Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Agony and the Ecstacy: Phantasy Star Portable

You ever find a game you almost feel guilty for enjoying, because practically nobody else did? That's the vibe I'm getting from Phantasy Star Portable, released for the PSP in 2009. I recently picked this up at a GameStop in southern Arizona during a Buy Two Get Two Free sale. I honestly wasn't expecting much from it, but five hours in, I can safely say this is my favorite of the games I purchased.

(I also bought this, which
was its own punishment.)

Uh... can I just have a sword, please?
You know, that pointy stabby thing.
Phantasy Star Portable got a frosty reception from game critics, and I'll concede that the game has a lot of rough spots. It's not as user-friendly as it ought to be... weapons and items are given Phantasy Star's typically perplexing titles, and using Photon Arts is a needlessly drawn out process. You'll first have to buy the power-up, then learn to use it, then attach it to a specific weapon and put that in a slot of your inventory palette, a sort of speed dial that lets you access items quickly in combat. To its credit, Phantasy Star Portable offers basic instructions along with a couple of easy missions to get you familiar with the play mechanics. Nevertheless, if your copy didn't come with an instruction booklet, prepare to be confused for the first couple of hours. I still don't know how to use TECHNICs, or why I should bother.

Ooh, ooh! Bet I know who that was!
Beyond that, the game's storyline has... issues. In the tradition of Ys and too many other RPGs, your hero is mute, communicating exclusively in punctuation. That's a shame, because he or she will have plenty to complain about. Sexual harassment is played up for laughs (lively music plays in the background as your creepy old commanding officer Nav tries to get his hands on a new recruit) and the voice acting never aspires to anything greater than tolerable, with one partner speaking in a drab tone that could just as easily be a product of boredom as world-weary experience.

I don't know what you things are, but
you're going down!
However, once you get past the questionable humor and the confusing user interface and the shops that reduce you to a glowing cursor and "partner machines" that look like French maids (phew!), you'll find a genuinely engaging action game with more variety than you can shake an... er, Soda Brekka at. There are plenty of melee weapons, ranging from swords to twin daggers to laser claws, and you can switch to rifles, handguns, and crossbows if you'd prefer to put some space between you and the monsters roaming each stage. You can even switch to a first-person view to improve your accuracy and target the weak points of the gargantuan bosses.

Last time, on Deep Space Nine...
I complained about the storyline earlier, but you'll find some good ideas sprinkled here and there. Unlike the Phantasy Star series on the Sega Genesis where science-fiction mingled awkwardly with medieval fantasy, Phantasy Star Portable is futuristic throughout, with humans, genetically engineered beasts and newmans, and androids known as CASTS (heh, I see what they did there) living together in an uneasy galactic alliance. One of your partners, Vivienne, is an especially advanced CAST who struggles to understand both the world around her and her own identity. It's not an Asimov-quality examination of human/robot relations, but it's well-intentioned and adds meat to the plot.

Sega: The Challenge Will Always Be There.
Oh yeah, then there was that other thing. While you're out there exterminating dozens of creepy creatures, you can arm yourself with weaponized game consoles. I've found two so far, and I'm pretty sure there are more hidden in the game. As flawed as Phantasy Star Portable may be, it's hard to hate it when it lets you have a missile-launching Master System as a pet.

1 comment:

  1. More power to ya if you like it, but my experience with the demo (dunno if it was that or one of the others) was several minutes of chatty cutscenes and a battle system I found disappointing after having played Monster Hunter.

    From my experience, I recall some beast lady who's your mentor or something (Maybe she only appears for CASTs? I went with a CAST MC) talks a bunch then some robot girl gets introduced then there's more talking then you have to navigate some low budget visual novel map to get to the game part of the game while skipping past more pointless low budget talking and then I got bored and fought some turrets then I was bored and dead.

    Still leagues better than Lord of Arcana, though.