Phantasy Star Portable 2
by Beepner

There are two JRPG franchises that have wasted the most of my time: Shin Megami Tensei and Phantasy Star. And there is one manufacturer of consumer electronics that, regardless of the perception of my peers that their products are cheap pieces of crap, I somehow feel compelled to keep giving my money to: Sony.

I paid, at least of a couple of months, for a Hunter's License in Blue Burst. I didn't care that it was the fourth rehash of a Dreamcast game from 2001 that periodically unlocked content that had been available on other consoles for two years, I was like FUCK YEAH PHANTASY STAR GIMME DAT RED BOX WHARRGARBL. The only reason I quit was when I noticed my grades were slipping, which either shows a great amount of self-restraint or an admission of a gross inability to prioritize. I also used my grades as excuse to quit tae kwon do, but had I continued paying for that, I probably wouldn't have been able to afford rent for my last year of college.

Now, I avoided Phantasy Star Universe. Despite being something of a fanboy who periodically relapses to that 5th grader who wanted Kyra to be his girlfriend when he sees those two words in print, I'm a cheap bastard first and foremost, and I heard enough bad things about PSO's successor to scare me away. I enjoyed Zero, but it wasn't going to replace PSO in my heart, and I was only aware of the first Phantasy Star Portable because a friend of mine pointed it out and asked "They're still making Phantasy Star games?" That was my reaction too when I heard they were coming out with another Phantasy Star Portable, and this wasn't even a week away from its US release. But gee golly gosh darn it, I heard enough good things about it to make me think the franchise wasn't completely dead yet, so I resolved to throw down $40 and pop that bitch into my PSP.

Oh fuck! I didn't have a PSP! How could I have made such a gross oversight? That didn't matter, I would just go buy one! After all, I bought a PS3 just so I could play Metal Gear Solid 4, and that decision opened the door to a vast library of hundreds of great software titles!

Upon choosing to create a new character, you're greeted with a pleasant song to set the tone for sculpting your defender of justice and farmer of rare drops. I always found this part to be crucial to easing the player into the atmosphere of the online Phantasy Star games. It's a better song than Zero's, which I thought was overly cheery, but it's not quite as good as PSO's. You're given a ton of options to customize your character's facial appearance. I sometimes found it frustrating in PSO to create an attractive character with such limited options (although it wasn't impossible), and Zero gave you even less to work with, so I appreciate Sega putting some effort into it. Not that the facial customization really matters, since the resolution is so low and you're zoomed so far out from your character during gameplay that's you'll never be able to make out details, and you never see yourself during story segments, just generic backgrounds and the NPC's anime stills.

You're also given a few wardrobe options with limited clothing parts and color variations. You can mix and match tops, bottoms, shoes, etc. provided one doesn't overide the others, for example a pair of pants that doesn't allow you to change boots or a full body outfit like a robe. You can also see your character in his underwear. Tee hee. Of course, a lot of the clothing options available to your character on creation are kind of bland or ugly, since you're expected to spend meseta on new shit later at the boutique.

So I created Candyvan, the metrosexual newman force, and dived right into story mode. As an alternate I made a female beast hunter named StaChu, and her MySynth, Tory. God, I am a veritable Morrissey when it comes to naming characters. Well, upon jumping into the first mission, I was completely lost. I had no idea how to set up those palette thingies, nor did I know about timed hits. For anyone coming from Universe, I'm sure the basic setup is the same. You assign Photon Arts to weapons, such as special attacks for melee or stat modifiers for ranged, and you assign TECHNICS (I will never get used to calling them that) to force weapons. You use the R button to call up your off-hand weapon skills, or block if you're using a weapon that permits it. Holding circle lets you select palettes, which you cycle through with the D-pad. Trying to move with the analog stick and change palettes at the same time is awkward. I found myself doing THE CLAW to try and switch weapons without breaking up the action, but since my hands cramp up enough as it is from playing PSP anyway, I'm fine just sacrificing a couple of seconds in the name of ergonomics while my partners are dying and in need of a quick Resta.

