Phantasy Star Online 2 Closed Beta Impressions: Looking Good, FOmar

Ah, my adorable Rag Rappies, how I have missed thee.

02.18.20 - 5:15 PM
written by Mike Salbato

Against all odds, SEGA is finally bringing Phantasy Star Online 2 to Western markets this spring. Coming to Xbox One, Windows 10, and Steam, years of updates in Japan mean we're getting a hefty package of an MMO soon. Will you finally be able to get that Lavis Cannon you could never get to drop in PSO? Probably not. But here's your chance to try again.

A couple of our team members spent some time with the game's recent closed beta test (when the servers were working, anyway), and have written up their impressions from their brief whirlwind of a jaunt through the game. Here are their thoughts.

Ken Chu

Phantasy Star Online 2 Screenshot
Ready for adventure!

After almost eight years of existence exclusively in Japan, Phantasy Star Online 2 is finally making its way to gamers in North America via Xbox One and PC. Thanks to the closed beta this past weekend, RPGFan staff members had a chance to finally try out the game and spend some time with it.

As the beta opens, you play as a member of ARKS, a team that specializes in the exploration of potentially habitable planets for your fleet, Oracle. The planet of Naverius was recently discovered, and it is up to you to check its habitability and search for resources there as well. Of course, since PSO2 is an MMORPG, your efforts will be met with resistance.

The option to switch classes so freely is definitely a strength of PSO2...
Right after the opening story movie, you are brought to character creation, where you can choose between four races and six character classes. The races and classes encompass a broad range of strengths and weaknesses so that players of all styles can find a fit for themselves. Personally, I initially chose the Cast race, which are robots with great physical power and damage resistance and limited magic ability, and the Ranger class, which focuses on dealing great damage from a distance with somewhat limited melee abilities.

Although you obviously cannot change your race once you have created a character, changing your class is as easy as going up to the correct merchant at a counter and asking them to switch you. Each class you play as levels up separately; I played to level 15 as a Ranger before switching over to a Hunter, where I began at level 1. I then switched back to the Ranger later, where I was able to pick up where I left off at level 15. The option to switch classes so freely is definitely a strength of PSO2, and it represents an element of flexibility that is missing from many other MMORPGs.

As far as its layout goes, PSO2 is vastly more akin to a game like Monster Hunter World or Warframe than it is an open-world MMORPG like Final Fantasy XIV or Elder Scrolls Online. You will spend a lot of time in a central hub on your spaceship, upgrading your character and picking up your missions before departing to your mission site to play from there. I was unable to test the multiplayer aspects of the game with friends, but the random matchmaking for teammates was pretty solid.

Phantasy Star Online 2 Screenshot

Nice birdie...please don't kill us.

I found this action-oriented gameplay to extend to PSO2 missions themselves, as compared to FFXIV and ESO, which I find to be more strategic. Combat has a lot of reliance on timing and combos to deal maximum damage, and I enjoyed the crisp and responsive it controls in both melee attacks and ranged attacks. Another noticeable strength of the play here is that your character can move with impressive foot speed, which lets you traverse the sometimes-convoluted maps in a timely manner.

Progression through the beta was limited. Although it was possible to open up a variety of exploration missions, I was unable to advance past the first main mission after the prologue even after completing that mission. There were also apparently some raid boss battles, but I was unable to find or join them in my limited time on the beta.

To where I progressed in the beta, there wasn't a whole lot of storyline in the game, only the directive to explore Naverius. You are introduced to a variety of NPCs as you play through the missions, but at this point in the game, they serve more as tools to deliver the game's tutorial than as elements of the game's plot. However, it is my understanding that there is more story content once you progress further.

As probably should be expected of a game that is almost eight years old, PSO2 isn't particularly impressive with its visual presentation. The opening movie looks good, but the in-game graphics are probably most comparable to earlier PS3 games in terms of the level of detail you see. However, MMORPGs are generally not known for stunning visuals, and I certainly didn't feel that PSO2's visuals hampered my enjoyment of this beta.

All in all, the PSO2 beta proved to be an enjoyable experience and showcased a promising, potentially engrossing multiplayer game. Being that it will be free-to-play, I certainly plan on spending at least a few dozen hours with it once it is fully released, and I encourage all RPG fans to at least check it out.

Caitlin Argyros

Phantasy Star Online 2 Screenshot
Space: the final frontier.

After six hours with the Phantasy Star Online 2 closed beta, the best thing I can say is that I had an absolute blast in the casino. It has slots, blackjack, roulette, and this weird combination of a shooting gallery and pachinko game. There are balloons you can grab to fly around, and the whole place is bright and colorful, with enough glitz and glam to make the Gold Saucer proud.

