Review by CelticWhisper
Alis Landale is turning over in her grave.
First off, I want to specify that I bought this as an addition to my console RPG collection to be played as a single-player game. I will not be reviewing online mode here as I have not played it.
I've been a fan of Phantasy Star for about 15 years, give or take a month or two. I was introduced to the series by its "black sheep," Phantasy Star III and have since played every installment with the exception of PS Gaiden and PS Adventure which, to my knowledge, were never released in the States. After playing Phantasy Star Online for the GameCube, I found myself wanting the series to go back to its roots: long, intricate plots; character-driven story progression; a milieu that's a fusion of high technology and swords-'n'-sorcery, et cetera. When I heard about Universe, that it would have a "Story mode" with real characters and a definite plot, I hoped for the best.
I was sorely disappointed. Now, this is not just nostalgia talking: I enjoyed Phantasy Star Online for what it was and acknowledged that there would be some differences. However, at its core, it still had a certain je ne sais quoi that made it feel like a Phantasy Star game. Phantasy Star Universe, entirely apart from not feeling like a Phantasy Star game at all, is just plain bad.
First, the few redeeming factors the game can claim in its favour:
Graphics, for the most part, are decent. Not stellar, but cities feel large, character models have a good degree of detail, and spell and weapon effects look nice. Probably the best thing I can say about the graphics is that the game makes good use of a vivid and varied colour palette. Unfortunately, the explorable portions of many of the game's locales aren't nearly as vast as the designs would lead one to believe, and the largest explorable city in the game, the GUARDIANS Colony, suffers from having a more confining visual design and also from being frustratingly fragmented into 5 "tiers," with load times between each one.
Music in the game, while not nearly as subtle and atmospheric as PSO's, nor as catchy and memorable as the tunes from the classic Genesis installments of the series, is good. There are a few dungeon themes that I would consider listening to outside the game, and field music tends to complement the settings and action well. There are a few tunes that get irritating in short order, namely those that occur when the player is required to utilize a special transport of some kind, but luckily they're few and far between.
Sound effects are generally good. Guns sound like guns, explosions sound like explosions, monster roars are appropriately menacing. However, there are some glaring issues here that must be addressed. Sword sound effects are a huge step backward from PSO. Gone are the Star Wars-like lightsaber hum sounds from PSO's energy weapons. They have been replaced by high-pitched, tinny-sounding whooshes and hisses that sound unimpressive at best and are physically painful to hear at worst. Compounding the problem of lackluster sword sound effects, weapon impact sounds seldom differ from the same flat "smack" or bass-heavy "boom." Again, this is not to say that explosive weapons don't sound appropriate, but a little variety would have been nice, and being run over by a charging beast sized at about 5 times the mass of the main character should produce more fitting sounds than an empty-sounding slap. I got the impression that Sonic Team really cut corners when it came to developing sound effects for the game's combat sections.
The worst offense, however, is one many players may be fortunate enough never to run across. Should one make the grave mistake of giving the main character magical skills to use, he will yell and scream loudly with every casting. If his vocalizations were primal roars of unbridled magical fury and rage boiling within him, there would be no problem. However, as it is, he sounds more like a pubescent 14-year-old yelling at a bus-stop bully to give him back his hat. There is no way to turn this off aside from simply not developing the main character as a magic-user. Stick to melee and projectile weapons if you don't care to hear failed Bruce Lee impersonations hundreds of times per mission.
Having credited the game for its accomplishments, it is time to move onto the game's shortcomings which, much to my dismay, are far more numerous, extensive, and severe.
Another reviewer here at GameFAQs noted that the game has a throwaway plot. I agree with this assessment, but would like to take it a step further. Not only is the plot uninspired and not only does it fail to engage the player, it's poorly developed on top of it all. It consists of entities called SEEDs wreaking havoc around the solar system as a result of experimentation on particles called A-Photons. The technobabble runs pretty high sometimes, and is seldom explained beyond a sentence or two on what it's possible applications or benefits are. There is also the Communion of Gurhal, a religious organization seemingly thrown in to provide a token church, to make for dramatic conflict between the heroes and yet another uncooperative authority, and a contrived reference to classic PS in the form of the Adjective Noun Name character Light Master Rutsu, whose name and demeanor implies that he is supposed to remind one of the Reverent Lutz, leader of the Espers of Dezolis. A pity, then, that the once-great wizard is reduced to little more than the church's political figurehead. Seldom do we see him wield any impressive magic as Rune Walsh did in PSIV, and for a reference to an all-knowing sage, he's pitifully short-sighted and narrow-minded when it comes to helping out the protagonists.