Going straight force in this game is choosing a life of torment and sexual isolation. While your party's hunters are pulling off massive combos with timed hits and climaxing with sexy Photon Arts, you're resigned to giving flaccid support that is only acknowledged in its absence and blowing your load early when you actually try contribute to the offense. See, aside from your inherit squishiness, your biggest foe is the PP gauge (heh, pee pee). It drains so quickly from tech use that you'll fast find yourself retreating and plinking away with a handgun or singling out the weakest monster and going after it with a saber and feeling really jazzed when you actually manage to do damage in the double digits.

I'm just fucking around. Force is alright. It's definitely a path of delayed gratification should you choose to build up such a character. Offensive techs can be quite damaging in the right circumstances, and at least they're subject to the rules of buffs and debuffs, unlike in PSO. And there are a butt-ton of techs to choose from. Personally I just use Diga all the time. It comes out slow and can be hard to connect, but it's got the knockdown and the damage factor going for it. Since you can only have a maximum of four techs on a single palette, it's best to just stick with a few in your all-purpose gear set anyway. I guess I'm just spoiled on Blue Burst's six-deep controller palette and 10 additional slots bound to the number keys. Even Zero was quite servicable with only six slots. With my loli force I only needed buffs, debuffs, and a slicer to totally murdercate a dungeon. Yeah, forces were kind of broken in that game.

Still, and I don't think I'm alone in this, Jellen and Zalure kind of suck here. For those of you not down with the Phantasy Star parlance, they're the debuff spells that lower enemies' attack and defense, respectively. First, you have to target an enemy with L, rather than just being able to cast the spell in an all-encompassing area of effect as in PSO. Casting it once might not be enough for it to actually take. Bigger monsters usually take 2 or 3 casts before they get debuffed, and some it doesn't work on at all. Monsters that are extremely close to the one you're targeting may also feel the effects, and the range isn't all that great unless you've got the techs up to high levels. So not only is success not guaranteed, you're also putting your squishy force ass at risk by getting close enough to actually use the damn things.

Oh yeah, the other classes. Hunter is fun. Since Universe seems to aspire to be more of an action game, rather than a straight dungeon crawl, PSPo2's playstyle seems to suit the melee side of things better than the rest. Seeing my partners strafe monsters with their off-hand pistol and go in for the kill with melee looks way more elegant than me flailing my staff around like a moron. "Wait for the spell's charge up! Alright, I hit it the monster! Oops, it stepped slightly to the left! Let's try that again OH FUCK WHERE DID THAT SAND RAPPY COME FROM GET AWAY YOU DICKNOSED SHITBIRD."

You can change your class too, in order to gain skills from the other classes. See, in addition to your character's level, you also gain Class Points by successfully completing missions. Gaining class levels will give you more extend points to spend on your weapon proficiencies, so you can use better weapons of a certain type. You also get little skill token thingies you can assign to get stat increases or special effects, like reduce the PP cost of dodge rolling or extending the range of support techs.

I switched Candyvan to ranger for a while because I was bored. Ranger's decent. It's not as broken as it can sometimes be in PSO. Guns don't combo in this game, so you're dealing with a fixed rate of fire. Shotguns are weak when targeting mobs but pack a punch against a single target. Grenade launchers are great for wrecking mobs and multi-hitbox bosses. Rifles are prettymuch invaluable for flying bosses. See, you can go into first-person view, which in addition to detecting secret walls and hidden plot points, also allows you to aim and fire certain ranged weapons if you have one equipped. Some bosses will take to the air and can only be damaged in this way, and you'd better believe that they'll refuse to come down unless someone is sniping them while they're airborne. Plus your AI partners are too stupid to do it themselves. My go-to ranged weapon for the force class was a bow. Because I'm a moron. I'd be okay with the slow rate of fire if they lowered the PP drain a bit. God, bows suck.

I have nothing to say about Vanguard since I never tried it. I did play as a Vanguard in my first playthrough of Mass Effect, if that counts. Whatever, moving on.

