Phantasy Star Portable
by Polly

Oh boy, Phantasy Star Universe. We certainly have a bit of a history, don't we, Phantasy Star Universe? You were the most disappointing game I've ever wasted any portion of my life waiting for and I can't wait to celebrate with the alcohol poisoning that the Skyy vokda will most certainly give me on the day your servers are finally shut down once and for all. Sure, I'll be dead from alcohol poisoning, but I'll be on my way to hell right behind you, just so I can continue writing these hateful things about you on my new website, SocksmakepeopleFUCKITSHOTDOWNHERESONOFABITCH.Net.

Why then, would my first actual game purchase after acquiring a PSP be Phantasy Star Portable? I mean, it's not like the game was trying all that hard to sell me on its premise. Right on the back of the box it boasts...

Now, I'm no marketing genius, but I think that's something I'd wanna keep a little quiet and on the down-low until after someone gets home with my game. Nobody wants to fucking play Phantasy Star Universe in the first place, so telling them they can play it anywhere at anytime? What the hell does that even accomplish?

If it were me, and I absolutely HAD to be the one to write up the tagline for this game, I'd make only one simple change...

"Phantasy Star" by itself still invokes a case of the warm-fuzzies in some of us. Phantasy Star I-IV are fucking classics! Now, when someone unfortunately happens across this game and gets that case of the warm-fuzzies, it's just going to bite them in the ass when they get home and crack the game open, voiding their ability to return it to any retailer these days for any kind of refund. You morons could have sold at least 15-20 more copies with that kind of deception.

But again, it's not like you had to, right? You got my $15, didn't you? And again, the question is asked, why the fuck would I buy something I hate so much? I'm a goddamn idiot! At this point, I wholeheartedly believe that my idiocy knows no Earthly bounds. Of ALL the good PSP games that are out there (and fuck you, there are quite a few), I went with Phantasy Fuck Star Universe. Willingly. Sega didn't even hold a gun to my head this time. That really should tell you a whole hell of a lot more about me than you should ever feel comfortable knowing.

Despite all my PSU bitching, I have a strange confession to make. I actually enjoyed PSU's original version 1 offline Story Mode. Not because it had a great story or anything (because it was more stupidumbshit to hate about that game entirely) and not because Ethan Waber isn't a gigantic toolbag. (Seriously, check out the official diagram) It's because the progression of how your character leveled up, increased Photon Arts, and overall difficulty curve were all actually decently balanced and playing through the whole thing was actually fairly enjoyable just from the combat experience. The sad part is it felt more put together in some ways than the actual online game did. It was a competent single-player hack and slash RPG with only a few really muddy spots. Since Phantasy Star Portable doesn't feature any type of online infrastructure (all multiplayer play is handled via Ad Hoc or Ad Hoc Party on PS3), I figured that playing through another Story Mode with decent'ish combat and progression would at least make my $15 worth it in the end.

The story itself is just as dumb as ever, however this time you're the only gigantic toolbag you get to play as. Hooray! After creating your toolbag, you're thrust into the story as a wet-behind-the-ears GUARDIAN and paired up with a new CAST prototype named Vivienne. She's a new type of robot that can process and project emotion. You probably already know how this is going to turn out. You'll spend most chapters of the game dealing with rogues and SEED infestations without a whole hell of a lot going on. A few new story characters are introduced as well, but again, the whole story is DERP. Its presentation is fucking terrible, rife with some of the most awful voice acting I've heard in a game in recent years and the static images used for when characters are talking are 2D pictures of 3D models that looked and emoted terribly in the first place. The portraits look so cheap and tacky that they'd have done better to have left them out.

Otherwise, graphically, Phantasy Star Portable's visuals are on-par with their original PSU counterparts, since they're just ripped directly from the original game. And in typical Sega fashion anything touted as "new" is just a simple reskin of something that already existed. I'm not entirely sure what to think about its presentation overall, though. Is it a testament to how well the PSP handles 3D and that it accurately re-creates a 128-bit system's 3D worlds with only some minor draw-in here and there? Or is Sega's inability to produce something a handheld couldn't handle what I should be looking at? I'm gonna go ahead and go with the second one because, in all honesty, PSU's visuals were always fairly generic, bland, and recycled to hell and back, so it's likely not any large feat on the PSP's part. And since I've seen the PSP do some stunning 3D with nary a sign of slowdown, I won't blame PSP's immense amount of it on the system either.

Normally, in single-player mode, the game runs at roughly 25-30 frames per second. This, however, is only when it's just you and maybe another AI partner. Three or more people on your entire team, plus the large number of enemies that the game can hurl at you at times, and the game suffers incredible slowdown. So much slowdown, that it becomes almost impossible to time the use of timed-critical hits (named Just Attacks) and the second and third combos of certain Photon Arts on a regular basis. The designers clearly didn't give too much of a shit about this issue though, since many of the story-based missions pack your team full on a regular basis.

The REAL slowdown issues come into play in Multiplayer Mode. No matter how many people are on your team, the game switches to an auto-frameskip, dropping the frames-per-second rate to a flat 20. Hey, PSU needed frameskip in the first place though, right? So, though the frame drop is noticeable, it's not jerky enough to make things too unmanageable. Sadly, it's just not enough. Even with the hard limit frameskip, there's an unforgivable amount of slowdown in multiplayer games. I daresay that games involving four people are just fucking unbearable, if not unplayable. How they put this out and thought it would be acceptable is fucking fascinating. Did NOBODY test this shit? Oh wait, I know the answer to that already.

