Back in January 2001, Sega simultaneously announced they would be leaving the hardware market forever and going third party, as well as launching the world's first online RPG, "Phantasy Star Online." Needless to say, it was one hell of a day for Sega fans. "Phantasy Star Online" took the basic gameplay elements of the phenomenally successful "Diablo" series and put it in 3-D, as well as in a science fiction setting. The result was probably the best online gaming experience I have ever had, which continued into the sequel on the Nintendo Gamecube. In an attempt to restore some of those years gone by, Sega has made "Phantasy Star 0" to have more in common with its Dreamcast swan song than more recent entries like "Phantasy Star Universe" and "Phantasy Star Portable".
Despite being an online RPG on the Nintendo DS, "Phantasy Star 0" stays entirely 3-D. What might surprise many is just how well they have managed to make it work. While a bit pixelated at times, the art direction works very well. The way they have managed to make the backgrounds of areas in particular is very impressive. It also runs at a mostly steady frame rate for the duration of the game. If there is any drawback related to graphics it would be the character creation. It simply features far less options for each race to choose from. This includes everything from hair color to clothes. You also cannot alter your characters height or weight as in the original. Some might also be turned off by the more traditional anime style of character designs. Or, conversely, some may prefer them. It is a personal taste; the character designer of the "Lunar" series is responsible here, so if you like his style then you should enjoy the game more.
"Phantasy Star Online" was particularly noteworthy with its soundtrack. The game did not feature a whole lot of areas, so you would be spending a lot of time hearing the same music over and over. The brilliance of the original music was how ambient and fitting it was, as well as how it never got annoying after hundreds of hours of playtime. It would likely be the easiest thing to screw up in a DS version, but to my great surprise they really nailed it here.
The theme of "Phantasy Star 0" plays off of the frontier setting reminiscent of the pioneer days of America. The music in the title incorporates that into the game as well as keeping in the beautiful ambient techno of its precursors. The sound effects do take a bit of a hit. While Sega did squeeze a lot of memorable sound effects from the original "Phantasy Star Online" into the title, some of the impact sound effects sound straight out of the first game boy sound chip. Still, you will get the nostalgic roar of monsters with your "v-wing" of lightsabers.
As noted before, the "Phantasy Star Online" series takes the gameplay conventions of "Diablo" and puts into a futuristic setting. You choose one of three races, and one of three classes. Not all races are capable of a particular class, so you might get varied genders of races to compensate over the lack of a particular class. The classes are broken into a fighter, archer and mage. The combat is real time, but still HP based. The key to success lies in timing. Unlike most action RPGs, you can not mash the attack button for rapid hitting. You need to pay attention and time your attacks to pull off combos. The game also allows you to hold down the attack button and pull of an MP (or in the game's case, PP) draining special move. One notable addition to this title is a roll maneuver, which comes in handy. The basic button layout allows you to attack, strong attack and roll. You can customize the layout however you wish. You can also hold down the R button to bring up a subset of moves, similar to setting hot keys in an MMORPG. The main crux of the game is loot grabbing, only this time it's a bit different. Instead of enemies each dropping one item, the game waits for an area to be clear of enemies and then spawns a treasure box full of items and money. What is even more interesting is the fact that when playing online, each player's treasure box and items are unique to their individual game. Any weapons, items or money that show up in your game, will not be in a friends. This adds a benefit of higher level players getting better items without having to worry about them being stolen. The game has a basic structure of equipment and weapons. The fun is in finding various types, such as giant claws or a double-bladed lightsaber. The game also features the return of the MAG. The MAG is a creature that floats above a character's shoulder. You feed it unwanted items, in return it will grow into any number of different types that will assist you in battle. It adds another addicting side to the game, as well as a great way to dump unwanted items.
The original "Phantasy Star Online" featured only four distinct areas, with variations broken up in them. "Phantasy Star 0" upends that number with seven. I particularly enjoyed this, since it featured more outdoor areas. Sega has gone out of their way this time to really pad out the single player. Instead of just you, the game throws in a cast of characters and an overindulgent storyline. Part of the beauty of the original Dreamcast and Gamecube titles was slowly discovering the storyline of the characters and world through holographic journals left behind as well observing the scenery. Here the story and anime clichés are laid on pretty thick. Some might enjoy this extension into crafting a more compelling single player adventure, but I personally found it passable but unnecessary. The real meat and potatoes of the game is, of course, the fact that it can be played online in groups of four for free. There truly is nothing better than adventuring together with friends. When playing local or online with friends the game makes use of the touch screen by letting you write out your words, or better yet, doodling around ala Pictochat. When playing with random people, you're restricted to using a predetermined set of messages. Thanks again, Nintendo, for your phobic stance of online gaming. The major setback for the title is the lack of an online lobby system. In the original games on Dreamcast and Gamecube, when you went online, you entered into one of a number of lobbies. Lobbies were basically huge hubs where you could meet and greet any number of players logged in. The Gamecube version in particular really expanded these areas to include hover chairs and soccer stadiums to play in. You could exchange guild cards with other players in the lobby and set up and coordinate what type of game and difficulty you wanted before starting the actual game at the mission counter. All of that is gone with "Phantasy Star 0" and the game is all the poorer for it. When going online you set up what type of game you would like to play, and it randomly dumps you and three others in the game's town. This is not entirely the fault of Sega, either. This is based squarely on Nintendo and their completely backwards way of using the Internet for online gaming. This is proof that their policy is restricting games and hurting the gameplay experience for the player. On a brighter note, "Phantasy Star 0" did feature the fastest and most stable online start up of any game I have played on the Nintendo DS yet. Still the loss of the lobbies and the community it brought with it is devastating, not so much as to make the game unplayable, as it is still highly addicting, but for holding it back against what it could have been. Regardless, it is still a polished, addicting action RPG that is great fun to play with friends. Sega has managed to pack just about everything good that they could from "Phantasy Star Online" into the title. It's an easy buy for fans.
Final Verdict - 8/10
Only Nintendo and their useless, restrictive online system hold "Phantasy Star 0" from being the greatest online portable game ever. Longtime fans of the series will appreciate how much loving care has been put into this product and, if you can find the friends, will provide countless hours of an addicting multiplayer adventure to take with you wherever you go.