Let's talk about story mode. First, the "mode" part. This is where you do all your offline questing. Since PSPo2 is a portable dungeon crawl first and a multiplayer game second, you'll probably be doing most of your leveling here. While I'd like to think that there are dedicated groups of friends who engage in meaningful leveling in a well-oiled team dynamic, to me it's a mythical beast like the jackalope or the cute girl who I saw working at Play n Trade that one time but every time I go back there now, the guy from Coheed and Cambria is behind the counter.

Playing through the story missions unlocks Open Missions for you to undertake. These are the missions you'll be playing in multiplayer mode. You can play an open mission at any time as many times as you want in story mode. As you gain levels, you'll unlock higher difficulty ratings for open missions. There are also shop missions where you trade in those materials and badges that are clogging up your bank for useless crap.

The problem is that, while you choose the difficulty for open missions, the difficulty of story missions scales with your level. And they get pretty ridiculous as you go on. The aforelamented squishiness of the Force class has lead to many cheap deaths for poor Candyvan (FUCK NO KNOCKDOWN REPEATING DAMAGE I CAN'T EVEN HEAL THAT FAST AND YOU CAN ONLY CARRY ONE SCAPE DOLL? AND WHEN YOU DIE YOU FAIL THE MISSION ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?), and as such, I've never finished story mode. I got to the last form of the last boss, sure, but fuck it. I'm done.

Story missions dictate your AI partners, and you can choose three to take with you on open missions. You have to get their Partner Cards and invite them as if they were real people in multiplayer mode, which is stupid, but whatever. Due to the class blurring inherit to the game it can be tough to remember where each partner's specialties lie, but they seem capable of fulfilling wide variety of roles.

TOO BAD THEY'RE TO STUPID TO ACTUALLY BE OF ANY USE. Polly complained in her review of the original Phantasy Star Portable that the AI teammates are too aggressive and barely give you the chance to kill anything. Someone at Sega must have caught on, because here they don't do jack shit. Oh, they'll attack stuff, sure, but you have to lead them around like sheep and run nose-first up to the enemy's nutsack before they decide "oh maybe we'd better fight stuff now." Again, for a ranger or a force, how is this in any way a desirable situation? I don't know, maybe they're more aggressive if you put them on the attack behavior. I wouldn't know since I always command them to heal. Which they also don't do! God forbid you get paralyzed or something during a boss fight, you just have to hope that it doesn't buffet you with life bar deleting waves of cheapitude because your "partners" will do nothing to help you! It's like they have a list of priorities to deal with, wherein "Kill targeted enemy" comes first and "heal player" comes second. In a boss fight, one of these things precludes the other, I'm sorry. 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn't scare me anymore, because I now know that AI will never be intelligent enough to turn on its human masters.

Did I mention that in story mode, the enemies almost always aggro on the player character? Fuck, I thought I chucked Sudeki in the trash months ago!

On to the "story" part of story mode. I'm sure everyone is resigned to the fact that Phantasy Star hasn't been about story since 1994. That's fine, I wasn't expecting much of one. You can hold start during story parts or mandatory tutorials to skip ahead to the end, or at least the next dialog option (why even include these if A) the top option is always the "right" one and B) they have no bearing on anything anyway?). But hey, what the hell, let's look at PSPo2's story. I wasn't going to do anything masculine today anyway.

Your character runs into some little girl in a dungeon. Despite being dressed like cheery loli-bait with little hearts and wings on her outfit, she's kind of a bitch. You run into a big bad monster and you die trying to protect Sweet Ophelia or whatever her name is. But lucky for you, she's possessed by an energy being lady who brings you back to life.

Next thing you know, you're conscripted into the crew of a mercenary unit run by a beastman with a sweet beard who happens to be the legal guardian of Amelia Bedelia. He drinks, talks about drinking, and, by the way if you missed it, it has been said that he imbibes substances that may impair his ability to drive a car or operate machinery and may cause health problems. Because alcoholism is funny and cool, rite? There's also a robot hooker who speaks Claremont French, a newman Native American with a fetish for pudding that would make Bill Cosby blush, and a whip-toting dominatrix CEO who has the hots for Mr. Drinky McDrinkerton. Oh, I'm sorry, was that a spoiler? Who cares.