Sound and music is basically everything from PSU with a few new tunes or tweaks to existing ones. PSU's soundtrack was never really bad or anything, it's just mis-used and under utilized across the board. Nothing's really changed here other than the addition of abysmal voice acting for every scene in the game, but I've already talked about that and it doesn't bear repating.

On the surface, Phantasy Star Portable is what I like to refer to as "Stage 2 of the Un-Derpification of Phantasy Star Universe." The original expansion pack (or "Stage 1 of the Un-Derpification...") on PC/PS2/360, Ambition of the Illuminous, did a lot to try and fix a severely broken and un-fun game, but it really wasn't enough and didn't add fucking anything of value. In all honestly it broke the game even more in some regards. Phantasy Star Portable takes it a few steps further by completely removing systems in the game that were entirely fucking stupid or ridiculously unforgiving, but in the end it still fails to add any sort of non-recycled content. Think of it as sort of a PSU without a lot of the bullshit.

You no longer have to spend days and weeks on end feeding your Partner Machine. You just select one when creating your character. Weapon Synthesis is out and you can now buy and find all of your gear, pre-made, with random Photon percentages just like Phantasy Star Online. Items actually have reasonable drop rates now, so you won't be grinding out 15-minute missions for as many hours at a time. The game gives an absurd amount of Mission Points for completing any mission with a decent grade, making Job-leveling quicker and much more painless. Photon Arts don't take years to level to their maximum potential and don't require much spamming to gain a few levels on a mission at all. That's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the improvements that the portable version makes to PSU's stupidly flawed systems.

As I've already mentioned, I bought Phantasy Star Portable because I figured at least the Story Mode might be enough to justify the purchase. Again, I was a fucking idiot. Perhaps my biggest gripe with Phantasy Star Portable is the fact that it seems to be doing everything in its power in your first few hours of playing it to fucking bore you to tears. One of my biggest gripes is that your AI teammates in the early levels are just too fucking powerful. I know that may sound like a really weird thing to make light of, but the problem is that when starting out, it makes a terrible first impression for the game. Again, the offline Story Mode is the main reason I bought the game in the first place, but the NPCs manage to fuck it up to the point of being unplayable...because they WON'T LET ME FUCKING PLAY!

To give an example of how "helpful" your partner AI is in the early going, I played through the third and fouth missions of Story Mode letting the NPCs do all the work while just talking to people on AIM and moving my character to the next area. A lot of the time, there's no point in trying to fight enemies at lower levels, because your NPCs steal your kills at such a ridiculous rate. Furthermore, if you're unable to land a single blow on an enemy creature (and this will happen A LOT), you don't get any EXP for it. The only way you can level up early on in the game is to run Free Missions where NPCs are optional, but you still have to play Story mode in order to unlock them. The whole thing is a massively unenjoyable chore, playing through the awful parts of the game to unlock the parts that you can enjoy. The NPC issue does settle down a bit once you move to higher-grade missions and is a complete non-issue in Multiplayer Mode, but for a first impression this is just unbelievably boring. I put the game down for a week and didn't come back to it because of this very issue. I have to question how testing didn't realize how un-fucking-enjoyable this situation could become.

There's always Multiplayer Mode, right? Well, of course, but again you're better off either playing these missions by yourself or bringing along only one more person, at most, because of the frame rate issues. Looking past those issues for a moment, all four areas of the game have a surprising amount of free missions across four difficulties to play in, which are all plucked from the original game. These missions dole out a decent amount of experience and Mission Points, and the drop rates are tolerable. So, unlike the original game, you won't spend hours on end grinding out the same fucking mission because the item you want never drops or avoiding certain areas because the experience and mission rewards aren't worth it. Eventually though, you are going to run out of missions to play, and because Sega is a bunch of ridiculous [REDACTED]tards, the game doesn't include any of the free downloadable content that was available to the Japanese players of the game. The time you can squeeze out of this game is already severely limited, so cutting extra content and not making it available to outside territories in any way is just like Sega BEGGING you to give up faster than you actually would.

I honestly can't understand how they fucked up thi....I won't finish that sentence, because I KNOW EXACTLY how they fucked up this bad. It's a Sega product. These days, that's all you really need to know. Phantasy Star Portable isn't necessarily as horrid as its grown-up counterparts, and I will admit that it can be fun in very short bursts, but it's ultimately buried under its faults. If they'd addressed the fucking framerate issues and gimped the partner AI a little (after all these years of Phantasy Star online games having the worst AI ever demonstrated, I can't believe I'm still typing this!), I feel I could have gotten a slight bit of enjoyment out of it. But in the end, I hate it only slightly less than Phantasy Star Universe. The kicker? This shit sold over 200,000 copies in its first week alone when it was released in Japan, and was the 16th highest-selling game of 2008.

It had so many chances to say, "Hey guys, Phantasy Star Universe can be salvaged, just look what we did here," and though it comes close, it doesn't have the strength to overcome the sheer amount of DERRRRRP and godawful performance issues that it's buried under.

Sega recently released Phantasy Star Portable 2 in Japan and having played the demo, they're certainly on the right track to correcting PSU's remaining faults and I'm happy to say that they've addressed all the issues with this game's lack of playability. Phantasy Star Portable 2 has potential to be a fun game that's a whole new take on PSU's existing systems and new character advancement systems, but I can honestly say that it's likely too late in the game (FOUR YEARS TOO LATE!) to really get all that excited. We'll find out if/when it releases stateside.

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