Home > Reviews, Video Games > Review: Phantasy Star Portable 2 (PSP)

Review: Phantasy Star Portable 2 (PSP)

It’s always interesting to chart the evolution of a series, watching how each sequel or spinoff builds on what was made before, hopefully improving the existing formula or taking the series in a whole new direction. Phantasy Star Universe was the latter of this, taking Phantasy Star Online’s modest success and creating a whole new world and game system for it. After two expansions and one portable version, Phantasy Star Portable 2 for the PSP feels like the final draft of the Universe formula.

The leap forward from Universe to Portable 2 is staggering. The most significant change comes in the way that special moves are executed. Previous games used an “ammo” system, tracking the power left in each individual weapon. Though created to encourage a wide selection of weaponry- the Universe system offers a simple way to switch weapons on the fly- it ended up disadvantaging ranged fighters (who used up ammo with even basic actions) and encouraged you to spam special attacks. Portable 2 has replaced this with a universal “stamina” system that limits the number of special actions you can take in rapid succession, offering just the kind of flexibility and balance the system needs.

The second most significant change is the addition of defensive moves to your arsenal. Drawing from the same “stamina” gauge as your weapons, you can dodge attacks with a well timed roll or parry attacks with certain weapons. Not content with leaving it that simple, Portable 2 ups the ante by allowing you to nullify damage or even reflect it with a well-timed button press. Such an elementary addition has been a long time coming, and changes the way you do battle: enemies are much quicker and more vicious with their attacks, now that they know you have more means to defend yourself.

The class system has been completely revamped. Previous Universe titles didn’t put much of an emphasis on which of the three classes- Hunter, Ranger or Force- you chose, encouraging instead a kind of jack-of-all-trades build. Portable 2 makes it significant by including class-specific abilities that you can learn and equip on your character as you level up. But the flexibility of previous games is not lost: not only can you freely change class (for a trivial amount of money) but you can equip any ability you’ve learnt on any class. Furthermore, each level gives you “Extend Points” which allow you to pick and choose just what weapons your character can wield. Nothing is off-limits, provided you have the Extend Points. A fourth class is introduced to the existing three: Vanguard, a dedicated generalist class.

Skills have returned to the way of Phantasy Star Online, in that the only way to learn and level up skills is to find and use the equivalent disc. This is where my first complaint comes in, in that it is frustrating to have no way to level up a favourite skill but to hope for a good drop. In Online, there were fifteen or so different skills; in Portable 2, it’s closer to one hundred, resulting in a level of dilution so thin that finding the right disc amongst the piles available becomes a chore.

The level of customisation available is the best yet, giving your avatar a wealth of options and hairstyles right from the get-go. The designs- especially the default designs for each of Portable 2‘s four races- have strayed somewhat from the distinctive to the utterly insane: the kind of J-rock designs fuelled by the tears of frustrated cosplayers. The default female Newman is a pink-afro-wearing loli straight out of a magical girl anime (with a costume that brazenly displays her panties) and the default female Beast has some kind of flowery orgasm erupting from her body. While most of the game’s wardrobe consists of sensible- if stylish- designs, the few crazy outfits it has really stand out, as well as the usual fetishistic ensemble of maid outfits and sailor suits. In response to popular fan request, Portable 2 is also the first game to let you dress your avatar in the same clothes as the storyline NPCs from various Universe games.

Previous Universe games have tried to include a story mode but have always fallen short. The original Universe saddled you with a bland main character and an even blander storyline. The expansion made your avatar the “main character”, but relegated you to playing second-fiddle to another character. The first portable game did much the same thing, though was less blatant about it. Portable 2’s storyline finally achieved a balance between PC and NPC: blonde-haired ditz Emilia shares the spotlight with your avatar, with other characters frequently highlighting your importance and contribution to the plot. Your character is a freelance mercenary (and thanks to the wonders of save-importing, can be the same character you played in Portable) who is trapped in a ruins site with the lazy and unmotivated Emilia. Your attempt to escape the ruins ends with you taking a lethal blow meant for her, and the awakening of a strange power within the girl. The next thing you know, you’ve been plucked from the ruins by the leader of the private security company that Emilia belongs to, and drafted into their ranks.