So, it turns out the energy chick possessing Rafflesia is an Ancient (really? An Ancient? Did they get tired of fooling with those assholes from Stargate SG-1 and move to the Gurhal system after a brief detour to the Final Fantasy VII planet?) and there's another Ancient who has possessed the body of the son of some corporate overlord, and said Ancient wants to revive his race by taking over the bodies of the sentient beings living in the Gurhal system. And apparently Evil Ancient and Good Ancient birthed Gurhal's human race so there's some weird motherhood and rape subtext going on.

And the corporate overlords are doing research into subspace in order to cure Gurhal's natural resource problems. But subspace makes the hopes and fears of people come alive, and the fear still on everyone's minds is the SEED, which you may remember if you paid attention to the story of Phantasy Star Universe (all none of you who did). So in a critical scene toward the end of story mode, our heroes go on the news and instruct all citizens of Gurhal to combat evil by: praying really hard! Pray the shit out of that fucking prayer!

The story is stupid. You're only inviting an aneurysm by expecting anything else. Is it worse than Phantasy Star Zero's story? Well, Zero's story was kind of innocuous and childish, kind of "IKKUAYO MINNA!" in spirit but ultimately ignorable. PSPo2's story is just as vapid, but it tries to throw in some dark and mature things, or at least things that are considered dark and mature by teenagers who think they're "so adult" because they got to second base behind the bleachers at a middle school dance. It's like saying that Twilight's story is better than Teletubbies'.

Before I get into the multiplayer aspect, I briefly want to talk about the looky and soundy parts. Graphically it's what you'd expect from the PSP, miles better than the DS, but not nearly up to par with the Playstation 2. Some of the bosses are rather impressive, and there are a lot of stupid little FMVs so you can gape at bishie-villian-who's-not-really-evil-he's-just-possessed's milky smooth chest.

Now in the music department, you're chiefly going to be aware of the score in the menus, like the aforementioned character creation theme, or the main theme of the Little Wing (this game's version of Pioneer 2). Music used in combat areas is tailored to fit the setting, such as spaghetti western horns in desert areas, synth driven stuff for mechanical levels, oriental music for the Japan-clone planet Neudiaz, and so on. It still suffers from the problem that Universe apparently had of the music remaining constant without conditional cues, whereas PSO's score would transition from calm to frantic when you encountered enemies. They even try to evoke PSO nostalgia in a couple of areas that are set up as computer simulations based on old Episode 1 stages and use the classic music, but it stays in the constant "battle" mode the entire time.

Where the soundtrack truly shines like a polished turd, however, is in the OP. Naturally it's typical J-pop schlock, until you realize that, in the chorus, they're actually singing "PHAN-TA-SY STAR U-NI-VERSE!" This is nothing short of lyrical brilliance. Every game should do this. Can you imagine how the rousingly orchestrated scores of Harry Gregson-Williams would be enhanced by a choir emanating the triumphant refrain of "ME-TA-LU GEAR SO-RI-DO!" ? Or if the tranquil greenery of Geno's forest truly did resonate with the sound of "SU-PER MA-RI-O R-P-G" ? This is how you get video games the respect they deserve as an artistic medium, people.

Alright, so you want to play some multiplayer! Please tell me that's why you dropped 40 clams on this, okay? Luckily, it seems like they fixed some of the slowdown problems from Portable 1, as I don't recall it chugging down too terribly bad in games with a full party. Where you do get problems is with the PSP trying to read the game data. There is an option for data install to your memory stick, but even then it feels like it takes longer for elements to load than they should. One area where it really screws you up is changing weapons. When you're first starting mission after booting up the game, expect it to take a couple of seconds when switching to a weapon palette that you haven't used already. This can be murder in dire situation, and overall just smacks of shoddy implementation. I've also been told that disabling visual units, that is, armor enhancements that produce some silly little particle effect on your character like a wave dissipating or sparkles, will mitigate slowdown. Well, good luck getting everyone in your party to do this, especially since visual units usually give you ever valuable stamina boosts.

