complete the strangely compelling storyline. This title was indeed a hit as it boasted a chat translation system (to break down the language barriers), a simple way to connect up online and of course free online gameplay.
Despite its success the game did have some negative points which reviewers quickly caught onto. Most of these problems only related to the offline mode available in the game, as the dungeons become quickly repetitive and that the quests were generally very boring. However most reviewers said that these problems seemed to disappear during online play due to how incredibly fun the game was online. The game’s success was no doubt going to spawn some sort of sequel, and hence Phantasy Star Online: Version 2 enters the lime light.
This new title was an update of the original which featured an easier offline experience with easier levelling up, a new security system in an attempt to stop hackers, some new content, a new level cap, some other tweaks and of course the ever infamous pay to play charge.
Whilst the original version was free to play, Version 2 bought about a monthly charge of $15 per month. A lot of players questioned this move and to whether the content and online play was really worth the monthly payment and some players go as far to claim that the monthly fee killed the game. Of course other players embraced it. Whether or not you were a fan of Version 2’s P2P scheme, the updates were definitely welcome.
Following Version 2’s release to the world the game eventually branched out onto the PC, Gamecube and Xbox allowing even more gamers to explore the sci-fi world of Ragol. There was even a sequel up to the series on the Gamecube entitled Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution, which featured an entirely new card-based battle system and a storyline that was based on two warring factions. The title’s main focus was on the offline aspect of the game yet the online mode still gave the player the ability to spar with other players and participate in online battles. After the release of the latest episode in the PSO series, online gamers were hit with another updated episode. This was Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst which was only available on the PC and offered the new Episode IV along with Episode I & II.
After a long and fairly prosperous life Phantasy Star Online server’s slowly but surely got removed by Sega. Some of the dates for the servers getting disconnected were not honoured, with some of the servers shutting down a week or so before the official date. By 22 April 2008 all of the PSO servers had been shut down, making online gameplay impossible.
Whilst the servers may be officially down, lots of private servers still exist, the most popular of these being the Schthack private server which allows gamers from the Dreamcast, Gamecube and PC versions to play together. The system works surprisingly well and the server has a brilliant community surrounding it making reliving the world of Phantasy Star Online a fun and nostalgic experience. Of course, Phantasy Star Online was not the last game in the Phantasy Star series. Phantasy Star Universe hit US and European stores on October 24th, 2006 and November 24th. PSU featured a lot more features and different gameplay mechanics. However the gameplay was still hack and slash based. The offline storyline was also a lot more fleshed out with 40+ hours of gameplay and the online mode was cited as being as addictive as its predecessor. The title was thoroughly criticised for its lack of content at release and its lag filled servers. The monthly fee was also questioned as the title was not an MMORPG, but more like Guild Wars (which does not require a monthly fee).
Critics argued that the title was not as much as a revolution, like PSO, but more of an upgrade of the Dreamcast classic. Despite this the game still goes on and with the latest expansion pack Amibition of the Illuminus attempting to carry on the trend.
Phantasy Star Online may well be down and the servers may not exist however its legacy and indeed the steps it took to change not only console online gaming but online RPG console gaming are still visible in the world of gaming today and stand as a credibility to Sega’s ideas and the company’s manipulation of those ideas.