Let’s face it; the original Phantasy Star Online is outdated. It’s still a great game, don’t get me wrong. But, with the nostalgia goggles off, it’s the video game equivalent of spoiled milk: once fantastic, but now just clunky, lumpy, messy, and a bit odd.
So, with that in mind, Sega brought out the big guns with Phantasy Star Online 2. It was released in Japan late last year. Long story short, the game is good. It fixes plenty of issues from the original PSO, it takes a page out of various contemporary action RPGs to update things a bit, and it even adds some interesting ideas to boot. And it’s free to play.
But that’s the PC version. How about this Vita beta? How does it stack up? What does it foretell about the official release? Will it be the PS Vita’s killer app? Well, let’s dive right in and see.
In the game, you can pick between various races, genders, and character types. The Hunter uses melee weapons, the Ranger uses ranged weapons, and the Force uses “magical” weapons. I went with a Hunter because they’re what I’m used to on the PC version.
I spent a bit of time running through the first few missions and getting a feel for the controls. They feel really nice, and they’re very responsive. They feel a lot like using a PS3 controller on the PC version, but with some slight differences here and there. The main thing that I enjoy is having my hotbar on the touch screen, making everything a touch away, rather than a clunky scroll with shoulder buttons.
Story elements are all in Japanese, but they don’t seem to take away from the gameplay at all, as they’re easily skipped and ignored. They also don’t add to the game for anyone that doesn’t speak Japanese, so I can’t really comment on them too much.
Something that I really like about the quest system in PSO2 is the variation that randomly happens. Thanks to “client orders”, which are basically fetch quests that ask you to do things you were going to do anyway (such as killing enemies), you can constantly rack up EXP and have something new to do in old quests. Not only that, but quests usually have emergency mini-quests that have you eliminate a group of difficult monsters before progressing forward. Not only do these mini-quests create variation in an age-old quest system of “accept quest from desk, complete quest, rinse and repeat”, but they help making the grinding aspect of the game much more straightforward and fun. After all, it IS an action RPG with a leveling system.. It’s going to require at least a little bit of grinding. Thankfully, it honestly doesn’t require too much unnatural replaying of quests for EXP.
The rain makes everything look very hazy and unpolished. I’m hoping this will be fixed in the official release, as it shouldn’t be too difficult to patch this up. But this issue brings to light another unfortunate thing..
Combat during the rain actually causes the framerate to drop quite a bit. Attacking is usually very smooth and precise, but when it’s raining, it’s actually difficult to control the character (as noted by my completely off-the-mark attack in the above photo). It’s not unplayable by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s noticeable enough that it makes my heart sink a little. I hope that optimization of the rain engine will fix this issue, rather than removing even more on-screen enemies. At the moment, there’s only a slight difference from the PC version when it comes to how many enemies appear on screen at once. I would honestly hate for this to change. In fact, I would rather the rain system be taken completely out, as the only real purpose of it is to make the rivers rush a bit. But, this is a beta, and these issues CAN be fixed before release.
Using the right analog stick to control the camera feels really awesome, but it’s a little bit too sensitive in places. A simple sensitivity toggle could fix this, but if it doesn’t get implemented, it’s not enough to really complain about. Speaking of controls, the game actually allows for a small amount of control scheme customization. This is a nice change of pace from other console/portable action RPGs, and it really made me wonder why a game like Ragnarok Odyssey didn’t have this.
Oh man, this feature makes the game so much easier. All you have to do is tap your minimap on the touch screen a couple of times to bring up a full level map that transparently chills on your screen while you continue playing. Brilliant.
Here’s where things get really good. You know how I said at the beginning that you pick your character type from Hunter, Ranger, or Force? Well, you can change your type at any time, and level them each up individually to radically change how you play the game. This effectively makes your character simply an avatar, rather than a bound character type. As you can tell, my Hunter is level 6 here, and my Ranger is level 2. Still haven’t had a chance to start on my Force yet.
Using the optional third-person shooter camera/crosshair is fantastic on the Vita. It makes using ranged weapons a fantastic experience, and allows for a lot more accuracy than blindly targeting and shooting an enemy. It rewards proper shooting skills, and I really like that.
I consider myself a bit of a lone wolf in MMORPGs. I like to quest on my own in an environment around people because it makes me feel like I’m not entirely alone in the game world. So one of the things I really like about this game is the ability to hire NPCs you meet to join your party for free. The AI is actually pretty good, and the NPCs level up as you level up, allowing them to be decent partners in a tough pinch. The only real downside is that they don’t do near as much damage as they should, but that’s simply to balance the game. I highly recommend hiring NPCs for times when you’re just not up for player interaction. Actually, you can hire them even if you have players in your party. It’s all up to you, and it’s a nice change of pace.
The 4 pictures above demonstrate a glaring issue with this port: the draw distance is god awful, and it desperately needs to be optimized better for the Vita. There’s no real issue with it during the main part of gameplay (i.e. in quests), but, as you’re about to see, it can make simple navigation of the lobby areas a bit of a chore.
What we have here is that I can see the text above the character’s name, but I can’t see the character itself or the icon above their head to tell if I can pick up or turn in a client order.
If I get close enough that the character will load, the icon will finally load. A bit of a hassle, sure, but this is something that can be optimized and fixed in the official release.
Once the icon has loaded, if you walk away and walk back, the icon will appear shortly after the text appears. A sign of good things to come in the way of optimization? I sure hope so.
Notice anything odd in this picture? Like, how the shadow is completely pixelized and barely resembles the character model? I can’t tell if this is just laziness or pre-release oversight. Either way, I don’t really expect this kind of issue to be in the official release.
Another odd thing about this port so far: all of the video screens in the lobby have been replaced with a static pixelized image. I’m hoping this will be fixed in the official release, as having rendered video playing in the lobby is a fantastic feature, and it would definitely help to cement the lobby system as the Vita’s answer to PlayStation Home. Not really that big of a deal, but it’s a nice feature, and I hope it gets added back in.
This is another placeholder image on one of the video screens. I’m starting to notice a bit of a trend here.. Someone needs to add some filtering or something to these textures.
Look at the gold circle. Really? Consider this me begging the developers to add some filtering to the textures.
For the first beta test of the Vita version, it really seems fairly polished. It appears that the devs know what they’re doing, and they’re working hard on making this a competent port. It has several issues, such as the textures not being filtered very well and the framerate drop during rain, but these are things that can be easily fixed with a bit of tweaking and more testing.
It’s not a watered down port like some were expecting, and it’s not a barebones version like others were expecting. It’s a legitimate port of the PC version, and it’s looking like it will be the Vita’s killer app, as it’s set to be released for free, just like its PC counterpart.
I hope this has helped clear up some of the confusion surrounding the Vita release of Phantasy Star Online 2. I will be covering every other day in the closed beta test as well, but not in nearly as much detail, since I covered most of the main points here. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section. I’ll answer them to the best of my ability in my next article.