Phantasy Star Online 2 is a fun treasure buried under antique contrivances and inconveniences

    
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When I first booted up Phantasy Star Online 2, the only way to get to a suite of visual options that included making the game full-screen was through the launcher itself. Furthermore, it had two choices — “Apply” and “Initialize,” both of which read about the same to me. As it turns out, however, “Initialize” here meant “Reset to Default.” This isn’t the only example of some weird design choices that likely resulted from this game’s age, but it’s one of the first I ran in to, and it’s been a throughline for my time in this game ever since.

Naturally, I should expect some of that old school jankiness. This is, after all, effectively a port of an eight year-old MMO from the console days, not an HD remaster. And I’m certainly no stranger to the old way of doing things; I cut my teeth on this genre by playing EverQuest Online Adventures on the PS2. At the same time, this game is not just a product of its time, but often feels like it’s past its freshness date.

When I talk about PSO2’s missteps, I’m not referring to its awfully handled launch. That’s been documented extremely well already, both by us and by our readers.

The problems I ran in to all were linked to the game itself, both in terms of its middling presentation and confoundingly arranged quest structure. We’re not in a themepark, nor are we in a sandbox. We’re in a space lobby that struggles under the mere ability to display actively running players, though that is due to be fixed. We have a UI where the ability to automatically equip your best gear is hidden in the “Customize” section. We’re in a game where questing is picked up from desk clerks and story is played out in a bunch of brief cutscenes that you watch with an occasional moment of combat interjected. You actually don’t get all of your appropriate quest rewards until you go to a certain menu.

Basically, getting to do anything in PSO2 involves wrangling the worst part of menu-heavy MMO navigation dressed up for a really goofy anime convention. A bundle of annoyances that were there in the game back then because, presumably, not many folks really knew how to do better then.

But then, you do finally get to a point where you get to do stuff and some of the fun is definitely found. “Questing” here usually means navigating through a series of tunnels of differing biome types killing enemies as part of an objective or getting through to a final boss fight. If you’ve ever played something like Kritika Online or even Dungeon Fighter Online, you know what you’re getting in to.

That said, while the dish isn’t deep, it’s plenty of fun, and I had a good time learning the ins and outs of my chosen class’s weapons. There is a lot of active combat to be had here, but it never really felt too taxing without being extremely dull; a perfectly suitable and respectable middle ground that culminated in enjoyment.

The best part of PSO2’s combat usually involves the boss fights. While the first couple of them are certainly pushovers, some of the later ones I experienced involved some fun mechanics and required a bit more finesse in attacking the right spot for maximum damage or using dodges and block moves more intelligently. They’re very much like TERA’s BAMs in terms of combat feel.

That fun was frustratingly upended by the way the game’s progression seems to be laid out. There’s a braindead tutorial as you’d expect, but then other systems are learned through “client orders,” which is another way of saying “side quest.” Worse yet, a fair number of these important tutorials are handed over by Afin, an obnoxious little twerp of an NPC. On top of all of that, many of these client orders are where a lot of other important tutorials are hiding. I never would have known about gathering items if I didn’t read up on the fact that I had to visit a cafe first. There are even some side quests that provide more full details on how to be any of the game’s different classes, but that wasn’t known to me until a little while later, and it didn’t seem to be pathed too well to me.

Once I started getting over the weird tutorial arrangement, I started to tackle some of the other layers of character progression. There’s a skill tree that helps you truly grow your character, but feels about as weird to use as the one in Blade & Soul. There’s a system to enhance your weapon and apply affixes from other weapons which I appreciate. There’s this thing called a Mag that follows me around that i can feed it weapons to grant boons and keep its energy up, but it never felt really impactful and often felt like it was more trouble than it was worth. At level 20, I unlocked sub-classes, which adds stat bonuses, more skill options, and more skill tree stuff but not too much else, a la Final Fantasy XI.

All of these interlocking pieces hooked me with varying degrees of success, but on the whole I still feel like more than a few of them are unnecessary. Very often, I just ended up hitting recommended choices in the skill tree in the interest of having one less monkey on my character’s back.

While PSO2 does have a pretty large swath of things to do, like main quests, sub quests, client orders, and more, all of which have progressively harder versions of themselves. However, it all really does boil down to entering a biome and running through the tunnels to kill things. There were a few things that injected some fresh fun into the fighting, though. In expedition quests, for example, where the objective is to go around an area until you fight a final boss, there often are little events that spring up which have the same sort of appeal as events in Guild Wars 2.

