Friday, April 17, 2015

Phantasy Star 0 review

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

According to the wiki article, Phantasy Star 0 (2008, Sonic Team/Sega) was an attempt to expand on the Phantasy Star Online RPG franchise by introducing a stand-alone game for the Gameboy DS. The "0" was appended to the name to indicate a restart and to appeal to younger players. The character designs were by Toshiyuki Kubooka, artist on the Lunar game series and the Giant Robo TV anime. The basic idea is to emulate an MMORPG experience on a DS. If you have friends with their own copies of the game, you can get a real-time multi-player game going, but if you're just playing by yourself it doesn't quite work out so well. However, it seems that if you have a wireless connection to a gaming console, you could connect through that to play online missions.

(In the city with Miki.)

Unlike other RPGs, you're not portraying a fixed character within the game. Whatever you come up with during the character creation phase, and what you name him or her, becomes the hero. For the sake of convenience, I named my character Miki, so that's what I use here. During the creation phase, you pick one of 4 or so types, which equate roughly to sword fighter, magic user, gun fighter, or mecha, then tailor the character's appearance, clothing, and movement patterns as you like. You can actually have up to three different characters stored in the save slots, and use the "Party Trunk" to share whatever treasures, weapons or money you find between them, although you're only playing one character at a time within the game. I didn't try doing this, but it might be a useful way to power up all three characters at the beginning, when you're able to find multiple copies of items by replaying earlier quests when it's easier to get certain things.

Once you have the character built, it's time to enter the city. This section is pretty limited. The "city" consists of a couple visitable areas and a handful of NPCs to interact with. There's a weapons/armor shop, an item shop, and a customizing place for performing certain minor, very expensive upgrades to the weapons. Under the manhole in the street is a secret shop that turns materials into weapons, a second shop that lets you trade in "photon drops" for weapons or items, and a vending machine. The items you get from the materials you find aren't very useful and the shop probably exists just to make it harder to collect every kind of item in the game. Photon Drops are one kind of item you can find in the field, and some of the things you can buy with them include Scape Dolls (very useful because they act as auto-resurrects) and stat upgrades (increase strength or guard by 1 point for 5 photon drops). These aren't all that great because you can only upgrade your stats for a total of 100 points regardless of how you allocate them.

(Teleporter window, where you can either visit one of the fields, or take on a quest.)

There are two other windows in the city. One lets you visit the fields to go fighting and to take on quests, and the other is the "Trunk Room". You can store your unused items and money in your trunk, or put them in the shared Player Trunk for your other characters to access for separate games. The Trunk Room also has your game stats screen, and reaching certain milestones (number of enemies killed, number of items found, etc.) gives you certain items as rewards. So, that's a good thing. Oh, and about the underground vending machine - you have to enter passwords to get certain rare items. The passwords were only printed in various gaming magazines, so you either had to buy copies of those magazines to get the codes one at a time, or locate them online at a cheats site. The weapon I like to use the most, which looks a lot like a shoulder mounted garbage can, is the strongest thing available so far for my character type (Human) and came from one of the passwords. Since that weapon uses money for ammo, I only broke it out for the big boss battles.

Story: The world is made up of humans, mecha, androids and one or two other types (although the game uses different names for these categories). Your hero was probably present at a rebellion of androids 200 years ago, and you're getting recognized by a few NPCs after you arrive at the city and start working as a Hunter. Hunters receive quests to go out to various fields via a teleporter, and then they do a lot of fighting. There are 8 different fields, which get unlocked as you progress through the story. The maps for each field are generated randomly, but they always end with the exact same boss. You can choose to visit a field on your own or as part of a quest. The only difference between the two is that quests give you a small amount of reward money when you finish them, and are accompanied by a lot of talking by the NPCs to set up the reason for doing it. Otherwise, it's kind of irrelevant. The later quests just have you going back and fighting the same bosses over and over again. You can revisit a quest as often as you like, if you want to churn for a while to level your party up (if you're doing a single-player game, you can have 3 out of 4 total NPCs in your party with you). As you go through the story, eventually you find that the android rebellion hadn't been completely wiped out, and you have to find a teleporter to the moon to finally wrap things up once and for all.

(One of the "androids", speaking as part of the quest set-up.)

This is a very ambitious game, and that's a large part of why it's so frustrating. The designs and artwork for the buildings, landscape and outside environment of the fields are beautiful. But you don't really interact with any of it. Instead, you follow fixed paths on the map, fight enemies in the wider areas of the paths, and then open trunks or chests to get the rewards after the battle. There are traps that spring when you walk too close, and some gates on the paths that need key cards found in other areas. So, there's a bit of an RPG feel to the game, but as I mention above, there's only 8 fields (7 regular fields plus the Eternal Tower) and just 7 fixed bosses at the ends of each one. So, you're really just repeating the same battles over and over again in the hopes of eventually leveling up, and not doing any real exploring of the surrounding landscape.

