This past weekend I was able to free myself from the shackles of Final Fantasy XIV...so that I could play a different MMORPG. Phantasy Star Online 2! There was a closed beta that went through until Monday, 1AM. I got to play it for about 8 hours — here's how I felt about it.
To start, it's incredible that I'm able to say "I played PSO2," in any capacity. The game has existed in Japan since 2012, and outside of dedicated fan-translations, it was impossible to play because the game was never localized. For some reason Microsoft decided to foot that bill and make it possible on Xbox One and PC. No idea why, but hey, thanks Phil!
After a server delay, I made Mint as a CAST, the series' mechas with human consciousness attached to their chassis. The customization options were surprisingly robust, and I was able to make Mint with relative ease (the question "will it Mint?" is very important when a game offers me a character creator). I picked the Bouncer class, which used twin blades and and hover boots to do damage and support allies. After a quick tutorial with an Australian space kid, I was dropped into the game and on my way.
Phantasy Star Online 2 is an Action-MMO, which has a noticeably different feel from something like FFXIV. The game basically plays like if Warframe was a JRPG instead of a third-person-shooter. There was a story, but I didn't experience much of it, mostly because I was too busy exploring every other aspect of the game. And wow if there isn't a lot to do! There are quests to complete for NPCs, expedition quests to unlock new areas, robo-pals called Mags that you can feed and customize to support you in battle, a casino, a stylist to customize your PC, gathering, fishing, apartment decoration, etc. etc...it was honestly a lot to take in, especially because I was in a rush to try everything in the limited time SEGA gave us to play. The general loop is similar to games like Diablo, however: do missions, get loot and level up to get stronger, rinse and repeat, all whilst partaking in story missions that give you a reason to play that's more than just chasing higher numbers.
Combat is fast and flashy. Though I didn't figure out how to use the Bouncer very effectively, I found a lot of success when I switched to the Braver, a class that gives you a katana and bow, and which lets you perform parries that negate any damage you would have taken if performed at the right time. Once I had figured out the timing and learned some of the enemies' attack animations, the game honestly felt like a character-action title that Platinum would make. Cutting down groups of enemies was smooth and satisfying, if not very difficult.
I wish the same smoothness applied to the game's UI, however. This is where PSO2 really shows its age. The game's menus are not easy to navigate at all. I'd say it took me about six hours to even start feeling comfortable figuring out all of the nuances of moving through a menu. I also sorely missed the PS4's touch-pad, which acts as an impromptu mouse that you can use to select things in FFXIV. I eventually got the hang of figuring out how to talk to and invite players, but it was a clumsy process.
The same can be said of the game's inventory system. Despite having enemies explode into a dizzying array of items like a piñata, PSO2 only gives you 50 inventory slots. You can send items to your Storage from anywhere, but it was a bummer having my alien slaying session grind to a halt because I needed to figure out what items I wanted to get rid of or put into storage so I could pick up the new ones on the ground. I'm hoping there's some way to deal with this aspect of the game in the long-run, but PSO2 is free-to-play, and I already know in my heart-of-hearts that inventory space expansion will probably cost real life dosh when the game releases in full.
The highlights of the beta were twofold. The first were Urgent Quests. These appeared at different times of the beta, and they were the most unique aspect of PSO2. 15 minutes before an Urgent Quest starts, the artificial sky of the game's lobby turn into red warning symbols. Tense music plays, alarms blare, and a ticker shows up in your HUD about an emergency. The lobby fills up with players as they wait on stand-by until the clock strikes. When it does, you group up and take part in a mission with a lot more spectacle and difficulty than the usual fare. One quest had me fighting through a dark and eerie alien stronghold. The other was even more bombastic, taking place on my ship's deck. We took on monsters while laser blasts and explosions billowed in space around us. Not only was it super cool, it also helped to give PSO2 an identity beyond being another loot-based MMO. The events give the game a sense of place and comradery with your fellow hunters.
I ended my time with the beta with an in-game live concert. This took place in the lobby of our spaceship headquarters. While we waited for the event to start, players chatted, kicked a virtual soccer ball back and forth, and of course, danced.
Eventually the screen dimmed, and the game's idol, Quna, got on stage and began her performance. A press of a button allowed you to watch the concert with more dynamic angles. Impressively, even the songs were localized into English, something you don't see very often when it comes to dubs of Japanese games. Once the first song ended, players could spam "Encore" in the chat to get a second song to be performed. After that, everyone who watched the concert got buffs to their stats, as well as an increased EXP gain rate. Again, moments like these helped make PSO2 stand out. I enjoyed the approach of making unique events where other players and I could gather to do something besides kill stuff.
There's a lot to like about Phantasy Star Online 2! Time will tell if it holds up under the F2P model, but regardless, it was great to be able to experience this (relatively) unreachable MMO, and get nostalgic about the old days playing Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast and GameCube. I'm excited to dive into the game with even more people when the Open Beta hits the PC and Xbox, so I hope to see you there!