Game Reviews

Phantasy Star Online 2 Review

Age hasn't slowed Sega's MMO down one bit.

by Brandon Adams
Phantasy Star Online 2 Review

Phantasy Star Online 2 launched eight years ago in Japan, but was brought to western shores only recently thanks to fan demand and Microsoft’s involvement. It’s easy to assume Sega’s action-MMO has missed the boat, what with Elder Scrolls Online, World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy XIV all hoarding the vast majority of the genre’s fanbase in their thrall. How could a near-decade old game dream to compete against such juggernauts? Turns out top-tier combat and a compelling loot grind are more than enough to keep Phantasy Star Online 2 from becoming a relic of the past.

Phantasy Star Online 2 has plenty of style to mask its wrinkles.

Phantasy Star Online 2 isn’t an MMO in the traditional-sense, at least not like those currently dominating the genre. There isn’t a wide, open world to explore, jam-packed with players going about their various errands. Instead, it’s more reminiscent of older lobby-based MMOs like the first Guild Wars. There’s a general hub/lounge area where players congregate to either upgrade their equipment, accept quests, or mingle. This social hub is much like the Tower from Destiny 2, and it’s sequestered into different instances, called “blocks”, to keep the servers from melting into hot slag. Each block can host up to 200 players, and there are well over a hundred per server.

This system means playing with friends or randoms can prove a touch cumbersome at times. If your friends are in a different block you’ll need to first transfer over to theirs before they can invite you into a party. If you are using the baked-in matchmaking from the mission select screen you can opt to pull players in from your block, or can search for groups across the range of other blocks available, but if a group fills while you are browsing the list doesn’t update to inform you of such. It’s not terrible once you figure out the nuances, but it belies Phantasy Star Online 2’s age.

Other elements of the game make the eight-year gap between Phantasy Star Online 2’s initial release and the North American launch harder to ignore. The graphics are clearly from a bygone era, with lighting, textures, and anti-aliasing showing their age the most. The overwhelmingly anime art design keeps it all afloat, but as you’re running about the labyrinthine corridors of the procedurally-generated missions it’s clear this was a game released in 2012.

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That’s not a knock against Phantasy Star Online 2 – it’s damn near a dinosaur at this point. Though, even by 2012 standards Phantasy Star Online 2 isn’t pushing any boundaries. Some games age more gracefully than others, and while Phantasy Star Online 2’s general graphical suite may not have matured like a fine wine, it certainly hasn’t spoiled like milk either. And that’s fine, because the colorful, anime aesthetic that engulfs the experience more than makes up for the muddy environment textures, subdued shadows, and jagged edges.

Fair warning: if you only have a mild tolerance for all things anime then buckle-up, because Phantasy Star Online 2 is as over-the-top as Japanese games can get. It embraces every single anime trope like a lover reunited with their partner after a decade apart. You take on scenery chewing villains the size of buildings, travel across space and time in a story that barely makes sense, and bounce about battles with an absolute disregard for the laws of physics. You can take control of a giant mech to crush your foes, and even play as a race of mechs (the ladies of this particular group have all their jiggly bits intact, naturally).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The robust character creator will let you create the anime guy/gal you’ve always dreamed of (or complete abominations if that’s your thing), to include setting physical proportions no normal human body should ever possess. Add in the wealth of extravagant cosmetics available, and it’s clear Phantasy Star Online 2 is a proudly Japanese title. Hell, you can sit back and watch a full J-Pop concert with an overly bubbly idol at night in the lobby with other players, who all look like discarded Gundam extras themselves. It’s wholesome in a way, though it’s easy to see why Sega never planned on a North American release – they couldn’t fathom a non-Japanese market enjoying the game.

Phantasy Star Online 2 was built with a very specific audience in mind, and you’ll either love the game because of this belligerent dedication all things anime, or loathe it for it. I’ll put it this way: if Persona 5 was too anime for you then you’ll hate Phantasy Star Online 2, but if you’re the type of person running out of shit to watch on Crunchyroll then you’ll be well over the moon here. Personally, Phantasy Star Online 2 is a bit much, even for me (I adore both Persona and Final Fantasy), but it’s the action combat that I’ll discuss in a bit that kept me hooked.

Even the audio is as anime as you can get, from the pulsing score to the sounds of weapons clashing against foes. Larger enemies will even call out their special moves, Dragon Ball Z-style. Every male character sounds like a generic JRPG protagonist, and the majority of female voices are a few octaves higher than reality would normally allow, which is pretty standard if you’ve watched a localized anime of any sort. In short: the audio perfectly matches the visuals. A few weapon skills lack punch, but all said the audio suite is delightful, punchy, and deliciously tropey.

