Phantasy Star Online was originally released on the Dreamcast as two separate games. An expansion was later released on the GameCube and Xbox with both games and extra content as one game. PSO was the first of its own kind a first massive multiplayer online games on a console. Sega had a massive success on its hands with this game and with good reason. PSO was a ton of fun if only slightly limited by the amount of content. But, to this day Phantasy Star Online still has an active player base on private servers which can be accessed through different means. In-spite of the content limitation PSO is still fondly remembered as the grandfather of console MMOs.
Phantasy Star Online is based on the very distant future after Phantasy Star Zero. The people of the planet Coral were facing an apocalypse thanks to over pollution. Instead of dying they decided to enact the Pioneer Project which was a mass exodus of their home world. Pioneer 1 left Coral first with the intent of finding a planet that could be colonized by humans. Years after Pioneer 1 left they encountered the planet Ragol which was a paradise with lush forests and relatively peaceful fauna. But, all was not well in Ragol as it hid a secret that would spell disaster for the people of Coral. When P2 tried to establish connections with the people of Ragol a huge explosion happened due to some semi-invisible beast and this is the point where your adventure begins.
You start the game as with many other MMOs spending a few minutes (hours?) creating your character. PSO offered 3 factions you could join like the physical Hunters, the sniping Rangers, and the technical (its magic they call it techs) Forces. Phantasy Star Online explains that each of these correspond to your experience level with the game as Hunters are recommended for newbies and Forces for more experienced players with Rangers lying somewhere in the middle. As I mentioned above for new players it’s best to pick Hunters, but they tend to lag behind at higher difficulties due to their jack-of-all-stats build. Which speaking of difficulties, you’ll be repeating the same 4 stages and unlocking harder challenges.
*Credits to GospelExe Gaming for the video
Phantasy Star Online has 2 episodes with 4 stages each designed to be beaten multiple times at the higher difficulties which improve the drops from enemies. From normal to very hard there aren’t many changes in the enemies aside from their power and speed (and drops). However, once the player unlocks the ultimate difficulty it becomes a nightmare. Phantasy Star Online ultimate difficulty changes the enemies, the stages (in terms of appearance), and changes the strategies required to fight them. Ultimate difficulty takes anywhere from 100 to 150 hours to unlock while playing offline (online mode has easier ways to level up). In ultimate difficulty you need a balanced team of players to battle the challenges in PSO otherwise you will quickly become swarmed by the enemies (in single player hit and run tactics work best). A balanced team in PSO can be a combination of any classes, but two Hunters, one Ranger, and a Force can be a deadly mixture.
As mentioned before each episode in PSO has 4 stages which are broken down as follows “Zone Name 1 through 3”. These levels range from short to extremely long and can become rather tiresome after a long bout of play (especially in episode II where the levels have multiple zones and floors in each one during a single stage). PSO also randomizes the levels a little bit each time you play it, but the overall design is the same. The levels can be a point of contention in the game with certain stages containing beautiful scenery and panoramas while others exhume an aura of despair and claustrophobia. But, the enemies keep the action flowing and despite the overuse of palette swaps they still manage to keep the levels with a good balance of tension and excitement.
As far as the overuses of palette swaps the first two bosses in each of the games are semi-clones with the ultimate difficulty making the bosses more advanced versions of the originals similar to the clones. The first battle in Phantasy Star Online is probably one of the most impressive fights with your character discovering a dragon, but they become crazier after that with a giant mutated insect, a crazed robot and Dark Falz as the last challenge. They all have their strengths and weaknesses which can be exploited in order to grind through them faster. In episode two you fight a dragon, an insect, a giant griffin and finally Olga Flow. Furthermore the battles in Phantasy Star Online are extremely tense and enjoyable and bosses can easily cause a total party wipe if the players are careless. In Phantasy Star Online it pays off to prepare for battle since a lot of these enemies tend to move out of range quickly which makes spells and guns a much more viable option than blades or staffs. Players will feel extremely satisfied after a successful battle especially when the enemy drops a rare weapon. While the drop system in PSO suffers from the same problem as regular MMOs, they are found often enough that it feels satisfying to obtain one.
The graphics deserve an honorable mention since Phantasy Star Online looks really good for its time. As mentioned earlier some of the views around Ragol are extremely gorgeous. Especially in Episode II where you get to explore islands, mountain sides and jungles. You can enjoy the scenery, but watch out for enemies because Episode II expects you to have leveled your character from the first one, even on normal difficulty. Overall Episode I is more enjoyable than Episode II, but the second one has better environments and stages. Which is good because Episode I has quest to keep you occupied while Episode II does not; in the first episode you will get several missions which not only yield Meseta (money) they also provide interesting side-stories that can affect the outcome of future missions and what secrets you unlock in them.
Phantasy Star Online was the precursor to Monster Hunter, Borderlands, and even Destiny as the pioneer (get it?) of MMOs on consoles. If you feel like ever trying out PSO make sure you find one of the multiple private servers and give it a shot.