The story takes its time getting up to speed, which is not a good thing in this case as once the main story thread gets underway, it's over almost as quickly as it began. It all begins with an attack on the hero's city which finds him and his sister in some hot water, only to be rescued by an organization called the GUARDIANS. The GUARDIANS' role in the society presented by the game is never really explained, but I get the impression that they're less mercenaries a la the Hunters' Guild of PSIV and PSO, and more protectors and servants a la the Jedi of Star Wars. Inspired by the GUARDIANS' heroism in his rescue, the main character, Ethan, decides to join them. The next several hours of the game detail his experiences in GUARDIANS training and, in doing so, introduce a few more supporting characters and the beginnings of the story proper. After Ethan graduates from training, the mission to rid the Gurhal system of the SEEDs begins. It largely consists of traveling to the three planets: Moatoob, Neudaiz, and Parum, and activating reactors which, once activated, will transport the SEEDs to another dimension. If this sounds strained and contrived, it's because it is.
I was excited to hear that a PS game was being produced that was going to be story-centric and character-driven. After having played it, I long for the openness and ambiguity of PSO. Its paper-thin but quirkily acceptable plot stood well out of the way and let the gameplay shine. PSU's uninteresting, derivative, and woefully bland plot stands right in the way of enjoying the game and makes a veritable Pythonesque Black Knight of itself. Even after finishing the game, I can hear it screaming "Come back here and take what's coming to you! I'll bite your legs off!"
Seldom when playing through an RPG am I asked to tolerate characters who are as flat, uninteresting, plain old stupid, uninspired, derivative, or otherwise as irritating as those who make up the cast of Phantasy Star Universe. Well, here I have been asked. In fact, the proverbial gun has been put to my head and I have had demands made of me to swallow these characters.
The lead protagonist, Ethan Waber, is easily the worst main character in Phantasy Star history. Flitting from dense to overconfident to confused to angry back to overconfident and right on down to dumb as two bags of bricks, sometimes all within 10 minutes, his character implements aspects of just about every archetype in existence and yet falls cleanly into none of them, perhaps with the catchall exception of "Irritating anime character that reminds you of people you knew back in high school." For someone who claims to want to be a warrior to protect the people he cares about, he is a world-class space cadet, needing every last detail of every situation explained to him in terms a four-year-old child could understand. There are better ways to develop a plot and present it to the player than by anticipating (wrongly, I might add) every stupid question they may have, and then answering them when asked by the idiot hero. Ethan as a character grates on every nerve he can, and Ethan as the player's in-game avatar is an insult to the player's intelligence.
However, the atrocities don't stop there. The next character we meet is Lumia, Ethan's little sister. It's interesting to note that the last time a main character had a sibling in a Phantasy Star game, which was the case in Phantasy Star 1, he (Nero Landale) died within the first 5 minutes of the game, which gave the game's heroine her motivation for undertaking her grand quest in the first place. Maybe Lumia is nostalgia in disguise, as I certainly wanted to see her shot out of an airlock within the first 5 minutes of Phantasy Star Universe. Again it seems the game is borrowing from anime cliches. Note to the script writers: "annoying little sibling" characters are not endearing or funny. They are, as their stereotype so plainly states, annoying. The one possible plot point that could have salvaged Lumia, which is her desire to join the GUARDIANS late in the game, was thrown away when she found out that boo-hoo, she wasn't old enough. So rather than showing the main character's sister undergoing the same hardships and tribulations that the main character did, a plot element that if done correctly would have enriched both Ethan and Lumia's characters and provided some nice full-circle development, we're instead treated to a despondent little girl who bemoans the cruelty of her youth, and then cheers right back up with a few "inspiring" sentences from big brother. It's unpleasantly reminiscent of the kid who's too short to ride a roller-coaster at a theme park, and then transitions (as only kids can do) from crying to cheering when promised cotton candy.
After Lumia, we're "treated" to Ethan's friend Hyuga, whom I suspect to be a veiled nod to Hugh of PS2, but who is far more pompous and pigheaded than the scholarly biologist who accompanied Rolf in his quest to defeat Mother Brain in A.W. 1284. Part socially-inept dreamer and part womanizer with a dash of pedophile thrown in for good measure (I wish I were making this up, but the man starts putting the moves on Lumia when he's visibly 10 years her senior, another plot point that inexplicably vanishes 3 hours later into the game), Hyuga is intended to be a somber counterpoint to Ethan's exuberance. To those who are familiar with the medical drama "House M.D.," Hyuga plays the game's version of Dr. Chase to Ethan's (considerably more whiny, though I didn't think it possible) Allison Cameron. A pity that there was no suitable version of Greg House himself to slap them both around in an hour-long cutscene.