This almost slavish devotion to all things anime means the game holds up rather well visually and audibly, even eight years after launch. Thanks to the aging engine any modern PC will run the game at max settings well beyond 60 frames-per-second, and the game will look decent in motion. Even my Xbox One X ran the game at full 4K with nary an issue, and from what I could tell the game was running at 60 frames-per-second on Microsoft’s console. If there is one fringe benefit to eight-year old graphics is they’re not exactly the most intense to render. This means performance is solid across the board, which is a boon considering Phantasy Star Online 2 thrives off its intense third-person action combat.

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What if Platinum Games combined Diablo with Monster Hunter?

It’s in this regard Phantasy Star Online 2 holds up remarkably well. It may no longer be the prettiest MMO around, but sweet Hell is the combat sublime. It’s like a compilation of Platinum Games’ greatest hits, featuring a creative arsenal of weapons that range from your basic assault rifles to swords strapped to your feet like the galaxy’s most lethal pair of ice-skates, all of which superbly animated. Each has a wealth of different attacks available to unlock that dramatically alter how you utilize that weapon in battle, and the controls behind combat are intelligent enough to ensure you’ll be satisfyingly hacking, slashing, and bulldozing through the vast array of enemies that stand between you and your next pile of loot.

It’s the flexibility core to the design that makes combat sing. You can have up to six attacks assigned to a weapon at a time – three on the “front” bar, and three on the “back” bar. All attacks are mapped to one of the primary mouse buttons, or face buttons on an Xbox controller, and tapping Shift/Left-Trigger will swap the front bar out for the back bar. It’s an easy enough control-scheme to figure out, and allows players to seamlessly weave combos together, a tactic reinforced by the glowing white orb that collapses around your character after an attack. Fire off your next flurry of murder when the orb turns red and you’ll trigger a Perfect Attack, increasing damage done.

This simple mechanic turns Phantasy Star Online 2’s snappy combat into a bit of a rhythm game, where firing off attacks with a modicum of thought will give you an edge in a fight.  You’re never stuck with a single weapon either, because you can carry up to six with you at a time, so if a foe is best handled at range then a swift roll of the middle mouse wheel or click of the D-Pad is all you’ll need to adjust. There’s even a hotbar with ten slots for items and additional class-based skills, meaning moment-to-moment combat seldom degrades into brain-dead button mashing outside the lowest of difficulties. If that wasn’t enough, you can swap to true third-person camera control to make precise shots as a ranged character (at the expense of a narrower field-of-vision), and you can nimbly dodge away from attacks without a cooldown.

Even in 2020, Phantasy Star Online 2’s combat is among the best in the genre.

Missions are simple in concept, and share some similarities with the Monster Hunter games that predate World. You’ll saunter up to the mission NPC, choose a biome that has the loot you need, select a difficulty, then either jump into an existing party or start your own. From there you’ll leave the lobby and enter the drop-ship, a safe area where you can buy or sell items, do some crafting, drink a stat-boosting soda, and even hire on a few NPCs to round out your party until someone shows up to replace them.

From there you’ll enter the teleportation kiddie-pool at the rear of the drop-ship to start the mission proper, where you’ll find no more than twelve other players running around. You’ll navigate a rather generic series of corridors killing every poor bastard that gets in your way as you work towards the boss fight at the end of the zone.  Collect loot as you go, bully the boss, then return home. Ta-da, that’s Phantasy Star Online 2’s core loop!

There are little flourishes that set Phantasy Star Online 2 apart from its contemporaries. Instead of skinning beasts for their flesh and bone to craft better equipment the game takes a more Diablo-influenced approach to loot. Defeated enemies drop a variety of items ranging from armor, to weapons, and even higher-ranked weapon skills. Larger enemies will spawn a red crystal upon death that explodes into a smorgasbord of loot, and often the best drops in the game are found within.

Each biome and difficulty will also have certain drops attached to them, allowing players to sidestep some of the randomness for more focused grinding. Throw in the variety of events that crop up across a mission (such as killing a set number of foes, or the Duels that spawn giant foes), and players soon find themselves absolutely drowning in loot.

Of course, a robust loot system usually comes with an equally complex upgrade system, and Phantasy Star Online 2 isn’t lacking in that department. Weapons can be infused into other weapons to boost their level and stats. There are various affixes attached to gear, and you can try to tailor fit the ones you like on to your favored equipment, though the effort doesn’t come cheap. It’s this affix system where the Diablo comparison truly earns its merit, and high-level players looking to maximize their performance to better tackle the game’s most difficult encounters will easily sink hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into gathering all their perfect affixes like precious gems.