Also, the area you run around in can often have other players arrive to it out of nowhere, assuming you set the quest’s permissions correctly at the counter. This is fine enough, except it doesn’t seem to take level disparity in mind; there were more than a few instances where players who were well ahead of me in terms of level joined in my lowly newbie expedition.

Another bit of fun were Urgent Quests, which sort of go off at seemingly random times. These tend to be large-scale instanced affairs, the two of which I was able to experience first-hand involving defending structures from waves of enemies or taking on some pretty big boss critters. This, once again, let the delight of combat shine, and being in larger actions with a bigger group of people was a good time, even if I didn’t really feel like I was contributing all that much.

There’s fun fights, there’s a pretty and enjoayble casino, I watched a concert, and at one point during an expedition I had to fight a really huge adorable kingly bird mascot. There’s also a throwaway story, some general mission tedium, not extremely great progression pathing, and the creeping dread of feature overload that started to seep in when I got to the point where pets became a thing. And it’s all wrapped in a very old menu-powered experience that is hard to really ignore entirely.

Perhaps, given time, I will get over those old design choices, but with so many other games out there doing some of the things PSO2 is doing in a more streamlined fashion. The fact that I referenced a bunch of other MMOs over the course of this piece is really not by mistake — it’s really hard to wholly recommend over other titles. Especially since the game’s launch is already throwing up roadblocks for people. I can only imagine that threadbare patience will be worn out almost immediately when diving completely in.

After 20 levels of one class and about 14 or so more levels total in two other classes, I’m not sure that PSO2 is completely worth the hype or worth the hoops to jump through to make it run.

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?

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Pixie Oona Ciaran

Have you not played the PSO episodes 1, 2, and 4? You can skip 3 it was a card game, a fun one but not really comparable. You should play the old one, you can play it single player, as PSO 2 definitely feels like it should, as it’s next iteration. Though if I were to compare it to a newer game, it feels very similar to monster hunter world in many ways.

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Nermon666

Yes please do compare this 8 year old game to games that came out after it and copied it. Pso2 is amazing. With how expeditions work it actually feels like an MMO unlike a lot of other so called MMOs *cough* gw2 *cough*. Also why the hell do you care if higher level people join your map, speaking from experience the reason they do it is to power through some sort of quest they forgot about and now have to do, cause the higher level stuff gets really unforgiving without a party

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Pixie Oona Ciaran

Guild wars 2 is 8 years old as well.

Bereman
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Bereman

Also, the area you run around in can often have other players arrive to it out of nowhere, assuming you set the quest’s permissions correctly at the counter.

This is one of those sort of misleading things about how the game is set-up and explains things.

There’s two elements to it – quest permissions that determine who can join your party (which can have a max of 4 players) and then whether or not the zone you’re going into is a multi-party area (up to 12 players that may or may not be in parties together) or a single-party area (1-4 players that have to be in a party to be in said zone together).

I’m not actually sure if you can join a party that is a mission in progress (e.g. has left the Gateway ship), but if you’re in the multi-party area then your quest permissions have no bearing on whether or not other players can join the area and the only thing that impacts that is the max player count for that particular area.

Also, if a higher level player is in the area with the newbies, it’s because they selected that option (for whatever reason), rather than it being on the matchmaking system not accounting for level. When you select a quest, you pick the difficulty of the zone you’re going into, which determines the levels of the enemies and the intended enemy range…and that choice is entirely on the player to make.

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air2522

Im playing this game on 21:9 monitor. It rocks! I don’t know why it’s supper lag in the lobby but I can live with it.

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Switchie Console-tan

My wife and I played this game together on the jpn server. I personally played this years before arks layer tweaker eng patch was even a thing on pc. When it came to vita around episode 2,i jumped at the chance on a now dead portable. Ps4 came around episode 4, Japanese text and all, I jumped ship from vita and pc to almost strictly playing on ps4 due to having a dedicated controller.

As people and yourself mentioned, it’s really made to be played on a controller. My main cast dude Cobalt Rush is decked out lvl 95 all 12 classes, 15* weps for all those classes, yet my wife quit playing due to kb&m being shit to work with.

I hope official English ps4 and switch come sooner rather than later because it just doesn’t feel right to play a dreamcast era style game on the pc. Did Sega not learn their lesson with blueburst?

