|System: PSP||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Alpha System||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: SEGA||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: March 3, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-4||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Nathan Meunier
The Phantasy Star series has undergone some serious changes, since its Sega Master System debut in the late 1980s. While it eventually broke from the more traditional sci-fi/fantasy RPG roots that won so many players over in the first four games in favor of a MMORPG format, the series eventually settled on a gameplay mixture that combined a strong solo campaign with expansive online multiplayer worlds in Phantasy Star Universe and its expansion, Ambition of the Illuminus.
Drawing substantially from those two titles, Phantasy Star Portable is heavy on the customization, loot hunting, and sci-fi dungeon-crawling but skimps out on the presentation. With an unspectacular tale, often repetitive gameplay, and a handful of other issues, this handheld action-RPG may make some players ache for a return to the series' early days of 8-bit glory. Even so, it has some redeeming qualities beyond its portability, particularly if you like to pound buttons, kill scores of beasts, and collect lots of shiny things.
Before delving into either the solo or multiplayer modes, you'll create a character from the ground up. The level of customizability you're given in creating your character's appearance, and in modifying their outfits and gear later in the game, is absolutely insane. After picking from male and female variations of four different races, you can tweak your character from head to toe. You can change their face shape and look, eyebrows and eyelashes, ears, skin color, hairstyle and color, undergarment color, physical proportions, clothing, voice types and pitch. Each category has tons of options to choose from. You'll also pick your starting job and a partner machine to help you in battle. Of course, this is all before you even get into the meat of the game itself. Phantasy Star Portable features tons of items, weapons, outfits, gizmos, and other goodies to deck out your character's appearance and abilities in battle. Customization features certainly aren't new in handheld games, but Phantasy Star Portable takes things to the extreme - in a good way.
Taking place in the Gurhal Star System just after Phantasy Star Universe and before Ambition of the Illuminus, the story in Portable fires up when native beasts begin showing signs of infection by the alien SEED. As a rookie GUARDIAN recruit partnered with Vivienne, an upgraded CAST model who struggles at coping with being a robot capable of expressing human emotion, you'll help investigate terrorist activity tied into the re-emergence of the once-contained SEED. Unfortunately, the story serves as little more than a thin justification for hopping from planet-to-planet on arbitrary missions to slay evil beasts and take their goodies. While that's fine for some gamers, the fact much of the tale is presented through uninspired, static 2D portraits and text boxes married with grating voice-overs exacerbates the problem.
Phantasy Star Portable's gameplay centers on action-oriented dungeon-hack missions. After you've formed a party for a particular mission and stocked up on supplies at the planetary hub, your group is dropped into a "dungeon" (the visual themes vary from grassy forests and caves to tech-laden interior structures) and must fight its way out. While some areas have you collecting keys to access locked laser gates, most of the time you'll battle your way through numerous areas, slaying foes, collecting goods, and then tackling a boss battle at the end. Certain missions advance the story, but you'll also have the option to take on side missions to level-up your party and hunt for items. In some instances, you're forced to explore a few regular missions while waiting a set time for a story mission to open up. This formula cycles steadily throughout the game. It's repetitive, yet players with a fondness for loot-hunting and level-grinding will appreciate how much the game leans on those elements and manages to pull them off quite well. The story itself may not push you to dump dozens of hours into the adventure but searching tirelessly for new weapons, rare equipment, special outfits, and other gear will.
Monsters and other foes will pop-up as you explore mission dungeons, and real-time battles engage seamlessly. In single-player mode, you're A.I.-controlled party members will run around blasting and hacking at enemies and using support magic with varying degrees of ability - generally straddling the line between helpfulness and ineptness.