Throw in the various classes you can both run as your main or sub-class and the ability to level all of them (much like Jobs in Final Fantasy XIV), the deep skill-trees, and the spectacular Urgent quests that offer amazing rewards and you’ll find there’s an almost overwhelming amount of content to dig into. Overwhelming is the key word here, because Phantasy Star Online 2 does the absolute bare-minimum when it comes to showing new players the ropes.

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Lost in Space

You’ll start the game with a basic tutorial that introduces you to the simplest concepts before finding your face thrown straight into the fire. There are quests (called “Client Orders”) scattered about the lobby that will introduce you to new concepts, and these do their job well enough, but it’s the sheer volume of crap that springs up once you’ve planted your feet that quickly sets you back on your ass.

Every NPC blossoms into a checklist of Client Orders, and the game doesn’t do the best job pointing you in the right direction. There are Client Orders for specific kills, actions, and tasks, but in the early hours of the game you don’t know a Falspawn from your elbow, so it all condenses into gibberish. The fundamental Client Orders are hinted at within the ARK Missions tab, but Phantasy Star Online 2’s UI is a collection of nesting dolls within nesting dolls, so it’s not exactly difficult to miss that section entirely.

The early game is not insurmountable and most players will acclimate within a couple of hours, but it’s an issue worth noting for those looking to jump in. Having to dredge up a wiki for assistance within an MMO isn’t an entirely new concept, but a little more guidance out of the gate would have been appreciated, especially knowing the game has has eight years to address the issue.

Even the obtuse UI isn’t terrible, but there are so many menus within menus that I can’t help but feel could have been compressed into a single tab. There’s a menu for all your equipment, one strictly for weapons, and another for armor. Why not focus everything into that catch-all menu instead of three separate ones? Even inventory management is pain until you learn a trick the game doesn’t bother to teach you. Phantasy Star Online 2 was clearly built with controllers in mind (which, considering the franchise’s legacy on consoles, makes sense), but there are just far too many prompts to work through.

Take moving an item from your inventory into your storage for example (something you will be doing often thanks to your limited inventory space): you have to first select the item, then click the “deposit to storage” tab within the sub-menu, then pick which of your two storage options you want to send it to, before finally picking the amount and confirming the move. When you’re trying to bank a single item this doesn’t seem all that bad, but when you have to shuffle thirty-plus items through the void into your storage bin it becomes a slow and tedious affair, largely because there isn’t a “send all” option to select.

Well, not within the sub-menus at least. Turns out PC players can treat their inventory like a Windows folder: hold Shift to select multiple items or tap L-Ctrl to pick them piecemeal, then click one of them to mass deposit. Controller-wielding players can do this as well with some hotkey tomfuckery, but at no point did Phantasy Star Online 2 advertise this option was available. I once again want to reiterate that these UI and on-boarding issues are not deal-breakers, but they are annoying nonetheless and are worth pointing out. If you plan to play Phantasy Star Online 2 you better prepare yourself for frequent excursions into the wiki.

These complaints are nothing compared to getting the game to properly work.

If you plan to try Phantasy Star Online 2 on an Xbox then congrats: downloading and booting the game is as painless as you’d expect. PC hopefuls, however, should avoid the Windows Store client at all costs. Calling it a dumpster fire would be a compliment, and even little under a month after launch the Windows Store version of the game will refuse to run, can uninstall itself at random, will consume hard drive space with phantom files, and has a code error that causes the lobby to run like hot ass on a summer afternoon in Florida.

Thankfully, ardent fans of the game have been playing on the Japanese servers for years, and they developed a tweaker that allowed them to do so with minimal fuss. They’ve since adapted this tweaker to the North American client, and you can use it to completely bypass the Windows Store (the link to it can be found here) It not only circumvents all the tragedies of the Microsoft Store, but expands on the graphics settings found within the launcher (because, yes, Phantasy Star Online 2 has graphics options that can only be adjusted from within the launcher).

Time will tell when Sega and Microsoft are able to get the official download in order, but until they decide to put the game on an infinitely better store the PSO2 Tweaker is the only way PC players can enjoy the game without wanting to chuck their computer into a bonfire. It’s unfortunate, and I’d wager good money a healthy segment of potential fans ricocheted off the game because of Windows Store woes. Server population remains healthy since launch, but the servers were once filled to capacity and I can’t help but feel the disastrous launch played the largest roll in the decline.

