Seven years feels like an eternity in online gaming land but that’s about how long Phantasy Star Online 2‘s been around now, quietly outlasting any official version of the legendary Dreamcast-led original you can think of. I can happily report that it’s not merely still alive but thriving – regularly receiving sizeable updates, brand-new content, and fresh batches of those all-important crossover costumes to spend vast quantities of either real or virtual currency on. The overall feeling is one of a game that’s comfortable with itself and is doing very well on its own merits, freed from both the original Phantasy Star Online‘s looming shadow as well as any lingering doubts about quality and longevity that always follow the announcement of a new and untested online game. However there’s an unavoidable side-effect to seven years of success: Seven years of expansion packs (“Episodes”, in PSO2-speak), seven years of class additions, tweaks, and do-overs, seven years of new areas, seven years of new storylines and bosses and fishing and cafés and casinos and special events and live concerts and…
It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of this content even if you’ve been doing your best to keep up over the years… which I hadn’t when I decided to reinstall the game last week, riding a cheery wave of “Oh heck I used to play this” nostalgia as news of the US release announcement rolled in. Only it turns out I didn’t just “used to play this” – I had over a hundred and seventy hours logged on my character before I came back, a lapsed subscription, quite literally more premium outfits than I could even remember buying, an art book, two four disc soundtracks (there are six of them now, ignoring tie-in arrange/concert/anime albums), a physical copy of the first expansion, and no doubt even more PSO2-branded junk lying around here somewhere if I dare to go look. For a game I don’t think I’ve played all that much of (and I suppose I haven’t, not by life-draining online game standards anyway) it still seems to have sucked up a lot of my time and money.
Now the purpose of this meandering wall of text isn’t to ask if PSO2’s good – of course it’s good. PSO2, unlike certain other attempts to modernise a classic series [coughSonic4cough], is a sequel that absolutely deserves the prestige that can only come from a logo bearing the next number in the main series’ sequence. The game captures that tirelessly beautiful neon-fantasy feeling of running through PSO’s Ruins with a hungry Mag and that one guy who won’t stop spamming his “hilarious” Symbol Chat art in tow even with so many new systems layered on top and someone in your team dressed up like a Monster Hunter cat. So if you’re reading this because you were wondering if next year’s English release is worth getting excited for – yes it is. PSO2’s exciting but extremely casual “I guess we’re on the same map hitting lots of enemies at the same time” style is just the thing for those days when you fancy being online but not so online you have to worry about being held personally responsible for the success or failure of a complete stranger’s quest – heck, there’s no need to even stand anywhere near them if you don’t want to, never mind actively help them out.
What this is about how it feels like to come back to a well-established online game after long enough away to have forgotten anything that may have been useful, and what you do remember is so out of date you may as well have forgotten it anyway for all the good it’ll do you. What, if anything, does the game do to help people get back into the swing of things? Is there any danger of being left behind forever? How does the game make sure today’s new players are still shown the same level of attention and get the same excitement as those who’ve dedicated years to organised teams chasing the freshest battles and most powerful weaponry?
[Just so you know: While all formats seamlessly play together (Final Fantasy XI/XIV style), the vast majority of my time with the game and all of the experiences discussed here as well as the screenshots shown are from the PC version]
The first bit of good news is that the game’s as easy to set up and install as ever with just a few clicks and a progress bar between you and some excellent online ARPG’ing: No VPN-enabled witchcraft is required and that goes a long way to alleviating the underlying fear that comes as part of the package with some country-specific online games – that you could be “outed” at any moment and banned forever (I’m looking at you, Dragon Quest X). You can even play via streaming now if you don’t fancy waiting for the download to finish or you simply don’t have the room for all 62.5GBs worth of hard drive space the game currently demands of its players.
The second is the enormous and eye-catching animated bright yellow “Hey, over here!” sign hovering above the new (to me) tutorial counter found in the main gate area. Far from being an invitation for an hour’s worth of hands-off and patronisingly obvious menu-clicking you’re instead offered a small selection of broad topics – questing, grouping, etc – that split into brief visual-led summaries of the points of interest in that particular field. Want to know what the heck battle pets are and what they’re doing in PSO2? Wondering what on Earth a Bonus Quest is and why you’d want to do one? You’ll find the answers to all sorts of basic questions and mechanics like those neatly described here. The thinking behind these short overviews is to point you in the right direction and then get you going as quickly as possible, always encouraging you to get stuck in with hands-on practise rather than stand around as the game talks you through theoretical examples. PSO2 underlines this philosophy over and over again in many small but significant ways: Pick a class you’ve not used before – whether you’re an old hand with another or you’ve only been playing for a few hours – and you’ll be presented with short “About” pop-up with a few brief details of the main points of interest. The first NPC friend you’re introduced to can always be found wandering around the gate area with a list of tutorial-like missions for you to try out if you wish to do so, and if a quest says you need to speak to a specific NPC or head to a specific counter there’s a marker you can call up that will lead you straight to them – you’re never left floundering as you try to find that one person hiding under the stairs in one particular part of the ship.
