The Little Bang.
It's commonly accepted that the Universe is huge and pretty damn complex. It's also widely believed that our species is tiny and pretty damn dumb. So when comparing the inner workings of the Universe with humanity's stress over which size latte to buy, it's no wonder these relative terms stick like truths.
Rather than let such basic thoughts use up my cranial RAM, I simply file them in the ‘Glad’ folder, as in I’m glad we're small enough to be under the radar. If the Universe knew what we were up to with our lattes and iced Chais, it would crush us like bugs. But we haven't gotten hit with a cosmic flyswatter yet, so Nature graciously continues to allow us our daily grind, ever convincing ourselves that there's some greater purpose to what we're doing.
And then we play Phantasy Star Universe
, an addictive and shallow online RPG set in a purposeless, shiny world that seems to promise something great, but never delivers. And then it hits us, life is just a rote series of meaningless acts on the way to the end of the world! It’s an incredible metaphor for our ignoble place in the universe, but it’s not really what you look for in your electronic entertainment.
A lengthy single-player offline story mode places you in the power-laces of Ethan Waber, a cyberpunk Xtreme sports wannabe with parental issues and a penchant for getting involved over his sparky head. And so, he joins The Guardians, a group focused on planetary protection ever since the SEED invasion. Like locusts, they descended upon the star system with no warning and no apparent reason, save to give you experience points and phat loots. So hey! They're cool!
A word of caution though: you'll suffer through frequent bouts of corny indigestion just to get to this basic point. After a while, your hand will sooner twitch towards a Physics textbook than hit the A button again to read more of Xtreme Ethan as he gets emo to anyone within earshot. Xtreme Emo Brah! To compound the cheese-on-cheese action, each story chapter is preceded by a cinematic number that's as dramatic as this
, except not funny or even remotely Sonical.
Since the storyline is best enjoyed without a brain, it’s only fitting that the twenty hour single-player experience, which takes you through a tour of different, exotic animal species, feels like a full frontal lobotomy. When you're done kicking the crap out of anything that walks, crawls, or flies and go online, you'll see how much the Story Mode reads like a features list of the online game, which is no surprise, since the real pitch here is that ten dollar per month online content. You buy now! Gogo! How about: Nono!
It's a real bummer that it costs any money to get online and play through the same grinds. It's an even greater shame when you consider the slick gameplay interface. Like a hot woman on the arm of a boring schlub, this sexy system is tragically wasted. You can toggle weapons, use items, and place any of these on quickbar slots – all while on the run or in combat. Then, two seconds later, you're opening the map and still on the move, like a badass, to your next target, because travel uses an equally fast and intuitive system. No moments are wasted in this game, just hours.
It’s too bad the enemies aren’t as smart as the interface. Like the console Baldur's Gate series
, the most effective tactic, regardless of level or enemy, is to simply circle around and rabbit-punch mobs in their blind spots, usually the backs of their heads or their kidneys. Harder enemies require you to watch their animations for a tell-tale sign that basically screams, "Hey check it! I'm going to perform flaming fist of fire now! Ready? And… circle around and hit me in the ass!"
Fighting from afar is neither as repetitive nor as addictive, oddly enough. Once you see monsters in the distance, you can simply blast at them like monkeys in a barrel. Lumbering enemies slug their way forward blocking bullets with their faces while smaller, zippier critters can be circle-strafed until dead. Some enemies have ranged attacks themselves, but owning them is merely a matter of locking on, strafing side to side and firing at will.
Despite the A.I., or lack thereof, combat both online and off makes you feel great, as though you've outsmarted the game. You'll put the weak A.I. out of your mind, convincing yourself, as you single-handedly fell eight monsters twice your level, that you are indeed the all-mighty one. To further prove your might, you'll rabbit-punch them again, and again, and again. This feeling of glee lasts for one, maybe two lengthy battles, until you realize that none of it matters. No one online cares about the gear you're sporting, and no one cares about what mission you're doing – they have all grinded Desert Area A fifty times already, and then Desert Area Bhundred times after that, and are now just hanging around trying to justify the ten bucks a month they spend on the game.
