The Phantasy Star Universe branch has always felt like the distant third-cousin-by-marriage on Sega’s beloved sci-fi RPG family tree; a whole era of Phantasy Star games that definitely existed but for all the goodwill they failed to generate at the time they may as well have not bothered turning up, sadly echoing the largely disappointing Shining titles the company was pushing around the same time. At best Universe and its multi-format follow-ups were fine and nothing more, lukewarm efforts to make do with until Phantasy Star Online 2 came along and finally gave the series the glorious return to form it so richly deserved.
Until a few days ago I was happy to live with that version of events rattling around inside my head, to look back and think that while it was unfortunate Phantasy Star had spent some time out in the wilderness at least it had managed to recover… and then I played Phantasy Star Portable 2 Infinity, a little Japan-only expansion of a sequel of a spin-off exclusive to a “failed” handheld that made me question everything I thought I already knew.
Universe and I got off to the worst possible start. Do you remember the tantalising “You are not the only hero” line used in magazine adverts for the original Phantasy Star Online? The feeling of having the whole world just a phone cord away? Of being able to so very casually switch from offline solo to online multiplayer modes just so you could meet up with a friend on a different continent to show or even give them the rare weapon that dropped for you earlier in the day?
Universe didn’t allow players to experience any of that unforgettable magic, oh no – and that’s because Universe’s players weren’t heroes at all, they were either unwillingly forced into the role of story and cover star Ethan Waber or paying residents locked inside a walled online garden, made to run through an endless supply of missions that lacked both consequence and context purely for the sake of giving our customised avatars – the heroes of a solar system just one game ago – something to do.
And as much as I didn’t want to admit it when I was miserably running around the original Universe’s online mode it’s clear now that Sonic Team’s decision to go to such extremes to protect their story content was the right call to make, the least worst option available to them at a time when online games could be contained on single discs and the next-generation Xbox 360 allowed owners to choose between clip-on hard drives and dinky memory cards. It’s not dishonest to say every single version of Phantasy Star Online before Universe’s release had without fail been spoiled by cheats and hacks, lobbies filled with level 200 characters barely five minutes old carrying weapons and armour intended as prizes for fantastic competitions there was now no point in Sonic Team running, so much hard work undone with a few Action Replay codes. That wasn’t even close to the worst of it either: Symbol chat was often used not to creatively repurpose a few bland shapes and lines into smiling faces or cartoon cats but to spam everyone in the same room with “comedy” ejaculation emotes, the word filter was easily circumvented by a single punctuation mark in the middle of the most awful slurs (and more amusingly, necessary if you wished to type out “Saturday”), and the moderators – really just roped in customer service staff at that early point in online gaming – you would hope would have been on hand to handle such behaviour were rarer than a Rappy-riding Hildeblue. Oh and let’s not forget the dreaded “Nol” cheat either, capable of permanently turning another player into a copy of the low level NPC of the same name against their will if they didn’t think to rip their VMU out before their precious save data was overwritten. It’s fair to say that Online was a pioneering gem doing the impossible on underdog hardware against all odds, but when you remember lobbies as they were most of the time instead of those magical moments in between… well, it’s no wonder Sonic Team treated online mode as more of a curse than a blessing.
But back then I ached with disappointment and I know many others felt the same way: That “feature” was so universally reviled Sonic Team made sure player avatars were the leading character for every expansion and spiritual sequel that came after it, and in theory all should have been right with Universe’s universe from that moment on.
Sadly fans of the old way of doing things – the proper way, in our minds – still had a long list of complaints about everything we could see, hear, and do within this new Gurhal solar system we’d been given. Take the new weapon palette for example: Who wants to carry around six similar-but-different swords or rods and split all of their special moves and techniques amongst them when in hundreds of hours of Phantasy Star Online I only ever needed to carry one (1) Glowing Hitty Stick and had the regular menu right there if I needed to access anything else? Spending time with Infinity has made the answer obvious – me. I needed the weapon palette. It makes it so very easy to access everything with just a few button presses no matter how many enemies are charging my way, even on a handheld with just one (very useful) analogue nub. I don’t have to choose between equipping the wand that enhances my healing techniques or another that boosts my Foie-line fireballs anymore because I can switch back and forth between them and as many rods, daggers, bows, swords, and more as I can carry.