The bosses are hard the first time you encounter them, and it's a challenge to get strong enough to beat them. This part is also frustrating. The user interface system has LOTS of overlapping controls that are hard to learn even if you have the user manual in English (mine's in Japanese, and I finally was forced to read the entire thing to find out what I was missing). I still don't know how to give treasure to the NPCs. My impression is that they take whatever you find at the end of a fight, and what's left over is what you get. There's no direct way to boost a specific weapon and gift it to an NPC, like you could in Dot Hack (PhS0 reminds me a lot of Dot Hack, which I liked better). Most of the weapons and armor I find that I can't use myself just get sold to the shops for money for upgrading my own weapons, buying healing supplies, or feeding to the trash can gun. Experience is handed out 100% to the character that delivers the final blow that defeats the enemy, and then 80% to the rest of the party. There doesn't seem to be a way of viewing the NPC stats, so I have no idea what levels they're currently at. All I know is that they've stopped dying against easy monsters, and their weapons changed shape at one point, so either they're buying things on their own, or finding them in the field along with me, and they're not upgrading the weapons enough.

This is an "expensive" game, in that you go through a lot of money. The shops charge a lot for weapons and healing, and if you want to do an upgrade on a weapon (add an affect to the attack such as stun or freeze, add 5% or 10% damage to one enemy type (human or robot)) it can be anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 gp. The garbage can gun uses money to boost the damage delivered at about the same rate as what you find per battle. So, while the garbage can gun is nice to finish the fights faster by using the stronger weapon, there's no income for doing the fights (outside of what you make by selling spare items). Which brings me to the Mag.

The Mag is a little machine that rides above your shoulder, giving you certain bonuses during the fights. The specific bonuses depend on what you feed it during the breaks. Feeding it spears and lances ups it's damage bonus by 1 point per level; wands increase the Mind stat (for magic); guns boost physical defense; etc. As the Mag goes up in level, it requires more expensive gear to make the next jump. Give it enough lances to go up one level, and your strength stat goes up by 1. Give it enough wands to go up a level, Mind bumps up by 1. The Mag has a cap at level 100, so you have to decide whether you want something that is balanced at 25 points per the four stats, or 100 points for only strength or only defense. Regardless, you're feeding hundreds of thousands of gp into the Mag to max out these bonuses, money which could have been spent elsewhere. (Although, the shop almost never has as good a weapon as what you find in the fields, so you wouldn't have spent the extra income at the weapons shop, at the least.)

More frustration: The vending machine has 4-5 special Mag "hearts" that you can only use if your Mag is level 60 or higher, and then all they do is make the Mag look different. I REALLY wish the hearts acted as power-ups... Beating the main boss gives you a "star" game, meaning you can keep playing and the game unlocks a couple extra quests, the Hard level and the Eternal Tower. Initially, you only get access to the Normal quests. When you beat the main boss, you get the Hard quests, which are the exact same ones as the Normal quests, but the monsters are harder and worth more experience. At first, I was getting so bored with fighting the same monsters and the same bosses all the time that I'd thought I'd quit playing the game after trying one of the Hard quests. But, I had gotten enough exp. that I slogged it out until I got to level 59. Now, the game really is boring, and since the Mag is maxed out at level 100 and the vending machine "hearts" don't power up the Mag any further, I'm putting the game away.

The Eternal Tower only FEELS like an eternity... Man, I don't know why the designers added this thing. There are 100 floors, and each one is made up of an alcove, 4 battle rooms, and the stairs up to the next floor. That's 400 battle rooms, none of which can be skipped (if you turn the game off, you have to start over from floor 1). Every tenth floor is a variation on the same boss monster, then you get a teleporter back to the city. You can teleport out, sell your treasures and save your money to the Trunk, then teleport back to where you left off, but you can't turn the game off without having to restart the tower, and the monsters don't provide enough experience to level up more than once per 10 floors. So, you're churning like mad but not really benefiting from it after a while.

(In one of the fields, with the battle map, fighting an enemy. The weird glowing blue thing to the right above Miki's shoulder is the Mag.)

Comments: The music is good, the artwork is good, the hand-painted cel animation cut scenes are great, and the menuing system looks good. Which is why it's so frustrating - I really want to like this game, but the bosses are too difficult when you first meet them, it's always the same basic 7 bosses for all of the regular quests, and there's no way (I know of) to directly improve the NPCs' weapons and armor. I'm delivering 100-250 hits per shot, and the NPCs are still down around 10-30 hits each. Their only real purpose in the game, that I can see, is to act as a distraction for the bosses while Miki sits safely at a distance and snipes away. (Assuming that Miki is actually hitting the boss; the game's auto-tracking functions for the weapons often lose the target and the attack goes harmlessly out into space instead of hitting anything). If you like Japanese RPGs, then you may like Phantasy Star 0. But, get it cheap. This was one of the six games I bought all at one time, and I got it for 105 yen ($1 USD). I think that's a fair price for something like this.

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