Quite often, I just get that itch to play something online – ideally an MMORPG. But with Phantasy Star Online 2 still unconfirmed for Vita in North America, it’s been hard to get my fix. So, this week I decided to whip out the closest thing I could find on a handheld, Phantasy Star Zero for Nintendo DS.
In terms of character customization, PSZ is a bit stripped down compared to its console and PSP incarnations. But there’s still a lot of character in every costume and body choice. Plus you still get to pick from all the usual race and class combinations that make the gameplay dynamic. There’s the powerful, but magic incapable, android race known as the CASTs, there are the magically attuned and elflike Newmen, and the all-round average Humans. Though not all are available to every race, you can choose from three job classes: Ranger (ranged), Hunter (melee), or Force (magic/support).
In solo mode, race choice has an additional bit of importance, as it completely alters the way you see the story of the game. With a near-apocalypse sending society back by centuries, humans have managed to scrape by and rebuild. CASTs have fallen into stasis, but are gradually reawakening, but without memories of what happened. Newmans, however, seem to have completely disappeared from the world. But one Newman (plus you, if you pick Newman as your race) has dropped down from their hiding place on the moon with a dire warning for the planet’s occupants. There are also a number of short, though well-animated and voiced, cut scenes scattered throughout the story. As I typically like to play through PS games as different race/class combinations, this is actually a good way to make replaying it a lot more interesting.
Loading up my old save file from about 3 years ago, I was surprised by how easy it was to get right back into the swing of things. That’s because the Phantasy Star’s mission system is so straightforward and easy to access, there’s hardly any way to lose your place. I simply walked my character over to the mission counter, found a quest I hadn’t beaten yet, then walked into the teleporter. Bamn! I’m on a mission in a snowy field. A short bit of exposition from the characters tells me I’m looking for some lost engineers in the area. Good to know…now, let’s kill stuff!
I used this mission just to re-acclimate myself with combat. Like any of the action/RPG Phantasy Star games, you are given an “Action Pallet” with 6 slots to assign attacks and skills to one of the controller buttons. Since I was a Force, I assigned a bunch of attack/healing spells, a basic physical attack, and a magic-replenishing item. Each attack or spell can also be charged up to unleash a more powerful version, usually with an area of effect. This was a smart addition to the game, as past PS titles required you to equip specific spells that did AOE attacks, taking up valuable Action Pallet slots.
Some people don’t appreciate the “no button mashing” nature of combat in PS, but I think it’s great for making combat skill-based without being frantic. To perform combos, you need to hit the attack buttons in a kind of rhythmic timing. Mess up the rhythm, and you have to wait a few seconds to start up your attack again. You can also mix up combos with weak, strong, and (if your weapon has one) special effect attacks.
So, I got through some fights, learned how to keep an AI party alive, and even fought a boss without too much sweat. I was ready to go online, except for one thing; who the heck still plays this game? Well, the amazing thing about Phantasy Star is that it’s got one of the most dedicated fan communities, and if you stop over at Phantasy Star World, you can find people still playing this, and many other PS games. It actually wasn’t too hard to get some friend codes and start tearing things up as a team.
Party dynamics work great, with everyone serving a specific purpose, but you’re not 100% locked into doing one thing. For example, I might have the best magic around, but in a pinch, even a Hunter can cast a quick healing spell to save our skin. And if you feel like conserving magic, there’s no reason a Force can’t lock and load a pair of submachine guns and start lighting up monsters to decent effect.
Communicating with your party is also surprisingly easy for a DS game. The Visual Chat feature lets players draw out pictures or write short messages to one another, kind of like a small version of Pictochat. Considering how slow typing on a DS can be, I think this was the best solution short of voice chat.
I think I’ll keep tapping into PSZ for a while, as I especially love the way it looks on my 3DS XL screen, which is surprising because I’m generally not a fan of 3D graphics on the DS. But the variety of the stages, the character art, and the ability to play online all come together to just barely fill that void in my heart.