Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast was a genuine revolution: the first-ever online RPG for consoles, it boasted an advanced translation system, free online play and stacks of action. The GameCube saw Phantasy Star Online: Episodes I & II that expanded the original game with all-new areas, weapons, monsters and quests, but never really took off owing to the inherent difficulty getting the 'Cube online and the introduction of a monthly fee for gamers, and a similar payment problem befell the disappointing Phantasy Star Universe. Since then the series has struggled to fulfil its Dreamcast-era promise, but the all-new Phantasy Star Zero for DS aims to become the ultimate entry in the online offshoot of the PS series. In some ways it delivers, but in others it's sadly lacking.
One of the major criticisms levelled at Phantasy Star Online, to which this game undoubtedly aligns itself, is the lack of a coherent story, and PS0 tries hard to address this. Featuring some good quality animated scenes and plenty of dialogue - all skippable, impatient fans - it sets up the tale ahead nicely, and there's some decent dialogue between the characters. It's not the most gripping of plots but it has its moments, and there are some amusing sidequests along the way, but anyone looking for a great literary experience may want to look elsewhere.
Of course, the main draw of PS0 is the online mode, offering four player cooperative play over the Internet, a mouthwatering proposition for DS owners. There's no lobby system, with a quick matchmaking option setting you up with strangers for questing or exploring the field. The lack of lobbies hurts the game's social side, always a big draw from the previous versions where players would gather to chat as much as fight. The gameplay itself is quick and relatively lag-free, although finding a game can take a few minutes even at busy times. When partying with strangers, you lose the Visual Chat function but can still communicate via some quick text choices, although there's no way to add a gamer you've met through matchmaking due to Nintendo's stringent online rules. You can rate players however, which alters the likelihood of meeting again in future, but there's nothing as solid as a Guild Card, unless you use the Friend Code system out of game.
Whether online or offline, the focus of PS0 is firmly on action. All the combat is real-time, with an "action palette" allowing you to customise your face buttons to play to your strengths and stronger attacks and techniques available by charging the buttons. It's a streamlined system but you're missing the ability to switch weapons and use items from the menu on the fly, meaning you have to pause to swap weapons or organise your palette. It's not a huge downside but it does disrupt the flow of combat and is one feature from PSO: Ep I & II that would have made life a lot easier.
The lack of hot-swapping is probably down to the limitations of the DS's controls, and it's not the only aspect of the game that's hindered by the machine. The game is graphically rather accomplished, with good flourishes of animation and some enormous enemies filling the screen. In fact, it's really a game that needs larger screens: even with the DSi's size, your teammates take up too much of the screen, a problem exacerbated by the use of speech bubbles, cramping the visible space further. The game's big-screen roots are obvious, and try as it might PS0 never really settles into the handheld.
The touchscreen is underused, displaying the status of your character, team and target, with a map icon to tap and the ability to send messages to friends in the online mode. Although we should be grateful SEGA didn't decide to lumber us with a gesture-based magic system, it still feels like a missed opportunity: arranging quick-swap inventory items and using them from the bottom screen would have been a welcome feature.
Avid Phantasy Star fans will be pleased to see the return of favourite weapons, items and enemies, with Rappies, Meseta, Hilde variants and more all present and correct. Rangers, Hunters and Forces are all available in various forms, though there's no option to play as a Beast from Phantasy Star Universe. The sound effects and music will be very familiar to series veterans, giving the game a very PSO-faithful feel that's enough to make loyal followers overlook a few of its smaller issues.
Phantasy Star Zero is a brave and bold attempt at an action RPG for the DS, and its online features and size make it an enticing proposition. The inclusion of innovative features such as Visual Chat, the abundance of action, some witty dialogue and the presence of many traditional Phantasy Star elements help to secure this a decent score, and there is a lot to enjoy. After spending a few hours with it you begin to understand and accept its control limitations, but it's hard to shake the feeling that the game's potential is let down by the hardware itself.