There are certain things we expect in portable games. Quick bursts of gameplay and enough variety to hold our attention until the next stop are crucial elements to gaming on the commute. Hey, even being able to pause is nice. Phantasy Star Portable neglects all of these ideas.
Above: All screens are from the Japanese version
In exchange, it mercifully nixes the painfully paced progression of Phantasy Star Universe in favor of speedy leveling and upgrading. The quality of weapons, armor and bikini swimsuits you’ll find beneath enemy corpses has been significantly improved over its predecessor, so there’s a quick clip to the gear-getting as well. But don’t get too excited: the problems that plagued PSU, as well as a couple of new ones, have slipped their way into the PSP sequel.
When playing Phantasy Star Portable, headphones are about the worst thing you could cram in your ears this side of a screwdriver. The thinly laid out “Uh-oh, Space Terrorists” story is conveyed through intolerably awful voice acting that begs to be skipped. Once you’ve suffered through the too-long chat sessions between images of talking heads and text boxes you can finally get to the guts of the game: monster hunting and loot-whoring.
The similarly structured story and side missions often clock in around 30 minutes each, and the funneled paths you’ll trek are littered with identical enemies. If you fall victim to a cheap one-hit-kill attack when you finally reach a stage’s big, bad boss, the restrictive save system and absence of checkpoints forces you to restart the entire level. Because your AI allies are almost entirely useless, don’t expect healing or offensive help along the way, either. Instead, they’ll ask “did you get lost?” while you’re being hacked to bits by a giant robot’s laser katana.
As you can imagine, this is all incredibly frustrating.
Yet Phantasy Star Portable remains extremely compelling. With destructible objects and enemies harboring sweet treasure, be it gold or gear, we were happily mashing away on the square and triangle buttons to hack ‘n slash our way through the stylized sci-fi settings. While level layouts are recycled throughout, the neon glow and futuristic, Asian-influenced architecture gives Phantasy Star an awesome cyberpunk aesthetic. There are tons of kickass clothes to wear, too, so your customizable character will always have a cool, unique look.
Like the dungeons, combat is also limited. But the “Action Palette” lets you easily swap between five weapon load-outs with a tap of the circle button, allowing you to effectively take down specific baddies with speed or power at your preferred range. The races, Humans, CASTs, Newmans and Beasts boast unique stats that can be further broken down by one of three jobs: Hunters, who like intimate situations and swords, Rangers, which keep their distance with bows and guns, and Force, who favor special abilities over assault.
The lack of an online mode in PS Portable means you’re stuck with ad hoc gaming, which is silly considering that it’s obviously built for lengthy, at-home sessions. Considering how poorly the local multiplayer runs with just two dungeon runners, however, infrastructure isn’t a viable option.
Phantasy Star Portable’s arenas offer loads of loot if you’re in need of satisfying a role-playing craving. The problem is that it’s designed for extended sessions rather than portable play, and you’ll spend as much time talking about a rabbit-eared robot’s feelings as you will slaughtering legions of monsters.
Mar 16, 2009