That's right. The areas and missions online are as repetitive as they come. To gain levels or "advance" online, you'll have to do the same missions over and over until you level up and move onto the next tier of grinding. And that's it.
The vast majority of quest rewards comes in two varieties: healing crap and other crap. The best type of drop is straight-up cash, partly because you can use it to buy not-crap, but mostly because it's scarce in comparisson to the plethora of random herbs, berries, photon-this and photon-that which all sell for chicken feed.
One of the neatest features is being able to pimp out your very own room with a load of useless, though fun, furniture collectables. It's something to spend your money on, but it's also fundamentally pointless, like everything else in Phantasy Star Universe. Still, you'll be warping back to your room a lot, so it’s nice that you can trick it out.
The absence of a universal trading system blasts the in-game economy. The only way to shop is by going to players' individual rooms and checking their own personal shops, one by one. Many times, you'll see ridiculous prices for basic things, like a Trimate for 123,456 meseta and other such annoying acts of noobery. There is a barebones search engine, via a laptop in your room, and you can sort through other players’ rooms a bit, but there's no way to search for an item and simply get a bunch of listings from player shops. Apparently, there is no Google in the future.
Besides, the regular stores carry everything you need. The only reason to visit a player shop is the off-chance that you'll find something cool at a reasonable price. An item synthesis system lets players make unique equipment out of extremely hard to find reagents, but is really just an end-game scavenger hunt for hardcore addicts. The question is: will you care enough to make it past the first $10 month, let alone to end-game?
No. "Universe" is far from the right word. The whole game is instanced like to Guild Wars
, but it has only four zones – three planets and one space station; thus, there's very little reason to go exploring around the "world", which is really just a bunch of shopping malls. It’s like North New Jersey...in space. Theoretically, this is where players meet and do some trading. Yeah, all forty of them.
If you've ever used a soft-keyboard for chat, you know how long it takes to say anything coherent, let alone intelligent or witty. So instead, people collect like flies and loiter in a corner of a shopping mall, spamming ASCII equivalents of fellatio or Kirby smoking a blunt. They all know there's little reason to form or join a party or trade much in Phantasy Star Universe
, and thus there's little reason to have meaningful communication.
It’s good that they stay put too, because every one of them jerkily lags as they run by you. It’s even better if you stay in your room when not out grinding away, because the more you run around attempting to explore any of the four shopping mall lobbies, the more you come to realize you're in a ghost town. Eerie mannequin like NPCs are everywhere, walking around to create the illusion that Phantasy Star Universe is populated, and not just a gaping black hole.
At least it’s a bright and pretty one. Everything runs smoothly, and the futuristic neon-metallic style is as cheesy as it is fun to look at. Apart from its clean-cut style, it looks like Phantasy Star Universe
uses a graphics engine similar to the one used in the Dreamcast original
. All the players run weird, like they’re trying really hard not
to walk funny. The voice acting is as cheap as you'd expect, but it's nothing compared to the shopping mall lobby music -- it genuinely sounds like you're shopping for bad underwear no matter what planet you're on.
The overall package isn't too little, it's just way too late. The same kind of online content is free in other, better games, so the ten dollar fee is out of the question. Just say to yourself: "Paying ten dollars monthly for a room? I have enough problems with that in real life" and it'll all be ok.
Anyway, being on the outer-rim of the MMO genre relieved Sonic Team from having to create an auction house, trade skills, a PvP system, party loot distribution, strategic dungeons, or any other depth-giver that would have actually made the game worth paying for. Oh well, at least there's no need to worry about roving noobies drooling over your gear, gold farmer spam, party politics, or guild drama. Yet those are all symptoms of an MMO's success – things Phantasy Star Universe knows nothing about.