Eight years is a long time to wait for a game to finally get ported from Japan to America. We’ve seen games get remastered for a whole new generation of console hardware in less time. But Sega’s Phantasy Star Online 2 is now officially out in North America on Xbox One as a free-to-play MMORPG. While its unique brand of anime-style flair and pulse-pounding gameplay are far from what you’d expect in a typical online game, PSO2’s amazing combat system, rewarding progression, and passionate community prove it was mostly worth the wait.
In PSO2, you take on the role of a new ARKS (Artificial Relict to Keep Species) Operative. ARKS is an elite task force focused on exploring new planets and eliminating a dark and corruptive force known as the Falspawn. That’s honestly about all that you need to know or remember about this vague, jargon-packed, and emotionless story. Prior franchise knowledge is absolutely not required to understand it, but experience with the original PSO does help. (PSO2 is entirely unrelated to the single-player Sega Genesis JRPGs.)
Despite the top-notch English voice cast, PSO2 just doesn’t have an interesting story. Most of it is doled out by stiff characters that lack lip sync and feel like a waste of time. Both entering and leaving these story conversations requires sitting through lengthy loading screens. And to be clear, it really doesn’t matter; this is absolutely not the kind of game you play for the story, so the developers have clearly just focused their attention elsewhere.
And so in an unusual but much-appreciated move, PSO2 almost completely removes its exposition from the actual game. All of the missions you go on have a few bits of voice over sprinkled in but otherwise it’s just about plowing through enemies and having a lot more fun as a result. The conversations that move the story forward are self-contained as story quests from the main quest-giver NPC, which prevents them from slowing down the pace of missions.
Rather than have you explore a sprawling open world of interconnected zones, PSO2 uses a lobby and instance system to congregate players and allow everyone to chat and team up. Once you’ve accepted a mission you’ll only see people in your party and a handful of others that may be doing the same mission. It’s a very objective-focused format that keeps things moving quickly at all times, but it loses a lot of the discovery and sense of scale that usually goes hand-in-hand with MMOs. Supposedly, ARKS Operatives explore entire planets to eradicate the Falspawn, but you only see a handful of procedurally generated arenas each mission. The end result is a system that was probably much more feasible to run on an Xbox 360 eight years ago, but playing it today it feels like the shadow of what a modern MMO like this could accomplish.
Quests come in a handful of flavors, such as Expeditions that usually set you off in a semi-open map to hunt down specific creatures, collect materials, or just beat the end boss. Then there are specific Client Orders to fulfill on quests, which are like side contracts that can reward huge amounts of XP when you take on several at a time, as well as the story conversation missions themselves. But the best type of quests in PSO2 are without a doubt the Urgent Quests.
Urgent Quests are limited-time missions that pop up server-wide at predetermined times that are announced on the official website. During the time period the Urgent Quest is active, everyone on the server can join in and do that mission together in big multi-party groups. These are reminiscent of a raid with a dozen players working together, but it’s usually far more chaotic and fast-paced than most MMOs. They’re a blast to do and entirely worth planning your game time around to fit into a schedule.
PSO2 is all about the gameplay. There are tons of classes to pick from, such as the katana and bow-wielding Braver; the gravity-defying, boot-wearing, ass-kicking Bouncer; the big sword-wielding Hunter; the assault rifle-shooting Ranger, and many others. Even the magic classes have unique twists, such as the Summoner that hovers above the ground and commands pets with a magical baton.
Combat feels like a mixture of Devil May Cry and Monster Hunter, or perhaps the Tales JRPG series, depending on the class you choose. My primary class is a Braver who uses either a katana for up-close and flashy combos or a powerful bow to rain down damage from afar. The skill tree you access back at the main ship lobby is full of passive ability bonuses and minor skills like dodging and parrying, but your actual combat abilities are found as random loot drops on missions in the form of discs. You can find new skills or more powerful versions of existing skills, as well as badge tokens to exchange for even more powerful items at specific vendors. Relying on the random loot gods to bless you with new abilities is a bit lame, but you can at least sell the ones you don’t need or use them to upgrade existing skills. Overall it’s an addictive system that helps maintain excitement even when you’re much higher level.
You eventually get to pick a subclass, which is literally just any of the other classes you want. You’ll gain all of the passives from the skill tree, but can’t use any of their actual skills so you should pick something that complements your main class well. That being said, you can switch to and play any main class on any character just by talking to the skill trainer in the main lobby and switching over. Trying out other classes this way is useful, but I found myself preferring to make new characters to specialize in other classes rather than switching back and forth so I have a fresh stock of quests and Client Orders to take on as well as a separate visual identity and separate personal bank storage.
Every class and race is oozing with charm and genuine personality, such as the CAST, which are humanoid robots that look like miniature Gundam units and really highlight the unique tone and visual identity of the PSO universe. The stellar character-creation system is really powerful too and lets you get into the details of each race as much as you’d like. You can adjust points all across the face in supreme detail and actual clothing/outfit fashion quickly becomes a big focus if you care about that sort of stuff.
When you’re not carving up Falspawn across the surface of weird, fantastical planets, you can spend your time at the Salon tweaking your visual style, changing accessories, or giving yourself a complete makeover. Many of PSO2’s most coveted rewards are purely cosmetic and not meant for everybody to be able to get.
Because PSO2 has had the better part of a decade to grow and iterate itself over the years, the version that North America has gotten falls somewhere between the launch version from 2012 and the current one that exists in Japan right now. A lot of the updates and systems are all present, but not all of the Episodes and content are here yet. That’s actually a good thing, because without gradually introducing all of that over a period of years, PSO2 would, at first, feel incredibly overwhelming for a new player.
A lot of that content is playable solo. Many missions allow you to call on NPC allies for aid, which is a good way to practice content like difficult bosses or learning mechanics of enemies in a new region, and to take your time exploring if you’d like. But just like any online-only game, PSO2 is heavily reliant on the activity level and sincerity of its community. If lobbies aren’t active Urgent Quests won’t be playable and if people aren’t approachable and welcoming, it’ll put off new players, which are crucial for MMOs to remain lively. I get the feeling that most players on the North American version are new and never tried out the Japanese server, which fosters an endearing sense of shared discovery. Many players openly use voice chat on missions, as well as text chat even on Xbox, and once it hits PC the open communication should expand dramatically.
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Most of PSO2’s many systems are explained well enough if you’re paying attention, such as appraising gear, leveling up your Mag (a flying personal robot companion that grants passive stat boosts and a special attack) as well as various other nuances, but it requires a lot of reading up front and lots of cumbersome menus and it’s easy to miss them. At its best menu navigation is tedious, and at its worst, headache-inducing. Bringing up your inventory requires multiple button presses on an Xbox controller and something as specific as, let’s say, looking up a friend to see if they’re online or checking how much time is left on your XP bonus is about three to four menus deep into one of the sub-panels and might as well be a lost cause. Thankfully, it’s not unusable, and the more time you spend with it the more second-nature flipping through everything becomes – but this is a textbook case of enjoying a game in spite of its clunkiness and not because of it.