As Emilia’s partner, it’s your job to train her up and pull her out of the rut she’s in. There’s also a larger plot involving subspace travel, some weird metaphysical stuff and a centuries-long Evil Plan that’s about to reach its sinister conclusion. The story is set years after “Episode 3” of the Universe arc, and if you’ve only played the offline games then you’ll find a bit of a gap in your knowledge (as Episode 3 was only available online). The game tries to fill in some of the gaps with an in-game encyclopedia,  but I was left wanting. The characters of Portable 2 are vibrant and memorable, and everyone develops at a nice pace. Emilia herself is a far better partner character than those of the previous games, due to being much more personable and never too overbearing. Like Portable, the game occasionally throws dialogue options your way that help to define your character, though also like Portable they serve no purpose but to decide what ending you get. Again like Portable, the requirements for the best ending demand close to perfection, though Portable 2 does allow you to repeat missions and grind the relationship points required.

Special mention should be given to the strength of the script, which is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. When other games have attempted to insert trendy “internet” lingo and Buffyspeak into their stories, it tends to come off as awkward and out of place. In Portable 2, it’s seamless and perfectly in keeping with the characters’ personalities. Emilia comes off as a typical, contemporary teenage girl- not an older person trying to sound like one- and it adds to her likeability immensely. Although the original game was fully-voiced, Portable 2 only dubs battle grunts and the CGI cutscenes. This was a good move in my opinion: since the first game, the Universe games have generally had inconsistent voice acting, partially due to casting relative unknowns in major roles. Limiting the amount of voice acting allows for the script to really show its strength- I miss the days when you had to read text and imagine the voices in your mind- and polishes the characters’ voices by restricting them to little soundbites. Though by the end I had to wonder what Emilia’s voice actress thought of her character: in every voiced cutscene she’s either crying or whining!

The main story will take around twenty hours to complete, but Portable 2 contains an absolute wealth of optional content. There’s at least twenty five optional missions (with four difficulty levels, each carrying their own monsters and rewards) and although some are recycled from previous games, there’s plenty to keep you interested for the long haul. One very nice touch is that the description for each mission tells you how long it is going to be, meaning that you can easily pick missions to accommodate your play time. What’s more, finishing the main story mode unlocks Hard Mode, a super-tough version of the main storyline missions that features higher-level enemies, stricter success parameters and greater rewards.

The game is welcoming and accessible, taking you through the ropes with a very simple (though mandatory) tutorial section at the beginning of the game. NPCs helpfully fill you in on the deeper portions of gameplay, and all the basic moves- special attacks, dodging, blocking- can be carried out at the push of a button. If I do have one complaint, it’s that it’s awkward to control the camera using the directional pad while you’re using the analogue pad to move. Although the game lets you lock onto enemies, the camera neglects to follow your gaze and will often cause you to swing wildly at your target off-screen. The main gameplay is simple and repetitive, with one exception: the bosses remain as tough as ever; multi-layered monstrosities that call back to a time where boss battles were a trial of learning attack patterns, weak points, and dying over and over again until you got it right.

I would call this the definitive version of Phantasy Star Universe, but the fact is that a expansion has already been announced: Phantasy Star Portable 2 Infinity, which will include a new race, storyline and content. Disregarding that, Phantasy Star Portable 2 is a superb conglomeration of all the best ideas that the Universe game system came up with, and gets a grade of Highly Recommended from me. If Portable 2 Infinity builds on this success to produce an even better game, all the better for it. Portable 2 succeeds as a portable hack-and-slash game, a multiplayer game and as a solid stand-alone JRPG.

  1. October 20, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    I love the online Phantasy Star games, and I will be thrilled the day I get to play PSP2 (Wish I hope will be soon enough!)

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