All of the communication options that you've come to expect from a console-centric online RPG are here, such as preset and customizable text macros. Good thing, that, because entering text on the fly with a hunt and peck keyboard interface will cause you to die of old age and Sega of bankruptcy before you can get five words out. PSPo2 also has auto-text, or macros that will display if certain triggers occur in-game. When first setting everything up, I set "Congratulations" to auto-display if someone leveled up. I promptly forgot about doing that, so when I later accompanied someone just starting out for some good ol' power leveling, I got sick of seeing that pop up every three rooms and I had to turn it off. Although it would be hilarious to get a party to crowd around a player dressed as Shinji Ikari and constantly spam "Congratulations!" while doing the clap emote.

Oh, you think I'm kidding about the Shinji thing. See, it's been in vogue for a while now for Sega to put little codes in the game that unlock free items. I first remember seeing this in Zero. Usually they're codes found in magazines or on professional review sites, but it doesn't matter since they'll all be on PSO World within a week anyway. More often than not they're purely visual items attached to some famous franchise while having little actual gameplay utility. Evangelion plugsuits are just one example, while Vocaloid related crap is also common since Sega published the Vocaloid tie-in rhythm game Project Diva on the PSP. "Prestige" items like this aren't new to Phantasy Star. In PSO there were numerous ways to get a Dreamcast or some Samba de Amigo maracas by fulfilling some overly-elaborate conditions on holiday event quest. But when they're easily obtainable by anyone through punching in a code, then what's the damn point? Polly put it more eloquently than I ever could: "NOW GIMME A DUMB LEEK AND DRESS ME AS COLONEL SANDERS CAUSE I AIN'T GIVE NO FUCK!"

But yeah, anyway, you'd think having text macros on command would eliminate the need for webtard speak. Sure communication would be terse and generic, but at least it would be coherent. Well, maybe not. I particulary recall a beast hunter, probably with a Naruto-related handle (no offense FatKakashi) who would auto-text "UR STRONGER NOW" whenever anyone would level up. Really? Is that what happens when I gain levels?

You're really going to want some alternate method of communication if you plan to play seriously with friends, such as an IM client or a Ventrillo server. I tried the IM thing and while it enabled clear communication, it was kind of awkward having to put the PSP down in order to type. But outside of commuiques like "HEAL ME YOU JERK," I don't think the limited communication is that big of a detriment given the game's mission variety. And by that I mean that there is no mission variety. The same problem that Zero had exists here: every mission objective is "go kill the slightly stronger monster group or boss at the end." You might get a higher rating if you remember every hidden spawn, but it's usually nothing that requires intricate party choreography. Maybe it gets more in depth in Challenge mode, but I've never touched Challenge mode. In any Phantasy Star game.

Please don't castigate me.

In closing, Phantasy Star Portable 2 is... well, portable. And it's Phantasy Star. Well, throwing elf ears and laser swords and just about anything is enough to qualify it as Phantasy Star these days, unless it happens to be Star Ocean. Oh, and it's the second of its kind.

I'm told it fixes a lot of shit that was broken with the original Universe, although it seems like too little to late, which has long been Sega's MO with the franchise. But at worst it's a decent offline diversion, and with the right group it's a fun online hack and slash. That ESRB disclaimer about gameplay experience changing online isn't just legalese to defend the publisher from the actions of griefers, it really means that the right matchups will dramatically affect the amount of fun you're having. You could join a group where nothing happens outside of some jackoff begging you to come to his room, wherein he strips to his underwear and shows off all his stupid room decorations (true story). Or you could encounter a group of friendly and skilled players at random with whom you gel into an effective team dynamic. Or you would beat the boss on a mission and some shithead could go straight for the teleporter, dumping the entire party back to the Little Wing before you've had the chance to collect your item drops (also a true story). Whatever the future holds for you, I hope you're prepared to live this Phantasy life.

Just try not to eat too many tasty KFC Doublicious™ chicken sandwiches.


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