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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Retro Play: Phantasy Star Online

Having apparently lost or loaned my copy, I had to order Phantasy Star Online (PSO) off of eBay. Arrived yesterday and today I hooked the Dreamcast into the VGA box and gave it a go.

PSO was designed to be an online experience ... a devoutly multiplayer one. Even in single player mode you have access to a wide range of phrases and emoticons for nobody to see. It was a precursor to the kind of design Guild Wars would use - connected lobbies seperated by servers to facilitate the instanced versions of missions for a group of people to play.

The gameplay is a kind of turn/action hybrid. It's real time and reaction based, but the monsters are slow and attack with some predictability - allowing the user time to plan attacks or shift tactics if need be. Largely it plays a bit like Diablo with large blocky monsters and combos - you run up and hit a couple of buttons in a small variety of attacks and repeat.

In its heyday - PSO was a dream. You could jump online with nothing more than a 56k connection, lobby up and maybe make some friends. Ping your buddy list to see if you want get a pick up game going on and then hit some dungeons. Sometimes a high level would offer up free goodies or take you sightseeing (go and beat a boss again just to show off).

It remains the best massively multiplayer experience I've ever had.

Course at some point the fees went up, people figured out how to clone objects and the world turned unfriendly.

And now PSO is just a single player game wondering where its multiplayer friends went. The good news is - it still fairs pretty well as that. Everything is dated, of course, from the graphics to the controls. What felt like new before is now just old and clunky.

Still, the core gameplay was really good and that stands up. As a 3D action roguelike (which I completely understand the contradictory nature of that description), PSO is pretty simple and fun. If I didn't have such a nostalgic feel to it, I'd like to that I'd still be enjoying it. Now, I don't know how much of the game is really field tested for a single player - the goal was always a party based game - but I'm willing to find out.

PSO, for the record, is a game in desperate need of a proper revival (like X-Com). Phantasy Star Universe was a major disappointment, in my book, by kicking the proper single player to curb and ditching any kind of split screen coop.

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