If there is one final portion of Phantasy Star Online 2 I’ve taken umbrage with it’s the story: the first few chapters are a slog of disjointed cutscenes that parade out a wide cast of characters whom you’ll barely connect with. There’s the occasional mission attached to one or two, but the whole affair is so haphazardly thrown together it’s difficult to care about what’s going on. It relies on well-worn anime tropes, so fans of the genre will likely be more engaged with it than I was, but it’s clear the first few chapters were tied together by a since removed mission grind that did little to bridge each event together.

Even the localization is a mess – a litany of spelling errors and curious name changes. The majority of the voice actors do try their best, but the awkward dialogue is more than a few can handle. I’ve been told the chapters not yet released in the North American version are an improvement, but what’s here isn’t enjoyable. The story is only worth engaging with if you want to unlock more NPCs to fight alongside you. Otherwise it’s best to skip it and watch the Phantasy Star anime instead.

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A Note on Micro-Transactions

You can’t discuss a free-to-play MMO without mentioning the monetization. Some games handle it well (Warframe), and others beg you to crack open your wallet at almost every turn (Black Desert Online). Phantasy Star Online 2 sort of falls into the middle. The entire game is playable for free, and I wasn’t able to find any substantial content locked behind a paywall. Even the grind to level up and earn better loot felt balanced around free-play, so not once did I feel like a second class citizen. But, that doesn’t mean Phantasy Star Online 2 isn’t packed to the gills with ways to spend money.

The majority of the micro-transactions within the game don’t directly impact gameplay. There are scratcher tickets that are essentially loot boxes and a battle pass filled with cosmetics, and even a standalone cosmetic store. While I’m not a fan of lootboxes, the game never pushed them in my face outside of a basic tutorial that described how to earn “FUN” points for the free variant (yes, there are multiple themed loot boxes to choose from in Phantasy Star Online 2). The cosmetics from the free ticket were less intriguing than those stashed away within the premium ones, but I was able to ignore the scratcher tickets entirely once that Client Order was out of the way.

Outside of loading screens the game doesn’t inundate you with a billion prompts to spend money, which on the surface is a good thing. Issue is Phantasy Star Online 2 is not afraid to subtly push them. Your talent trees cannot be reset without paying cash, nor can you alter your Mag for free (a Tamagotchi of sorts that provides aid in battle). If you plan to never spend a dime then you will have to find a build online for both your class and Mag, because any mistake made will cost you.

Then there are the self-revives: you can use a “Half-Doll” to resurrect once before returning to the drop-ship, but if you spend a couple coins you can come back as often as you’d like. There are two MTX currencies in the game, and the cosmetic variant can be earned through gameplay. Guess which currency these self-revives and talent tree respecs use?

There are more examples of subtle MTX inanity (such as your limited inventory space that can be increased by, you guessed it, buying additional slots for money), but to keep this brief I’ll say this: at no point did I feel like Phantasy Star Online 2 was built around exploiting its audience. Will it try and sucker you in with a cosmetic or “convenience” item of some sort? It most certainly will, but even the most aggressive tactics can be easily circumvented. Take your meager inventory space for example: you have over 400 slots of storage available at all times, and since you can send items into it from anywhere the only real pinch-point is the cumbersome UI.

Phantasy Star Online 2 will ask for your money, but you can enjoy the entire game without spending a red cent. The skill tree reset is as bad as it gets, and while not ideal it isn’t the end of the world. Just be sure to look up builds online before you start dumping points into your talent trees, or feeding your Mag.

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The Verdict

Phantasy Star Online 2 is an old game, but one that wears its age surprisingly well. The graphics betray the eight year lull between the original Japanese release and today, but in doubling-down on all things anime the game still looks and sounds great. The true star of the show is the outstanding combat, which stands should to shoulder with some of the best action games out there.

There are few issues holding the game back however, such as the boring story presentation, the Windows Store dilemma, and lackluster new player experience, but none of them kept Phantasy Star Online 2 from reaching the stars. The micro-transactions aren’t the worst around, though they’ll certainly prove off-putting to some. If you live for long-term loot grinds, visceral combat, and everything anime then Phantasy Star Online 2 will amuse you with hundreds of hours of entertainment. Just don’t download it from the Windows Store, okay?

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Phantasy Star Online 2

  • Available On: PC, Xbox One
  • Published By: Sega
  • Developed By: Sega, Online R&D
  • Genre: Action Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game
  • US Release Date: May 27th, 2020
  • Reviewed On: PC, Xbox One
  • Quote: "If you live for long-term loot grinds, visceral combat, and everything anime then Phantasy Star Online 2 will amuse you with hundreds of hours of entertainment."
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