The same sheepish realisation that these changes – outright betrayals of previously established perfection to my Online-defending self – had been entirely for my own benefit applies to the generous pool of rapidly regenerating Photon Points Universe-line games dish out as well: “Where’s the skill?” I cried. “Where’s the need to be aware of spell costs and adjust accordingly?” shouted the idiot who’d convinced herself she’d rather spend the entire first run of a game carefully eking out what little TP she had and blowing all the meseta she earned on magic-restoring fluids than being a spellcaster able to cast spells. Infinity, just as all the other Universe-line games before it, allows Forces (that’s mages in standard RPG-speak) like me to use all of my available skills as often as I feel is necessary, to go on the offensive and to make decisions based on how many enemies I need to frazzle than how long it’s going to take me to trek back to the shop. And I’d been given so many new and interesting ways to magically lay waste to the colourful monsters of Gurhal too – and I didn’t like that either, even though by the time these games turned up everyone had been treating Online’s spells as if most weren’t worth casting and the mid-range Gi-type spells didn’t exist for years. Online gave you a range of different spells across five classes but in practise everyone used Explode The Groups Spell, Zappy Mines Robot Spell, heal, cure, teleport and… nobody really bothered with the rest. The system desperately needed a shakeup and it got one, but I was too busy commiserating the “loss” of gameplay systems that needed fixing and in any case were – and still are – only a disc swap away to appreciate the help.
I can see now the same can be said of anything Universe/Zero/Portable “ruined”: I may love Online’s cat-like Sato mag but it is so nice to not have to waste time, money, and items feeding one all the damned time, to not have to know which job I want to do from the very first moment and funnel all my resources into growing a complimentary mag. Infinity’s Partner Machines are just sci-fi Palicos and they help me do the things I really want to do much faster than any mag ever did. Even basic movement is so much better in Infinity, Online’s hypnotic slash… slash… SLASH routine removed in favour of more athletic strafes and rolls, allowing me to physically dodge incoming attacks based on my own reactions no matter what class I’m playing as or the weapon I’m wielding at the time – and shields now enable me to perform a blocking action at will instead of leaving it all up to a few statistics and a healthy dollop of RNG. I even like the new costumes, pieces based around fictional fashion houses that strike the perfect balance between personalisation while still maintaining the modern series’ defining visual mix of clean lines and bright neon. I like the simple pleasure of being a magic user in trousers, I like being able to put on clothes you believe someone could actually wear while leaping through a laser fence or running away from a dragon.
Infinity has also given me the ability to see that returning enemies and musical themes from Online used liberally in the “wrong” places was never meant to be a disrespectful annoyance but more of a nice nod to a fond favourite, a fun little link between the old and the
new …not quite so old. Universe wasn’t trying to scrub out happy memories of my Dreamcast adventures, it was hard at work creating a brave new future – just like Phantasy Star Online before it.
And this is the point I completely failed to grasp when I begrudgingly bought Universe, and Zero, and all the Portables before Infinity when they were new: That the Phantasy Star Universe series is about as much like Phantasy Star Online as Online is like all the old 2D Phantasy Stars that went before it, that anything these games did was no more or less sacrilegious than the switch from turn-based solo parties to action co-op online play or Phantasy Star II ditching the original’s first-person dungeons.
I’ve been wrong about Universe its entire existence. Phantasy Star as a whole – as it was then and as it is now – would be so much worse off for constantly repackaging the same classes, areas, and spells over and over again no matter how much I may insist I love them; Universe and the games that followed it were a necessary evolutionary step the series needed to take if it wanted to survive. And now I have the belated joy of playing in a whole new world – no, a whole new universe – because of this bold way of thinking. This still isn’t my favourite period of Phantasy Star and I seriously doubt it ever will be, but Infinity has allowed me to finally accept that tetchily claiming Universe is not like Phantasy Star Online is only one half of a whole truth:
No, it isn’t – and it never needed to be.