These days the net is overflowing with free-to-play MMORPGs. But even before free-to-play MMORPGs were a thing, there was Phantasy Star Online. This online-RPG graced consoles and PCs alike in the early 2000s and proved to be the most popular game of its kind in Japan (until Final Fantasy XI hit stores in 2002). Now, over a decade later, Sega has brought out a full blown sequel in Phantasy Star Online 2. But does this sequel have the magic of the original or is it just another forgettable free-to-play MMO?
Most MMORPGs play basically the same. You attack an enemy and trade blows until one of you dies. Because even weaker enemies can dish out large amounts of damage when they come en masse, you rarely encounter large groups of enemies. Phantasy Star Online 2, on the other hand, includes a skill that changes all this for the better: the ability to dodge. By simply double tapping a movement key at the right moment, you can dodge any attack. To boost the difficulty, the game often swarms you with enemies—making for a frantic, chaotic, and incredibly fun battle system.
There is no communal world map in PSO2 other than the hub city where you pick up quests and shop. Instead you select a quest and go to your own little instance for that mission. When
you do this, however, you have the choice of making your own party or joining someone else's. If you join a party (or someone joins yours), the only major change is that the number of enemies dramatically increases. This means not only more exp, but also more loot. Best of all, the loot you can pick up only appears on your screen, not on anyone else's, so you never have to worry about loot-whoring. Simply put, Sega has created an MMO where there is really no reason to ever quest alone.
As for the player base itself, I found both the Japanese and English-speaking players incredibly helpful to new players. It's not uncommon for high level players to help newbies through their first set of quests and get them used to the ins and outs of the game. On the English side, websites like bumped.org and PSO-world.com have tons of support for players unable to read Japanese.
Another of the game's highlights is the ability to change your character's class at any time. Each of the three classes—melee, ranged, and magic—all have very different roles and level up
independently. So if you ever tire of your class, you can always try another one without having to make a new character from scratch.
Each class supports several different weapons that can be changed out at any given moment. On top of that, each weapon can be equipped with several different skills/magic to make the way you attack different from anyone else's. In other words, you have a phenomenal amount of customization that lets you play the game however you want.
As I stated above, the only set location in PSO2 is the hub city on board a space station. When you go on a mission, you explore a randomly generated map. However, it doesn't take long to notice you are passing by the same hill or same lake over and over again. While there are nice little touches like fog or rain that mix up the maps somewhat, they can't hide the fact you're seeing the same areas over and over again.
As with all free-to-play MMORPGs, PSO2 keeps itself running due to its micro-transaction system. Most things you can purchase are purely fun extras like costumes, additional character slots, exp bonuses, and your own room. However, there are some standard MMO features—more slots in your pack/storage, bonus skill trees, the ability to trade with other players—that must be purchased as well. The lack of these features in the free version of the game isn't all that detrimental to a normal player, but it is still noticeable.
I only played to level 10 in my time with Phantasy Star Online 2, but what I have experienced so far, I enjoyed. The players were helpful and co-op questing was fun. I found that the randomly generated maps do get a little tiring but was able to overlook the visual weaknesses due to the engaging gameplay. I have played many free-to-play MMORPGs in my time and Phantasy Star Online 2 ranks among the best of them. If you like fast-paced fighting and questing with friends, this is the MMO for you.
Phantasy Star Online 2 was released on July 4, 2012, on the PC in Japan and will be released outside of Japan early next year. If you want to try the Japanese version for yourself, check out our handy guide.