Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Phantasy Star Zero

Lately I've found myself addicted to Phantasy Star Zero for the Nintendo DS again.  I've been playing this game off and on for years so I wanted to share why I think it's so great.

If you're familiar with the Phantasy Star Online series then you know what type of game to expect.  But in case you aren't, it's a series of sci fi online action rpgs that started on the Sega Dreamcast and has crossed over to pretty much every console and handheld since.

Gameplay

Since the Dreamcast, the Phantasy Star Online series has evolved a great deal in regards to gameplay, adding abilities like blocking, evasive rolling, strafing and jumping.  The reason I find Zero so appealing is that it maintained the feel of the original Phantasy Star Online in its combat mechanics while Phantasy Star Universe (released around the same time) took combat in a new direction.

To be specific, Zero requires you to link your strikes in a timed manner unlike Universe which allowed you to simply mash the button.  The customizable action palette is carried over from PSO with nearly the same button scheme (hold the R button to access a second layer to the action palette) as seen in the screen below.



Like in PSO, Zero's missions are carried out in one to four player instances.  You start by meeting your team mates in the city hub and then embarking on missions or free areas from a mission counter.  Each dungeon/instance is randomly assembled from a collection of pre-existing maps making each mission different from the last.  The goal can range from defeating a boss, collecting items or surviving arena type battles.

The character classes and races are also carried over from PSO.  You select your race, class, and sex separately, but choose wisely as you're stuck with this set as long as you keep the character.  Fortunately unlike in PSU you can dabble in the other play styles at your leisure.  For example, you do not need to have a wand or staff equipped in order to use techs.  Each class plays virtually the same as it did in PSO.  Hunters are used primarily for melee and forces rely upon their spells or techniques while rangers use mostly guns.  

They give you three character slots to check them all out though so you won't need to start over if you decide you don't like your character anymore.   If you get bored with your appearance, don't fret, you're allowed to change your appearance and name at any time from the title screen.

Oh yeah, mags are back!  And just as important as they were in PSO.  Yes!



Story / Single Player

I'll keep this spoiler free, but what I will say is that if you're a fan of PSO you'll love the tie-ins.  The story begins in a small desert town where you learn that most of the world has become inhabitable thanks to the number of monsters and toxic environment.  It seems that the world is turning itself around though as more and more areas are becoming livable again.  It is your job as a hunter to lead the exploration of the new territories while solving the mysteries of humanity's past along the way.  The story takes itself seriously with enough lighthearted moments to keep things entertaining.  The comedic scenes don't feel awkward or forced like in PSU.

Your NPC teammates are nicely designed and each have an interesting back story that you'll actually end up caring about the more time you spend with them.  I've come to love these characters in my time with the game and they've become some of the favorites in the Phantasy Star series as a whole.

Completing the game unlocks harder difficulties and thus the opportunity for more valuable loot which keeps the replay value strong.

Graphics / Sound

 My screen shots don't really do the game justice, but PSZ is probably one of the nicest looking games for the original DS.  The backgrounds and characters are nicely detailed and animated quite fluidly.  The sound effects themselves are ported directly from PSO, which are pretty timeless on their own.  The familiar hum of a saber is quite nostalgic.

The score fits perfectly depending on the area you're visiting and changes depending on if you're just exploring of if you've been ambushed by hostiles.  Thankfully there aren't any lullabies like the PSO caves theme.  Everything is relatively upbeat here.

It's also worthy to note that the game boots up super fast and pauses itself when the DS is closed making it perfect for bite sized sessions of hunting while you're on the go.

Multiplayer and Communication

It's possible to play the game local and online multiplayer via wifi.  The game was released within the life cycle of the original Nintendo DS model, so the obvious downfall of the online mode is that it relies on Nintendo friend codes to be able to connect to your friends.  It is possible to play with strangers, however due to Nintendo's original vision of online play Sega had to leave out the ability to communicate.  Due to the age of the game it is rare to see anyone waiting to find a game in the non friend code lobby though.  Fortunately there is still a community for the game, albeit small, you just have to look for it.  There are active threads of players exchanging friend codes at the PSO-World forums.  Unfortunately there are no lobbies as we knew in PSO, so meeting new people has to take place exclusively outside of the game.



Communicating online is fun and can be entertaining as it's done via the touch screen.  Draw or write out a message with the stylus to send it to your friends.  You can create short cuts to drawings you've done previously and even copy ones that you've seen from your friends.  I'm usually weary of talking in handheld games that don't have voice support, but the touch screen capabilities make communicating in PSZ much less tiring. 





Final thoughts

At the end of the day if you're looking for your next big online multiplayer experience PSZ might not be able to deliver thanks to the friend code hurdle.  However, the game does stand strong as as a single player action RPG.  Like all other games in this genre, it'll take you years to amass every single piece of loot in the game, so if you're a collector or completionist Phantasy Star Zero will keep you busy for a long while.  If you're hungry for an RPG with a purely action driven combat it's got you covered there too.

Pros:

-Combat "feels" like the original Phantasy Star Online.
-Awesome music and graphics for a early model NDS game.

- Story stays interesting throughout and connects itself to earlier entries of the series through its many quests.
-Online and offline multiplayer options available.

Cons:

-Friend codes.  It'll take you some work outside of the game in meeting people before you can get together for a worthwhile online experience.


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