The nearest we get to such a stern mentor comes in the form of the two "teacher" characters, Karen Erra and Lucaim Nav. Karen, a Numan/Newman, is Ethan's direct commanding officer and to this point she actually succeeds somewhat. All things considered, Karen is possibly one of very, very few tolerable characters in Phantasy Star Universe. However, any strength she has as a leader is drastically diminished whenever she has to interact with any other character in any position of authority. Put concisely, teacher becomes a doormat. Not once does Karen ever stand up to another character, be they friendly, hostile, or neutral. Military guards, villains, politicians, she "negotiates" with them all rather than putting her foot down and doing what she and the characters came to do. By "negotiating," I mean to say she bends over backwards to meet every demand and desire of those who would stand in her way, all the while accompanied by lightsaber-wielding bundles of muscle and testosterone, and sometimes an android toting a huge plasma cannon. Karen, if you came to save your friends, don't play nicey-nicey with the soldiers restricting access to their location (which happens to be scheduled for a fire-bombing). You explain that you are going to save your friends and they can help you, get out of your way, or find out what the business end of that plasma cannon feels like. For a para-military organization, the GUARDIANS kowtows to the government and military with painfully high frequency. This is certainly not the Hunters' Guild of Pioneer 2, and most definitely not the Guild of Aiedo. To top off the disappointment that is Karen, she turns from (slightly-less-than-)authoritative commander to giggling schoolgirl when she meets her "sister," who in reality is merely a close friend, and whom she hasn't seen for some time.
Oh, but what about the other "teacher" character, Lucaim Nav? Apparently the "headmaster" (though he has no office, insignia, or any other trappings of someone in a prestigious academic position) of the GUARDIANS, he's a kooky old man who, in an effort to "teach" Ethan how to fight like a GUARDIANS (more on arbitrary capitalization and improper use of plurals in a little while), cracks jokes and taunts him as he effortlessly pummels him in training session after training session. Never is he seen teaching a class on strategy in a proper classroom or even teaching any class of more than 3 people. It's just him, Hyuga, and Ethan sparring in an unfurnished room. Boy, I'd love to have his job and be paid a headmaster's salary. Oh, and I might add that his oddball mannerisms and sense of humour are made even more bizarre and inexplicable by the fact that he is an android, a class of character that has historically been perfectly stoical in the Phantasy Star series. Further compounding this incongruity is the fact that Lou, another robotic character in PSU, does exhibit such stoicism. I can think of little other explanation for Lucaim's animated joviality than that Sonic Team simply didn't care about consistency.
The next two characters we meet are Leo and Tonnio. Leo, in addition to Karen, is actually a relatively tolerable character. He's a seasoned fighter who's sensible, friendly, and competent. He doesn't launch into abrupt tirades of moralizing, he doesn't crack awkward jokes at other characters' expense, and he doesn't generally make an ass of himself at every possible opportunity. If I had to name a favourite character, Leo is most probably it. Tonnio, however, is another story. Aside from being involved in an ill-thought-out love triangle between himself, a lady whom he fancies, and a pirate captain (GUARDIANS of the Caribbean, anyone?), he's the game's requisite hothead character and, sadly, lives up to the role with next to no deviation. He's ever boastful and feels the need to constantly remind the other characters of his superiority, apparently owing to the fact that he is able to transform himself into a large beast. Never mind the fact that by the time you meet him, the heroes will have taken down monsters twice his size. He also has some truly bizarre lines, the most memorable of which being an accusation of soullessness made against Lou the CAST. Note that at the point in the game at which he makes this comment, there has been nary a mention of souls or anything like them, and the state of a person having or not having any such defining element of humanity has been, and remains for the rest of the game, a complete non-issue.
Lou herself is a relatively minor character, and my opinion of her is honestly neither here nor there. She has some cool scenes and some awkward moments, but ultimately her presence is neither a detractor nor a net gain for the game.
Finally, rounding off this misfit cast is the game's token Darky McBroodsalot antagonist, Magashi. Magashi is a winged robot from a mysterious organization known as the Endrum Collective. As a villain he is adequately intimidating in his mannerisms and personality, and certainly is shown to harbor malicious intent. The problem I have with Magashi is twofold: First of all, he is horribly inadequately developed. By the end of the game you will know very little about him or his organization, and the final confrontation with him, aside from having an admittedly impressive "Star Wars" style saber duel between him and Ethan, does little to grip the player or make any emotional impact whatsoever. Secondly, Magashi is the game's antagonist. Period. For those who have followed Phantasy Star since its inception, never before has the series had a game wherein the first introduced villain is the villain. From King Lassic to Mother Brain to the myriad villains in PS3 to Zio the Black Magician, there has always been a larger driving Force (no double-pun intended) behind the bad guy's badness. It's been a mainstay of PS plot revelation that once you defeat the current baddie, a new layer of story complexity is revealed, and by the end of the game everything comes together and also fits into the larger overarching series plot. Even PSO, which didn't have a traditional "villain" so much as it had a mystery to solve, followed a similar pattern in slowly revealing an epic scheme. Not so in the case of Magashi: he's the end-all be-all of antagonists in PSU, and he disappoints.
