The original Phantasy Star Portable was a decidedly different game than its console older brother, Phantasy Star Universe. It offered an experience that utilized the fundamentals of the PSU experience while integrating more of its own grand-predecessor, Phantasy Star Online (in its numerous incarnations) into the gameplay. It was a game whose components added up to a highly addictive hacking, slashing, and loot-gathering good time that drew many comparisons to Capcom's Monster Hunter series. Now, Sega and Alfa System are back with a sequel that looks to expand on the popularity of the original game while maintaining the core gameplay that made it so addictive.
Phantasy Star Portable 2, released in Japan last December, is scheduled for a September 14th release date here in the states on the PSP. Sega's aim with this sequel is clearly to give fans more of what they loved in the first game while expanding it to include some oft-requested new features. Graphically, the game is nearly identical to the original, which is to say it looks sharp and colorful and runs well, though the multiplayer mode does seem to run with a slightly reduced frame rate. Characters are very detailed for a PSP game, and the numerous costumes players can stick them in are nicely varied and attractive.
In terms of what you'll be hearing, the Japanese version featured a nice amount of voice acting and a good selection of different voices (with pitch modifiers) for playable characters, so expect at least an equivalent amount of voice acting, though as of this writing there haven't been any samples to guess at the quality of what will be presented. Musically, the game has an excellent, well-rounded soundtrack that offers the best of the varied ethnic/electronic sounds we've come to expect from the Universe titles with a nice fusion of the full electronic sound from the original PSO games. (Check out Pat Gann's review of the full soundtrack, Wings of the Universe, for more detailed info on the music).
On the gameplay front, fans will not be disappointed. My limited hands-on time with the Japanese version confirmed that this was a game full of content and tweaks to the original's formula. From the top, there are now four character classes (types in the game's lingo) for players to choose from: the old PS standbys Hunter, Ranger, and Force, and the multi-talented newcomer Vanguard (Braver in the original Japanese version). This is a pared-down list of types compared to the original, but the game makes up for that through the customizability of the type extend and type abilitiy systems. Type extend allows you accumulate points which can be spent on upgrading a type's weapon skills, permitting your character to utilize more powerful ranks of weaponry, and even unlocking weapon types that would normally not be usable by your class. Type abilities are earned by leveling up your type (which is based on gathering experience by completing missions) and work like job abilities from certain Final Fantasies. These abilities can then be equipped to enhance the strengths of your character to your liking.
One of the big changes to the game has to do with Photon, the energy that powers ranged weapons, Photon Art special attacks, and TECHNICS. In every past iteration of the Universe series, Photon Points (PP) have been an attribute of your weapons, with each having its own gauge that could be restored through the use of a Photon Charge item. In PSP2, your character now has a personal PP gauge that all weapon abilities, guns, and TECHNICS draw from. There are no longer Photon Charge items, but the game makes up for this by having the gauge replenish fairly quickly. Also, ranged weapons now have their own charge attacks and stylish arts to go with them (in some cases). In my limited time with the game, I found that this seriously improved the pacing of battles, as it made ranged characters much more useful and less reliant on ever-diminishing supplies in order to stay competitive.
Another fairly big addition to the system is the incorporation of a dodge roll, which speeds up the pace of battles and was sorely lacking in past titles. The roll draws from the PP gauge, so it can't be constantly abused, but I found it an extremely welcome addition that made the game feel like a big step up. Also, characters can now quickly switch not only between consumable supplies and weaponry, but now also between pieces of body armor. The welcome changes to the Photon system and these other additions have seriously smoothed out the flow of battle and made the game far more playable.
Other additions include line shields, which work exactly as you'd expect and allow you to block. Characters can also block with two-handed ranged weapons, although in my playtime the block effect was less potent than with a dedicated shield. The level cap has also been raised to 200 and there appear to be a large number of missions, so the amount of content should certainly not disappoint. Also, human and newman characters now have a racial ability (like the Nanoblasts and SUV weapons of beasts and casts, respectively) called a Mirage Blast. Mirage Blasts appear to be tied to line shields, and seem to work similarly to Photon Blasts from Phantasy Star Online. Characters can utilize this new ability starting at level 10, like the other racial abilities.
Perhaps the biggest selling point for the new title is the fully-featured infrastructure online multiplayer mode that supports up to four players per match. The game also now has a counter in the hub area that allows players to trade items (at last!), though A and S ranked items are not tradeable. There is also a multiplayer PvP battle mode, as well as a full suite of achievements, titles, and rewards for the completionist. There is no voice chat functionality in the online mode, but players can utilize a software keyboard, preset quick messages, and set up automatic messages based on changing battle conditions (like "HEAL ME!" at a certain amount of HP, etc). Additionally, there have been changes to the loot system. Rather than in the original PSP, where all players received the same drops (and all received whatever the drop was), each player now has their own drops which may be different from one another. Rare item acquisitions will be accompanied by a text message informing all players of the find.
A full story mode is also on offer with what appears to be a similar experience to the original game. Players can import their PSP1 characters (though levels do not carry over). The story takes place some time after the original and if players opt to import their characters, there will be a few changes (such as the character being referred to as a former GUARDIAN). The story mode allows for the player to make decisions regarding their relationship with the party, and offers multiple endings, much like the first game.
The Japanese version supported DLC (and is well-supported), although no announcements have been made regarding additional content in the US version. The game will retail for $39.99 US, and was released via PSN and UMD in Japan, so one would expect similar offerings for the domestic release as well– though as of this writing, no announcements have been made about a downloadable version. Based on the numerous tweaks and the large number of additions (including many more that haven't been detailed here), the game looks to be an outstanding follow-up to the original, and the addition of true online play could have serious implications for the game's popularity and longevity. Look for it in mid-September, and in the meantime check out RPGFan's screenshot gallery and soundtrack review!