There comes a time in a man’s life when he goes back to something that brought him such joy in his childhood. This could be to reflect on the nostalgic bliss of the franchise they love, or it could be just to have fun enjoying something they have long cherished. To me, Phantasy Star Online is a bit of both. I loved it as a pre-teen and had fond memories of it, and I still love it today. So, let’s you and me travel back to the long forgotten year of 2003 and reflect upon something I consider to be a grand treasure.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, there are some things you need to know about this game. For one thing, it is available on Gamecube, Dreamcast, the original X-Box, and PC. Unfortunately, these games are immensely hard to find nowadays. Even if you do find them, you’d only be able to play the offline versions of these games. There is a workaround though, but it requires the usage of a PC. You see, due to the positive fan reception of this beloved series there are several fan-run private servers. These servers usually have the game available for download on PC.
Keep in mind, I DO NOT CONDONE PIRACY. However, you cannot find these games anymore and Sega will most likely never release them. I only support the downloading of the game’s installer as a way of preserving the game as an art-form. If Sega does re-release the original PSO games in some capacity, I highly reccomend getting the paid versions. As of now, the only way to play these games are through an installer or through buying copies with jacked-up online prices. Also, MMOs run on private servers tend to flare up anti-virus programs. Always be careful when downloading any program and be sure the source is trusted. There are many PSO private servers that are on the level but due to the coding of the program would most likely screw with your anti-virus program. I am using such a private server so I can give you guys a full examination of what the game used to be. The server I am using is Ephinea and I find it to be safe. Again though, always be wary of what you download. Scan files, look through forum posts, and make sure everything is fine.
Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst features three different episodes with different storylines: Episodes 1,2, & 4. What about Episode 3? Episode 3 is actually its own separate game entirely. The plot of episode 1 of PSO is that after destruction of the protagonist’s home-world, humankind (And robots and elves) set off into space to look for a new planet. The Pioneer Project is started and eventually the humans find a new suitable planet. Pioneer 1 settles on the planet named “Ragol” and all is good for a while. However, when Pioneer 2 tries to connect to Pioneer 1, a giant explosion occurs on the surface of the planet. Pioneer 2 loses contact with Pioneer 1 as a result of this. The Principal than decides to send down “Hunters” (Who are the player’s character) in order to find out the truth about this bizarre event. Once on the surface, you fight off the various species of wild-life and eventually happen across a mystery that threatens to destroy all of humanity.
Episode 2 tasks you with travelling back to Ragol to investigate a secret laboratory. You end up doing some VR training sessions before you are thrust into yet another death-defying fight against every gruesome creature Ragol can throw at you. Episode 4 is more of a mini-expansion and focuses primarily on side-content unlike the last 2 episodes. Episode 4 involves a comet nearly smashing into Pioneer 2 and you being sent down to investigate it. The stories in these games are mainly told through logs left by characters o by computer terminals found scattered about. It’s not an extremely in-depth or character-drive narrative, but it provides you enough incentive to go forth and adventure.
The bulk of what makes PSO so great comes primarily from its gameplay. PSO is an MMORPG, but unlike other competitors in its genre, it actually plays like a game. And yes, I know all MMOs are technically games but few of them play like PSO. Most MMOs drop you into a large open-world and task you with various fetch-quest missions. Sometimes, you’ll be sent into primary story missions but more often than not it’s just a bunch of aimless wandering and monster killing. PSO has some of those qualities but manages to be a lot different. For one thing, there are no large open areas. You are sent to various areas that basically act as linear dungeons. There are secrets areas and the occasional optional path, but not a whole lot to explore otherwise. In most areas, you need to kill all monsters in order to progress through the level. While that does seem lame, PSO’s areas varied and interesting enough so that it doesn’t get repetitive.
The areas pack a good amount of variety, such as having you traipse through a lush forest or trudge through a lava-filled cavern. There is never an area in the game I found to be that immensely lacking and the game managed to hold my interest throughout. The gameplay is also a departure from most MMOs. Unlike a lot of MMOs were you constantly press on hot-keyed buttons to cast spells or do special attacks, PSO is more focused on input based attacks and combos. You can do three types of attacks: Normal, Special, and Heavy attacks. Normal attacks are your typical attacks and do the lowest amount of damage. Special attacks are for weapons with elemental attributes, this allows you to perform attacks that draw upon an element like fire or ice. Finally, there are heavy attacks which hit like normal attacks but do more damage and usually have less of a chance to hit. Both heavy attacks and special attacks are slower than normal attacks and all three kind of attacks can be chained together into three-hit combos.
The best part of this game comes with its 12 different classes. All 12 classes falls into one of three different categories: Hunter, Ranger, and Force. Hunters are all around classes but lean more towards focusing on melee combat. Hunters can use sabers, swords, slicers, but can also use guns and staffs. Rangers are focused primarily on wielding guns and attacking from long-range while Forces can cast powerful magic spells. All 12 classes have different weaknesses and strengths and are quite well balanced. The game has a character creation system that isn’t really that robust if you compare it to games nowadays. For the time though, it had a lot more things to tweak than most character creation systems made in that period. Your character also has a pet that constantly floats over his shoulder known as a “MAG”. Your MAG can be fed items in your inventory to level up his stats. Much like the Chao from Sonic Adventure, you can get your MAG to evolve into various forms by feeding it the right items. There are also rare MAGs you can get in the game, some even being floating videogame consoles or characters from other games.
The game also features an online mode. This feature allows you to connect with many other players. Once logging on to the private server of your choice, you are brought into a virtual lobby. You can talk to other players, ask for advice, and do typical MMO interaction stuff. From there, you can start a room and set the parameters for the kind of game you want to play. The game has several dungeons and 4 different difficulties, so there is a lot of content you can partake in. The game has a level cap of 200, even though you don’t really need to level up that high. The Ephinea server also adds several features the original game didn’t such as an improved loot system and a new hardcore mode which gives you only 1 life to beat the entire game with. Ephinea is really the way you want to go if you want your experience to be the closest to the original game as it can be.
The game has dated graphics and character models by today’s standards, but looked great for the time. The backgrounds are pretty dang good and have a fair amount of variety and the game possesses a nice beautiful soundtrack. Monster noises and sword slashes are spot-on and some of the bizarre growls and roars the creatures can produce can really chill you to the bone. The production value on the game overall are amazing and I highly recommend it to everybody.
Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst is a great game, and I highly reccomend it. It improves upon the previous version (Phantasy Star Online Episode 1 & 2) and adds an additional episode plus some needed fixes. Blue Burst will not rock your world, but it’s generally a fun game to play with friends. Just be warned that this game is over a decade old and it may seem dated for its time. It may be difficult to get this game running for some people (Especially if you have an overprotective anti-virus like me) but it is totally worth it. With that, I can say this game is definitely sweet as syrup. While I do flip-flop on using rating systems, if I had to give this game a number it would be an 8.5/10. It’s fantastic and is still fresh and fun even years after its release.