The biggest phone bill I’ve ever been presented with in my entire life is £230. I got back from college one afternoon and my parents were sat in the front room looking utterly furious. Turns out, if you play online on your Dreamcast, in 2001, for a few hours almost every night, you’ll get a hefty bill in the post that you’ll spend the next few months paying back to your mum and dad.
I bought a Dreamcast FOR Phantasy Star Online. A few people I know had one, but no one had PSO. All I knew about the game was what I had read in the stacks of magazines I used to get and I knew I had to play it, somehow. So, I traded in ALL of my mint condition N64 games - Blast Corps, Wave Race 64, Goldeneye, 1080 Snowboarding, both Zelda games, Mystical Ninja and many more - for a Dreamcast with Metropolis Street Racer and Phantasy Star Online. Now, as the kind of awful nerd that likes to have boxed copies of old games taking up space in his flat, I occasionally get a pang of regret when I think about the stuff I traded in to get that Dreamcast, but then I remember, if I didn’t sell them I never would’ve played PSO. A fair trade. It remains one of the best games I’ve ever played, and definitely the best overall experience I’ve had with a videogame.
I understand that my own personal experiences around the game aren’t exactly thrilling reading. I mean, I know countless people who recieved the infamous ‘Dreamcast Phone Bill’ and probably even more who have made regretful trade-in decisions over the years, but the only way I can really talk about Phantasy Star Online is in these personal terms. It came out at time in my life where I was old enough to be able to appreciate a game of its quality and get it running online but still at a point in my life where I had enough free time to dedicate myself to an online game in this way. Nothing, ever, has had the same effect since. Even with World of Warcraft, I lasted about six weeks before Resident Evil 4 came out and I canned my subscription. I don’t really like MMORPGs and have no real interest in playing another. A close friend of mine also bought PSO after seeing me play and we both played it almost every night - it still being something we talk about to this day. Our stories. Brilliantly, I’ve met people over the years that have had these experiences, and we talk about them as if we were playing the game with one another even back before we knew each other!
My character, ‘Ruiner’, named after the Nine Inch Nails song because I was an angsty sixteen year old shit, was a RAmar - the ranged class - with purple hair. Ruiner fought his way through waves and waves of enemies, acquiring some of the most elaborate weaponry in the game and eventually hitting the level cap. He was unstoppable. Well, that is until I jumped on for a quick game a few months after my hardcore, nightly sessions on the game had died down. Hacking was rife and most servers were full of people using corrupt versions of the game. Ruiner’s glorious existence was ended when I joined a game full of hackers and someone turned him into one of the Christmas helper NPCs that were used in the lobby during the festive period. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but he was also unable to equip weapons and his level had been reset to level one. That was that.
For the time being, anyway. The Gamecube re-release also saw me sink an unbelievable amount of time into a game I had already played to death. I even bought the Gamecube broadband modem and had a ‘Hunter’s License’ subscription so I could play it online. A local four player split-screen was just the sort of dungeon crawling multiplayer title my household full of nerds was crying out for and also saw me put many an hour into leveling my character - the reborn ‘Ruiner’. Thank fuck Raptr didn’t exist back then.
Recently, I play on the PSO: Blue Burst third party servers when I get my annual urge to return to Ragol. The PC version of this release had its servers switched off a few years ago, but some enterprising individuals have created their own and run them with the same level of events and updates you’d expect from Sega themselves. In the decade since the original release, I’ve always found a way to scratch the itch.
Fast forward to the Tokyo Game Show 2010, when a trailer for a real sequel - not one of the many spin-offs - was announced by Sega. I’m older now, I have a job and some kind of life. I can’t do marathon midnight to 4am sessions every night. I can’t dedicate every evening to doing grind runs though ‘Hard Mode Ruins’. Yet, all I can think of is how I’m not sure I can play PSO in moderation!
This week, the Open Beta for PSO 2 went live, and I finally had my first chance to play this long-awaited sequel. My excitement to play this beta has caused me to jump through all sorts of ridiculous hoops in order to get it working. It is all in Japanese, so I used pages and pages of online translation guides to fumble my way through the registration process, in-game menus and find out what each quest asks of me. Lucky for me, I've been fluent in PSO since 2001. The updater is a bit ropey and therefore some enterprising souls have put the full patch online as a separate download, which I grabbed on my phone whilst at work, so I didn’t have to wait about when I got home. I might be getting another breathtaking phone bill courtesy of Phantasy Star Online. So far, it seems worth it.
Phantasy Star Online 2 so far seems like a pretty terrifying prospect for myself, my wallet and those close to me. For starters, they've brought the original game right up to date with a few of the things we take for granted here in 2012. Free-aiming for the ranged class. A more versatile, rewarding combo system for the melee class. A greater set of spells for the magic user. Much needed independent camera control. A graphical overhaul that looks really nice on our now vastly more powerful machines, but still retains a look that is very clearly 'Phantasy Star Online'. It is a better game than the original in almost every way. This is a videogame better than the one I've gushed over for a decade. This is a very good videogame.
It also uses the free to play model, which quite rightly concerned me at first. Free to play is usually an easy way to see how evil a particular company is, and in many cases, this model influences design decisions, allowing for some awful moments where, to progress or even succeed, you're going to have to continuously cough up change. PSO 2 seems, at least at the time of writing, to only really ask for money for fairly innocent things. You can't just buy success. You can buy something that lets you level up faster and packs of in-game currency if you want to buy some of the super-expensive customization packs for your character. The rest can all be gained through normal gameplay. You can also pay a subscription which gets you access to some premium content, but it is nice to see that all of this is optional and, again at the time of writing, doesn't ever appear to shove the need to buy anything down your throat. Sadly, right now there is no US/UK release date for the game, but some maniac fans have already created a translation for the closed beta. It is only a matter of time before they translate this open beta and hopefully the final release. I'm going to need it.
I struggle to talk about PSO in a fair, analytical sense. I can’t review it. The experience I had playing it, combined with that time in my life, my friends and the fact that it is a pretty good game to boot add up to an untouchably high score - more than any Edge 10, a 5/5 or arbitrary 100% bolted onto the bottom of a wall of text.