The universe of Phantasy Star has always been a unique one. Its refreshing sci-fi style breaks the swords 'n' sorcery RPG mold. Phantasy Star Online's networked approach was highly addictive and gave fans a reason to fall in love with the series all over again. But, no matter how stunning Phantasy Star Online was, gamers love single-player, story-driven RPGs. The intended solution was Phantasy Star Universe, which promised to contain both fully-realized story and online modes, to give fans everything they've ever wanted.
Unfortunately, this isn't the case.
The first thing you have to understand about Phantasy Star Universe is that the story mode isn't up to speed - this is no Final Fantasy -killer. For a game that covers three whole planets, it's a letdown that conquering the universe will take you about twenty hours. Planet exploration is minimal - typically, there is one town and less than a handful of dungeons, picked off of a map screen. It makes it all seem small and limited, which is polar opposite of what this "universe" promises us.
You'll be in control of Ethan Waber, a trainee who eventually becomes part of an organization intent on purifying the universe. The beginning of Ethan's quest is quite interesting, actually, when an unknown alien force called SEED attacks.
Over the course of the game's chapters, however, you'll quickly notice a very predictable structure: you get a mission from your captain, you reach the end of a dungeon, a few story sequences happen, and then a new chapter begins. Out of all twelve chapters, the story really doesn't start doing anything until... well, the end. By then, it's just too late to give a damn.
Don't think for a second that the plot's recovered by likable characters either - the main character alone will make you wish he had half the mettle of the leads from the old days. The voice acting is grating as well. The other characters feel like add-ons, and the few attempts at characterization are quite weak.
If that wasn't enough, the areas and dungeons in this one-player mode are exactly the same as what you get when you play online, except this time your allies aren't real - just really dumb. Going through all these dungeons with the ill-behaved, computer-controlled party members quickly gets tiresome. The dungeons themselves are pretty run-of-the-mill too - the objectives are usually nothing more than killing enemies in one room, then advancing to the next room to repeat the process. These dungeons work well online, but for a solo adventure, it's boring. In the end, it feels like a poor man's .hack. We're guessing Sega's intention was for the story mode to be played first, almost like a tutorial, but it just doesn't work.
You'll begin to forget the pain when you head online - you'll probably want to skip the story mode altogether, in fact. The missions and areas are exactly the same, but playing them with your buddies makes a world - or even a universe - of difference.
For those who adventured on the Dreamcast, GameCube or Xbox, online mode plays a lot like the original Phantasy Star Online. Rather than a massively multiplayer online game (like World of Warcraft on PC) the game puts you into teams of two to six players that quest through dungeons, fighting enemies in action-based battle. The exploration is speedy, and the battle can get really intense if you fill up the party up to its maximum of six players.
Fans of PSO looking for more of the same are going to be delighted with the minor improvements found in PSU, but ultimately it's more of the same. In a five-year time-span, we were hoping for it to have evolved more than "barely at all." There are only three character classes, for example: Hunters (warriors who fight with bladed weapons), Rangers (guns) and Forces (magic).
Sega decided to not open the entire game up just yet either, even though all quests are available in the story mode. In fact, one of the three planets is completely inaccessible at this time. The online experience therefore feels limited, especially if you've already been through everything offline. Still, even with its downsides, it can be a great deal of fun with the right people. The game's interface is rather clunky, and although you get used to it, some things are just more of a hassle than they should be - such as browsing other users' shops. We expect there to be a fair amount of potential in raising your character over the long run, but at the same time we're not totally optimistic given the glitches and general lack of improvement over PSO.
Visually, the game's grounded by its PlayStation 2 origins - for the Xbox 360, we were hoping for it to be a lot cleaner around the edges. When the action gets hairy, the game can stutter, too. Thankfully, when playing, you're treated to some enjoyable music - a suitable mix of techno and orchestra. Serious problems with voice chat bugs also plagued our time online; hopefully these get ironed out soon. We haven't encountered any serious lag issues so far. You'll have to spend $9.99 a month to play, as well.
Phantasy Star Universe, in the end, is just more of the same thing: simple dungeon crawling. It's fun online; it's not fun offline. This is a hard one to rate, as it's pretty convoluted. It ultimately depends on what type of experience you're looking for when you load it up. If you're looking for an adventure you can enjoy with friends online, then this will definitely do the trick. If you want a single-player epic, though, we can't find any justification to travel to this universe.