Phantasy Star Zero (Nintendo DS) - Review by Chris
The Phantasy Star games have been around since the days of the Megadrive, with some even now available to download through the Virtual Console service, and while early titles focused on a more story heavy game for single player play, more recent games have pushed into the online play spectrum, losing the focus of story in place of multiplayer gameplay. As the first attempt at bringing the series to one of Nintendo's handhelds, the Sega developed and published Phantasy Star Zero aims to find a common ground between both styles. But have Sega bitten off more than they can chew with this one?
Phantasy Star Zero takes place on an alternative Earth. 200 years have passed since there was a great battle between gods, known only as The Great Blank, which devastated the planet and left it in ruin. Since then, the sole survivors of the war, the Humans, have begun to reclaim land once lost to the ravages of the Great Blank and set up civilisation so as to create and maintain a prosperous life for those currently living and those yet to come. Yet while pockets of civilisation are being built by the Humans, much of Earth lies in ruins and no one knows the true extent of the story behind the devastation. As such, groups of people known simply as Hunters head out into the wild in the hope of discovering the truth while also acting as the defensive front line by hunting down dangerous monsters. This, as the gamer, is where you come in.
To begin with, you pick one of a selection of 14 available characters, split between the three races of Humans, Casts and Newmen, and customise them to your own want, selecting from a decent number of options for armour type and colour amongst other things. From here, you'll enter into the world of Phantasy Star Zero where you become a novice Hunter looking to make it big and so begin training with more experienced characters to help improve your skills. The in game training doesn't take the form of a tutorial like most games, rather it gives you access to the style of gameplay you'll encounter throughout the lengthy campaign. This gameplay comes in the form of quests, where you'll accept quests which become unlocked progressively from a bounty office and then use the city's teleporter to transport out into the wilderness and hunt down monsters or find objects which propel the story forward. In the beginning, there are only a few quests available, each of which really will push you to improve your character and get to grips with the gameplay as quickly as possible, but as you go on, more and more become available leading to a very lengthy experience, with it differing across the three main races available.
As mentioned, the gameplay comes in the form of quests which have you walking around environments trying to find your objective. In the field, you have access to two main attacks, a standard and a strong attack, as well as a dodge ability. Utilising these, along with items and magic spells if your character is capable of using them, is key to surviving your endeavours. If you've played any of the modern Phantasy Star games, you'll understand the premise of the action right from the beginning as attacking monsters works similarly to how it does in those games. Carefully timing your button presses leads to combos being generated and allows you to rack up more damage but the timing for these is something which takes a little while to get used to. The lack of signposting throughout the quests, however, can severely hamper progression as you will at times find yourself aimlessly wandering around without a clue as to which direction you need to head in to find what you need. It becomes slightly more frustrating when characters join your team for quests and offer little in the way of guidance and similarly show little in the way of intelligence when it comes to battles.
As you work your way through the quests in the single player, they become available for play in either the local wireless or online multiplayer options. The modern games have really pushed these features and Sega have done extremely well in implementing a solid experience here. Through either local multiplayer or online, you can team up with 3 friends to tackle quests and hunt for loot and gear with it running incredibly smoothly on Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection, employing the dreaded Friend Code system to team up with friends although you are able to team up with random people as well. While voice chat isn't supported, Sega have implemented a Visual Chat system that allows you to create, store and share messages within players online when questing to help coordinate attacks and progression but the system only works when playing with people on your friends list and when not, you'll have to make use of some pre-made text sentences. It's a slight discrepancy the draws away from an otherwise robust and well implemented online experience, which may perhaps be the strongest on the DS to date.
The entirety of the game is controlled through the use of the d-pad and the various face buttons on the console, although small instances of touch screen control are used for more insignificant tasks. As usual, movement is assigned to the d-pad but for better or worse, the movement seems restricted to 8 directional inputs and while it doesn't necessarily make it overly difficult to navigate environments, the lack of a more open control over your movements is a little on the restricting side, especially when attacks can only be landed on enemies if you are facing them virtually dead-on.
Outside of movement, you have three main button uses at your disposal: one for a standard attack, one for a heavy attack and the other for dodging. Holding the right shoulder button brings up a secondary menu of buttons which can have items or attacks assigned to them as they become available and these are carried out by pressing the same buttons as your standard 3 options. It's the standard Phantasy Star affair then, at least when it comes to the modern iterations, but people may not like the way in which the combo system works, relying heavily on well timed consecutive button presses and feeling very archaic in comparison to other action RPGs.
Camera control is an issue in the game, with the L button taking this responsibility. Yet it only snaps the camera behind your character when they change direction and there is no free movement of it outside of this meaning at times, you'll lose sight of an enemy or be unable to position yourself properly for fighting.
As game visuals go on the handheld, Phantasy Star Zero is a very impressive looking game. Character and enemy models show a high level of detail, both through their designs and through their animations managing to keep within the standard 3D Phantasy Star style but also providing enough variety to make it look unique in this department. The sheer scale of some of models, particularly some of the boss encounters, as well as the variety show how impressive the game really is with its character models.
Environments are grid based, with each area having an exit that passes into another, although many areas have multiple exits to numerous areas. It does confine much of the action into smaller chunks but the game is better for it. Yet, while there is some variety in the environments, the same level of detail seen in the character models isn't fully represented here, with blocky backgrounds and an overuse of hues of brown and environmental jargon kept to a minimum outside of boxes and fences. Yet for all of these slight drawbacks, coming as a result of the hardware constraints, the game is prone to a drop in the frame rate from time to time and in a game such as Phantasy Star, it can be problematic especially in some of the bigger battles.
Aside from a scant few helpings of new pieces of music and sound effects, virtually everything you'll hear while playing the game is taken directly from prior instances of the Phantasy Star games. It's disappointing to say the least but it gets the job done, albeit done to a lower quality of sound than we've come to expect on the DS. Just don't expect to be wowed by the soundtrack as it merely paints a background to mirror the quests and action taking place.
The anime cutscenes, of which there are a few and of a very good quality, are all fully voiced, with the voice work being done to a good standard and it complimenting each of the characters.
The game makes great use of the DS' dual screen capabilities. All of the action takes place on the top screen while the touch screen is used to show the map but at the same time allowing for touch input for writing messages and creating tactics during online and offline play.
Sega has done a great job at bringing a very robust online experience to the DS in the form of Phantasy Star Zero. Impressive visuals, plenty of gameplay to delve into in the single player and that already mentioned fantastic 4 player online makes for a great experience on the handheld. But, at the same time, small issues hold the game back from being as good as it could have been and the unfortunate instance of Phantasy Star not being particularly portable friendly will mean some won't be around to see all the game has to offer. As it is though, Phantasy Star Zero is another fantastic addition to the DS' RPG library and perhaps the definitive cooperative online experience on the console.
Pro: Impressive character models and anime cutscenes, huge amount of gameplay, fantastic 4 player online
Con: Controls and camera can be very frustrating, frame rate issues, not a particularly portable friendly experience
Final score: 8.2