Phantasy Star Online 2 finally coming to the West was one of the biggest stories coming out of E3 2019. While the much-beloved Dreamcast original was released worldwide in 2001, the second entry hasn’t made its way out of Japan for nearly eight years–until now.
Though Phil Spenser has made it clear that Microsoft intends to make the game multiplatform eventually, it was Xbox Insiders who got to get their hands on the first official localization during the closed beta this past weekend.
It was rough going at first; it seems as though SEGA didn’t expect the ravenous demand for PSO2 to be so strong among Western Xbox One owners, as the mass influx of players Friday night left the servers in shambles for the first several hours of the beta. After a bit of maintenance, though, the community was treated to one of the best gaming experiences of 2020 so far.
The most immediately striking aspect of Phantasy Star Online 2 is its visual fidelity. The title originally released in 2012 and is by no means a graphical powerhouse, but it still holds up quite a bit better than one might expect. The bright, anime-inspired visuals and generous dollops of color do wonders for making the character models, enemies, and space station station look crisp and attractive. It’s only when accepting missions and exploring generic forest, volcano, and desert environments that the game’s age starts to show.
The base setup for Phantasy Star Online 2 is simple and enticing: as new recruits of ARKS, an explorer organization traveling through space to find a habitable planet, players must take on all manner of exploration-based quests while defending themselves from hostile alien lifeforms.
The inherent open-endedness of a premise like this lends itself perfectly to an MMORPG; there’s a linear storyline to be followed, but the real meat of the experience is found in the party-based missions surrounding it. Between seven different types of quests and the additional challenges provided by Client Orders (e.g. “Find X Enemy Drop” or “Defeat X Type of Enemies Only Using a Gunblade”), there’s a metric ton of variety here for those not compelled by the core narrative.
Of course, this quest-based structure would fall flat on its face if the combat wasn’t engaging. After all, MMORPGs often struggle when it comes to offering a fluid combat system that works well on controller.
Instead of presenting players with dozens of spell and attack icons on-screen, Phantasy Star Online 2 wisely streamlines combat options and focuses on fast-paced action. The result is combat that feels much more like Kingdom Hearts than, say, Final Fantasy XIV. It’s also helpful that players can switch between classes at any time to change up their combat style or better suit a party composition.
It’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t experience any significant frame drops during combat throughout the weekend; it was only when running around congested areas of the space station that things started to chug. Thankfully, there are a surprising number of graphical options that allow players to sacrifice fidelity in favor of framerate.
When not busy taking on missions or pursuing story threads, there were also several special events for beta players to enjoy. One of the more unexpected highlights ended up being an in-game concert put on by Quna, an idol who puts on real-time performances.
It was a fun and natural way to gather tons of players together in one place, complete with pre-concert dance parties and endless attempts to hop on stage. The English localization also shone brightly here; both “Our Fighting” and especially “Eternal Encore” were performed beautifully and got rave responses from the crowd. The option to enter a cinematic mode and view the entire concert with dynamic camera angles made it that much better.
The other community-based diversions were Urgent Quests. These epic time-sensitive raids quickly matchmade players into a crew to unite against an impending extraterrestrial attack. Although each only lasted for thirty minutes, the rush of seeing countless players on my ship suddenly dash to the quest counter and get in as many battles as possible was exhilarating.
As an added bonus, both Quna’s concert and the Urgent Quests offered worthwhile rewards for participating. The concert offered temporary stat boosts for all who attended, while each Urgent Quest battle resulted in rare gear and item drops. The combination of stellar production values, great rewards, and strong community engagement made both of these events great fun.
It might’ve taken a while, but Phantasy Star Online 2′s Western debut has been a roaring success. The localization reads and sounds great, SEGA’s swift response to the server crash is promising, and a passionate community has already formed even among the Xbox One user base. Whether or not it can maintain that steam going into the impending PC beta and eventual launch this spring remains to be seen, but PSO2’s first steps outside of Japan have been undeniably promising.