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Utakata

This game always come across to me as a diamond in the rough…so I an not surprised that this article leans to that conclusion.

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Haxton

Putting on your ‘best’ gear is an option that’s hidden away, because at higher levels. It’s not about what gear has the best numbers, but what has the best selection of rolls for your build. Since the end game grind is about using grinders and affixing specific augments into your gear.

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Suikoden

Hey Chris. Great article. I think everything you said was very fair and true.
I honestly think that in Japan figuring out the game IS part of the game. It’s like playing the game is one aspect of it, but figuring out where a quest is or how to navigate the menu is part of the fun. In the US it is not. I don’t know one American that thinks figuring out how to navigate a menu or finding some unmarked NPC that no one paths you to in order to do something crucial in the game is a fun experience. But they must eat that shit up in Asia because PSO2 is far from the first Asian MMO that does that
.
You nailed it with saying that the game is very much like Dungeon Fighter (and by the way the menu in DFO is the same crazy bullshit). Kritika is a good example you gave too, also Skyforge is another good example, and Warframe in a sense as well. I actually like the lobby-based game design, and I really liked those games too. I do think the graphics on Xbox are shit compared to the PC, not that it’s graphically magnificent either way, but I couldn’t go back to the Xbox after playing on my PC.
The game is super fun though, and if you are an anime fan, this is mountains of anime. My only issue with the game is that it puts me to sleep, literally. The other night I sat down to play, drank 2 cups of coffee in preparation, and it still put me to sleep. Sure, I need more sleep, but come on. It’s not that it’s boring. It’s like repetitive on a Zen level. Not repetitive in a way that I get bored and shut it off. But repetitive in a way that it calms me to the point that I can’t keep my eyes open. It like clears the mind. I actually stopped logging in because I don’t feel like going to sleep.
I really wish they would fix the MS store BS. that really should be inexcusable. It’s one thing for the game not to work. It’s another thing to ruin peoples’ computers. that’s horrible.

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Utakata

I wonder if it could fit in optional tooltips for the Western client to help lead players intuitively to most of the hidden stuff?

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agemyth 😩

Yep, it is an ancient (by game standards) F2P mess made by a team who really don’t know how to make PC games up to our standards despite the fact that they should have ~10 years of experience in developing this title on personal computers. PSO2 finally coming out here was never a “big deal” for any reason other than even the die-hard fans had given up hoping long ago. Sounds like a decent amount of people were swept up in the excitement without having a good idea of what to expect.

I’m almost level 40 on my main class, but I’ll probably burn out soon. It is pretty dang fun and worth checking out if the game allows you to play it. I’m happy it is here, but my biggest disappointment is that they kept all the exploitative gambling mechanics.

Scratch tickets are their loot boxes and they constantly remind you about all the cool stuff in them that you can’t acquire without gambling. The gear upgrade systems is P2W like in games like Black Desert and ArcheAge. Pay to have better chances of gaining power. I’m not sure if you can break your gear when trying to upgrade, but you can lose gear levels if you fail at higher levels. Worst of all, they have a whole casino zone built into the hub where you can play slot machines, blackjack, roulette, and more. They reward you with miniscule amounts of casino currency often to keep reminding you to gamble. It is an authentic Japanese casino experience and Sega should be ashamed of it if this game catches on here.

I tried to end on a positive note and then I remembered all the gambling >.< welp

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precisesaint

actually you can buy AC Scratch item(s) from another player that sell it on player shop tho, with meseta (in-game currency)

as for upgrading weapons, it won’t fail and never breaks. as for units(armor), you’ll only lose it’s +value when failed to upgrading. you also can use support item called risk reduction (you can get this item for free from arks mission, exchanging certain items or buy from player shop as well)

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Robert Mann

FYI: Urgent Quests have a schedule. At one point I was looking into the game more, and noticed that. You have to load up their website, but you can plan when to be around for them if you want.

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Sorenthaz

Problem is that website doesn’t seem to be totally accurate, at least not the official one I found. It only showed a few events and didn’t include things like the Dark Falz Elder urgent quests.

Bereman
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Bereman

Urgent Quests like the Dark Falz Elder events are meant to appear at random times in between the scheduled events.

It’s mentioned in an asterisk foot note at the bottom of the page that has the UQ schedule, but not anywhere else that I’m aware of.