Review: Phantasy Star Portable – A Hit And Miss
This review has taken much longer to get out than I intended because I immediately moved into Portable 2 afterwards… and then kinda fell out into OTHER journal projects because I got so BORED trying to grind…
Phantasy Star Portable is the PSP sequel to Phantasy Star Universe on the PS2, the second in the rebooted series that was Sega’s critically acclaimed Phantasy Star series which originally saw several games on the Megadrive (Genesis in the US) before it went online on the Dreamcast.
Taking place a couple of years after Universe, Portable follows the story of a new member of the Guardians which the player can create. Fresh our of training, your created character becomes paired with another new recruit of the CAST android race named Vivienne as you seek to to investigate the possible reaccurance of the enemy known as the SEED, while teaching her about the galaxy and everything in it. For the sake of the playthrough, my character was a CAST Force named Metis who is an eccentric inventor.
The game’s gameplay and mechanics have only slightly changed from its predacessor on the PS2 (Though I have never actually finished it). As per standard fair on the PS2 at the time, the hub worlds have been boiled down to menus and missions are played out in various maps depending on which settlement you’re on. Your weapons and weapon ranks are determined by the class of your license. While you start with three basic licences, Hunter (fighter), Ranger and Force (mage), by developing your classes to required stats, you can advance to more advanced classes down the line, including a couple of Hybrid classes. It goes a decent way into ensuring you can customize your character how you want and you don’t have to stick with a particular class the entire game.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story of Phantasy Star Portable. It’s pretty decent and goes a long way to making your care about your characters, including some decent pathos and humour along the way. I honestly enjoyed all the story segments from beginning to end…. But then I started to realize something about it. Many of the characters are all returning from Universe. With MAYBE the exception of the instructor who trains you and your partner Vivienne, there are no new party members and even new characters in general were in the minority. Even missions began to feel eerily similar to missions I had played in Universe. I began to realize that this game was originally intended to be a port, but was converted into a sequel sometime during development. Now, while this wasn’t exactly a problem for me since I never finished Universe, many returning fans probably found the gameplay rather stale.
I’m not kidding when I say that. The gameplay hadn’t been improved since Universe and in some cases felt worse. I found locking on to me almost to be the BIGGEST pain of the game if I were trying to aim spells. It got to the point where my strategy for spellcasting was to use Area-of-Effect spells most of the time ontop of my healing spells because spells that targeted would often miss or not reach the required range. This wasn’t a major issue in the long run as bows were well suited to Forces and went a long way in accomplishing my goals, but it was a pain in the rear that when I wanted to spellcast, I had to hundle up to an enemy and hope he doesn’t move out of the way while I cast my earthquake.
I’ll tell you what WAS a major issue for me, though. GRINDING. Phantasy Star Portable takes the online features of its predacessor and unfortunately incorperates it into the single player mode as well. But instead of having a more boiled down experience, it tries to behave more like an MMO. The amount of weapons you get in this game is REDICULOUS to the n’th degree with several different TYPES and RANKS. The major problem of this is that these different weapons have different stats, including the damage they can do and how much PP (The game’s equivalent of MP) you could use. But there’s almost NO reason to have so many different varieties of a different type. I don’t CARE if my staff can do 1500 damage if I can only CAST it five times. Forces and Rangers effectively would prefer weapons with more PP over damage because their damage output won’t mean much if you run out of PP in the first place. And to top it off, the weapons you’re going to WANT will be in some rank of some mission and it’s COMPLETELY dictated by RNG if you GET it or not. This turns getting new equipment that you actually want by the end of the game into a frustrating pain. ESPECIALLY for Forces.
This is not helped by the different levels of HP and damage reduction of each class and it’s CERTAINLY not helped by your intellegence, or lack their off, of the AI! Enemies will ALWAYS focus on attacking you in Single Player mode, because they KNOW that if they take YOU out, the mission is over. And the AI of your teammates gets so GODDAMN awful, that all the healind duties to fall onto you, which can easily become IMPOSSIBLE when an enemy is TRAPPING YOU IN ICE WHILE SPAMMING YOU TO DEATH. Saying this as someone who normally actually LIKES grinding, grinding in this game is NOT fun because you have to FIND where your weapon is, SURVIVE to beat the BOSS and HOPE that it’s the weapon you’re GODDAMN LOOKING FOR. To make it even more frustrating for the Force class, your low HP will ensure that some deaths are absolutely UNAVOIDABLE, meaning there’s an even LARGER chance than you’ve battled through gauntlet after gauntlet of enemies for absolutely NOTHING.
This could’ve been SUCH a simple fix. Just give the Forces something that increases their survivability. Immunity to any status effect that immobilises you, the ability to block, dodge or shrug off magic attacks. Or even AI that actually SUPPORT you when you need help and not just STAND there while you get PUMMELLED TO DEATH.
To make THAT even worse, in order to even BEAT the game, your character HAS to have over 1000 HP to survive the final boss’ best attack, meaning MORE hours of grinding depending on your class. To give you a good idea, if you’re a Force, that’s a LOOOOOOT of extra grinding, most of which accomplished while dealing with the RNG of trying to get the weapons and dying to enemies over and over and over.
It’s clear the game intends you to do all that grinding with friends online, but even that can get tedious. I don’t even know if the online still works because I never HAD online on my PSP. Because I’m on a dynamic ISP setting for safety reasons, I COULDN’T activate online, and when I did by connecting what possibly was a dummy server setup, the input was PAINFULLY laggy.
However, as much as I’ve harped on it this entire review, I can’t say I actually hated this game. Sure, I had plenty of moments of frustration, but for the most part it works okay. Once I settled into patterns and styles for my Force, I tended to be pretty consistent with victories most of the time and I always felt accomplished after beating a hard boss. The story has a couple of flaws, but it was good enough to make me want to see it through to the end, and reaching that end was such an accomplished feeling. Furthermore, the game does offer you the ability to return to it with previous save data upon clearing it. There was a lot of frustration to be had, but that frustration was always met with reward.
The game’s major flaw is ironically the its attempts to make it’s online it’s major draw and keeping that online seperate from the main campain. If they put more focus on the single player aspect and adjusted it accordingly, I wouldn’t have had half my problems with the grinding I had during my playthrough and the wonky lock-on was probably an error from when it was still a port.
This game also boasts multiple endings, allegedly based on how you interacted with Vivienne.
The only other complaint I can really offer is most of the time it felt like you were more a side character in Vivienne’s story. However, I can’t fault it for that too much and the game always tried to include you whenever possible.
It’s hard for me to really recommend this game at full price, especially for hardcore RPG fans, as the forced grinding tends to wear on patience, and I’d suggest finding a guide on Gamefaqs to cut down on the time needed to grind for gear, but if you can get it at a good deal and you’re willing to take part in the story of a fine space opera, it’s worth the purchase.