Phantasy Star Portable 2 review: Grind. Loot. Rinse. Repeat.

Phantasy Star Portable 2[originally posted at Total PlayStation]

Phantasy Star Online was one of the first games I played online. My buddy and I dialed our Dreamcasts onto the Internet using his family’s two phone lines to play together in the same house, and I was instantly hooked. Several spinoffs, sequels and systems later, Phantasy Star Portable 2 brings a very familiar experience to Sony’s PlayStation Portable, along with some updates that hope to freshen up the franchise.

Technically, PSP2 (no, not the oft-rumored follow-up to Sony’s handheld hardware) is a direct sequel to Phantasy Star Universe, itself an indirect sequel to the original PSO and its episodes. PSP2picks up three years after the events of PSU, and features cameos from some of the cast of PSU and its expansion, Ambition of the Illuminus.

The story is the standard generic Japanese RPG schlock filled with requisite character archetypes that are immediately recognizable to anyone who has played an RPG before. There’s the silent hero or heroine (your character), the sassy young girl, the boss with a gruff exterior, the ancient race of spirits, and the voluptuous French robot secretary-slash-hostess girl. There’s also a young native boy in a clear reference or homage to Monster Hunter, the fraternal action RPG series from Capcom. The plot is entirely inconsequential and mostly uninteresting, and serves only to lock away missions and items from the player. Indeed, the story mode can begin to feel overlong, with a full 10 chapters to trudge through.

Combat is where PSP2 sees its most noticeable changes. Finally, blocking and dodging are manual, controllable functions relegated to specific button inputs, rather than simply moving out of the enemy’s way. There is a new “combo” system, where consecutive attacks from the Square button will increment a counter on an enemy, which can then be finished off with an attack from the Triangle button with a damage bonus. You can switch armor sets on the fly, in addition to weapons and items. You can hold the X button down to pick up items as you run over them.

Photon Points, used for melee special attacks, bullets and spells, are now a character stat instead of a weapon-based stat, and recharge quickly when not in use. Altogether, these improvements make the combat simultaneously less tedious and more streamlined, engaging and interesting. However, some small annoyances remain, such as the inability to move and reposition the camera at the same time unless you happen to be some sort of multi-thumbed freak. The targeting can also be a bit wonky at times, and hitting a specific enemy can be difficult due to these issues.

Character customization has evolved as well. (You can import your character from the first Phantasy Star Portable for a few small bonuses, but your character’s level and stats are reset.) The type list has shrunk from PSU‘s varied offerings to the streamlined Hunter, Ranger and Force, plus a balanced newcomer called Vanguard.

As you level up your type (independent from your character level), you’ll unlock abilities, which can be equipped using a point value system, and which carry over even if you change types. You can also buy your way into weapons you would otherwise be unable to use due to type restrictions. These changes allow an unprecedented level of freedom in character customization, no longer pigeonholing you into a specific role if you don’t feel like it.

There is one change that hurts the game, and that is Photon Art levels relying on discs that are found from enemy drops, similar to the original PSO. While the PA level grind in PSU was a bit ridiculous, that system worked better overall, since players could upgrade their abilities through usage. This regression now forces the player to suffer a worse kind of tedium that relies on random chance instead of mere repetition.

Of course, the main attraction in the series since PSO has always been the multiplayer aspect. PSP2 lets you and up to three other adventurers quest together, through ad-hoc local play or infrastructure online. Each copy of the game comes with a unique key that attaches to your PSN account and is required for the online play, which carries no monthly fees. Loot is instanced per character, meaning everything you see in your game is only for you, hopefully eliminating the common squabbling over drops. There are a few different types of missions to embark on with other players, providing welcome variety from the standard mission template. PSP2 contains a decent amount of content and has more monsters, locations and weapons than its predecessors, though much of it will be familiar to veterans of the PSU series.

PSP2 takes the art style of PSU and adds a small flair to it, giving it a unique look that stays true to the series. Graphically, everything looks good despite being scaled down to fit on the PSP’s screen, although there are some slowdown and frame rate issues that are exacerbated in the multiplayer. A good portion of the soundtrack is recycled from PSU, with most of the new tracks seemingly relegated to cutscenes and other transitional music.

To the uninitiated, Phantasy Star Portable 2 may seem to be nothing more than a never-ending quest for slightly improved gear and other randomly distributed goodies, set in a Japanese sci-fi galaxy. This is not an inaccurate description of the game. If this is not your kind of thing, PSP2 has little else to offer as enticement. But to those who have played and enjoyed any of the previous games, it is a nostalgic experience, albeit without any real surprises, but with some of the biggest improvements since PSU that take a lot of the edge off the hard grind.

PSP2 is pretty much exactly what you would expect in a sequel, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. It feels like revisiting with an old friend, and is a recommendable purchase to anyone, returning or new, who anticipates killing the endless horde of the Gurhal Star System in the pursuit of virtual loot. Who said we are lost again in this lonely world?