Other notable in-game advice comes from the “Arks Missions” – part relaxed amble through all the basics in the game, part handy rewards for small tasks you were probably going to do anyway – offering tangible bonuses in the form of XP boosts, items, or plain old meseta in your pocket for doing things such as visiting the medical counter and using one of their temporary stat boost drinks or completing a time attack quest on a specific difficulty level. It’s a good way of encouraging you to at least have a go at everything without forcing you through yet another wave of tutorials (or forcing you to skip a tutorial out of frustration that you can’t then get back to when you really need it). As a returning player I found myself briefly showered with “Quest Clear!” rewards as the system caught up with everything I’d done before they were introduced – these little extras don’t mean much in the long run but it felt nice to not be forgotten in all of the upgrades and reshuffles the game’s had while I’ve been away.
The quest counter is the main hub of PSO2’s world, the place to undertake any and all jobs ranging from solo Rappy hunts to elite world-saving parties out questing for rare loot and everything in-between. Happily it’s as quick and easy to start up a quest it’s ever been but there’s a major addition here too: When PSO2 launched and for a good while after that it used an entirely separate “Matter Board” system to progress the story, unlocking more pieces of the plot by doing other quests and some item hunting as you tediously worked your way around to the bits you wanted to actually do on a node-based grid. Now all online games (and plenty of offline ones too) come shipped with this sort of padding in a range of disguises to make the game last longer – that guy in the hut doesn’t really need ten wolf pelts so badly that you have to put off saving the world for his sake after all, and this structure can even be considered reasonable in the setting as having everything just a click away would turn the servers into ghost town before the first free month’s worth of subscription had expired. But PSO2’s padding always felt unintuitive and a bit weird for weird’s sake, even when Episode 4 replaced it with the similar-but-different “Story Board” – a definite improvement, but largely because the system it was replacing was so iffy it would have taken nothing less than deliberate sabotage to make it worse.
This is all mercifully absent from the current build of PSO2 as you are now able to simply choose the plot arc you’d like to tackle straight from the quest counter (the first is episodes one to three, the second is episode four, and the most current covers episodes five and six), and from there pick whichever episode you want to tackle – each arc’s respective starter episode’s unlocked from the get-go, allowing you decide for yourself whether you want to fill in any blanks you’ve accrued along the way, start from the very beginning, or dive straight into the latest challenge. Locking out directly related later episodes (two, three, and six can only be accessed once you’ve reached the appropriate point in their respective stories) and keeping plot-related sub-quests available but in their own separate menu keeps everything straightforward, coherent, and accessible without the need for a story guide open in a browser tab or a set of scrawled notes by your side. Most of the older story quests have been stripped of their gameplay entirely and are now essentially a cutscene viewer with the occasional boss battle thrown in along the way – this is a good thing. Thanks to this pruning new and returning players alike get to enjoy clear journeys through every plot point PSO2 has to offer without spending a dozen meaningless runs hoping to find some item that hasn’t been relevant for five years for the sake of playing “properly”, and if you do feel the urge to take in the scenery Free Quests allow you unfettered access to almost every planet and region from the off anyway. Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about the storyline at all it still means you have an understandable and consistent path to follow with the minimum of fuss should you wish to engage with it – and if one episode’s not drawing you in there’s nothing to stop you putting that on hold while you try out another one as no progress is lost as you hop around PSO2’s interplanetary struggles.
This laid-back nature has always been one of PSO2’s core strengths: This is a game that’s always been happy to let you adjust the experience to suit your current mood – feel free to concentrate on impossibly hard solo quests, take on Dark Falz in your best punk clothes (really), join a “just passing the time” team, or fight a late-game boss on the easiest difficulty setting if you want to experiment with some new skills or an unfamiliar weapon – it’s always up to you. The compartmentalisation of the quest system – still very much as it was in the original PSO – makes it easy to decide on a specific task, spend all of your time focussing on finishing whatever that was (and be rewarded for it upon completion), and then move on to another with very little downtime or set-up periods between and no travelling necessary beyond a quick trot over to the nearest quest counter. It’s fair to say that I have been on some lengthy online game journeys that I’ll hold as treasured memories for the rest of my days but there are times when the immediacy of PSO2’s system – something determined to just let you play the damned game you logged on for – is an absolute godsend.
Don’t ever make the mistake of confusing this casual attitude for a lack of depth though: There’s a lot to PSO2, and applying yourself to a particular class in both the action-RPG side of things as well as the Mag-feeding, skill tree optimising, best-units-for-the-job aspects of the game will only ever make you do more damage, live longer, and earn more rewards. There’s just so much of it, and as the game has now split into old and new gear (see also: costumes vs. layered costumes) and insisted on retaining it all as well as expanding into ever-higher weapon tiers opening some shop menus for a quick look-see can feel like being assaulted by an endless stream of stats, variables, and customisation options. And if you wish to go down that route, if you want to grind emblems for 15* weapons and fuss over elemental damage and best-practise combo rotations, you can – the game is so deep you could drown in it. And if you don’t? It’s always there if you want to dip your toes in, and the game only ever feels like it’s offering you the choice rather than locking you out of the best parts of a Phantastical experience – this game has so many awe-inspiring bosses (including my personal favourite, TRAIN DRAGON), each more impressive than the last, that even the most timid and ill-equipped player is sure to come across and defeat a few on lower difficulty levels purely by accident.
PSO2 has changed, and yet PSO2 is still very much as it’s always been. Things aren’t as they were on launch day and some previously important experiences are never coming back – and that’s the point. That’s why curious new players or lapsed old hands can stroll in seven years on, get going, and still have an honest chance of catching up.