I have saved the worst for last. They're minor characters compared to the likes of Ethan, Karen, and Magashi, but I harbor a very special kind of contempt for characters like this. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you: The Vol Brothers. Well, as much as three completely non-identical people of three different species can be brothers. There's the weaselly leader, the big dumb oaf, and...the other guy, who really seems to serve no purpose whatsoever. The Vol Brothers are the para-antagonists who appear at the most inopportune times to make life tough on the heroes. Even in later parts of the game, when the heroes are considerably more powerful than they were during their first run-in with the VBs, these three cretins insist on showing up to detract from what little gravity the plot has to offer. They serve no purpose to further the plot and are there for...hell, I don't even know why they're there, other than to have another cheap reference to classic PS to try to win favour from the fans of old ("Vol" was an instant-death technique in PSIV). Either that or to make the player understand what it feels like to wish someone a very, very slow, protracted, and agonizing death. Such as being reduced to a pile of wet meat in a giant food processor or something to that effect. They remind me a lot of throwaway villains like Pokemon's Team Rocket or Ed, Ben, and Topo in Brave Fencer Musashi. However, the Musashi characters had the common decency to go down and stay down once defeated in the game's final stretch. If you ever wanted to become an atheist, play Phantasy Star Universe, because the fact that the Vol Brothers are alive and well in the end is irrefutable proof that there is no God.
So with character this horrid and a plot this thin, can it get any worse? Sources say...yes. There are a few more aspects to PSU that a discerning gamer should know about. First off is the quality of voice-overs. They tried something different from most games here. During the cutscenes, the developers decided to space voice clips closer together to alleviate the stiff, stilted "one at a time" exchanges most other games have during voiced segments. The problem is that while they solved the problem of heated arguments still following a "take turns" pattern, they introduced the problem of everyone talking over everyone else as one character's line finishes and another begins, and the end result is even more unnatural sounding than the one-by-one approach taken in past games.
Another nitpick, albeit a minor one, is the needless and unexplained capitalization of certain key terms. Namely GUARDIANS, SEEDs, and my personal most hated, TECHNICs. It's one thing to have an acronym and explain what it's supposed to stand for. Wild Arms makes a point of doing this and thinking up new meanings for ARMS in each game. PSU, however, considers it appropriate to capitalize WORDS without telling you what those WORDS actually mean. I don't know if it's supposed to sound mysterious, hi-tech, futuristic, or what. The worst of these, however, is "TECHNICs." Previously, Phantasy Star games referred to magic as "techniques," implying that they were more akin to psionic abilities or some other feat attainable by the human body or mind. This was used to its fullest extent in Phantasy Star 4 to distinguish commonplace techniques from true magic, a mystical phenomenon wielded by only a select few. So why the change? For what good reason did they change the adequate, accepted, established moniker of "Techniques" into an all-caps monstrosity?
Finally, item synthesis. Gone are the hunts for special weapons and rare items that so many enjoyed in PSO. In their place is the Synthesis System, a broken version of the item-creation system found in Star Oceans 2 and 3. Rather than challenging the hardest possible enemies and quests to get the best possible superweapons, the player is instead asked to go on easter-egg hunts for materials that can be assembled into weapons or armor. Compounding this problem is the absolutely absurd idea of merchants across the various planets only offering to upgrade their own items or synthesized items, and the needless complexity of weapon ranks (with "S" inexplicably above "A" in the ranking scale when the rest of the scale follows the standard C, B, A progression). In PSO, you had weapons and grinders. A grinder would upgrade a weapon's power up to a certain point. They were usable by the player on the fly. You could pick one up and use it right away on your favourite weapon. They could be used on any weapon. And they came in good, better, and best varieties, varying in their rarity according to their usefulness. Well, ease of use was apparently a four-letter word around Sonic Team's office, and so the intuitive and simple grinding system went out the window in favor of this nightmare of a matching game.
This has been a very long review, and I appreciate your sticking with it. I hope I've been of some help to those pondering whether to buy PSU or go for another game. I'm not saying there's nothing at all to like about this game, just that the good is drastically overshadowed by the bad. If you're looking for the equivalent of a cheesy interactive anime, maybe this game is for you. If, however, you want either a rewarding RPG experience or to relive the glory days of Phantasy Star, look elsewhere. There are plenty of more deserving RPGs out there for the former, and for those interested in the latter, dust off your old Genesis gear and take a walk down memory lane the right way. You'll enjoy it much more.
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