The worst things I can say about the Phantasy Star Online 2 closed beta are that it reminded me of what I thought MMOs were like back when I had no interest in the subgenre, and that it made me want to play FFXIV that much more.

The whole experience just feels awfully disjointed...
Perhaps this reaction isn't entirely surprising. PSO2 will be eight years old this July, and the game is absolutely showing its age. The graphics are dated, the UI is clunky and unintuitive, the world feels compartmentalized and closed off, there are microfreezes and stutters while playing, and I saw a lot of text and line errors. That last one I absolutely expect to be fixed when the game releases in the West this spring since we were almost certainly playing an older build. But there's not much that can save the rest of these issues, so it will all come down to how much players enjoy the game in spite of them.

To give some context, PSO2 is a sci-fi MMORPG where you play as a member of ARKS, an exploration force for a flotilla of spaceships traveling across the universe in search of planets to colonize. After a trial by fire, you learn that ARKS' mission also involves eradicating evil creatures known as Dark Falz and the various monsters they spawn. At this point, you're let loose on a ship (which acts as a hub for your adventures) and buried in quests, sidequests, optional activities, and places to explore. Like any MMO, it's all a little overwhelming at first, and trying to figure out the quirks of the UI (which is not terribly well optimized for controllers) compounds the issue. I actually like the hub quite a bit. There are several areas, including the aforementioned casino, and there are ample spaces for you to just relax or play a game of beach ball. There's even a place for concerts and large screens prominently displaying the latest Sonic movie trailer, which is kind of cool to sit down and watch in game even though it's just a marketing ploy.

Phantasy Star Online 2 Screenshot

I'm pretty sure that, like any MMO, fashion is the true endgame in PSO2.

Of course, taking on quests is the heart of any RPG, but I found the way PSO2 organizes its quest lines and delivers its story kind of odd. First, there are main quests, which (for the time being) seem to consist entirely of exploration missions. You travel to a region on one of several planets, run around until you find a boss monster and slay it, then return to your ship for your next mission. While each of these regions has multiple zones for you to explore and get lost in, they feel like generic stages rather than chunks of a larger world. There's the forest stage, the volcano stage, the desert stage, and so on. There's no sense of connection between these different areas, and because you teleport down to them from your ship and then teleport back when you're done, you never really feel like you're exploring these alien worlds so much as you're simply going on bite-sized missions. Story missions are even worse because (at least at this early stage in the game) they're just cutscenes and the occasional boss fight that take place in the regions you investigate in your main missions. There's no exploration in these missions; you just appear in a particular spot, view a cutscene or fight a boss, then return to your ship. The whole experience just feels awfully disjointed, at least to me.

Speaking of fighting, the action RPG combat in PSO2 took me a little by surprise. There are a variety of classes to choose from, covering your expected RPG roles like melee fighters, ranged attackers, and magic (or rather photonic art) users. You can easily change classes on your ship, which while not as convenient as being able to change at will, is still greatly appreciated. Each weapon type gives you a customizable palette of attacks to pummel your foes with, and the real-time combat is very reminiscent of Monster Hunter: World. Bosses even have multiple body parts you can choose to target, presumably to hobble their abilities, deal more damage, or affect the kinds of drops you get when you defeat them. The system itself is rather fun, but the controls are a little hit or miss. As a bow-wielding Braver, I found it difficult to aim reliably at enemies without locking on, and having to do so every time a monster died became somewhat tedious. To be fair, I'm nitpicking a little, but let's just say that while combat is fast and flashy, it's not always smooth and satisfying.

Phantasy Star Online 2 Screenshot

Is this Monster Hunter or Phantasy Star?

As for the localization, there are coding issues such as early line breaks in dialogue boxes and item descriptions that look to be early-pass translations, but again, I suspect the build is old and these are things that will absolutely be fixed in the full release. The voice acting is pretty mediocre and dialogue is serviceable but doesn't really stand out, though the latter could change as the story progresses. Plain starts are not uncommon in RPGs after all, and more exciting events could certainly spruce things up a bit.

Despite my fairly negative account of the game, please believe me when I say I'm not writing PSO2 off entirely. As a huge FFXIV fan, I know that MMOs are long, drawn-out affairs, and six hours isn't nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of what they have to offer. I'm also well aware from personal experience that an MMO can have a slow start and then really pick up down the line with story patches and expansions. I will admit that if PSO2 were subscription-based, I wouldn't play it. But luckily, the game is free to play (with microtransactions), so I could see myself coming back to it from time to time, especially if I have friends who want to play.

Mike Salbato
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