Phantasy Star Online 2 – Impressions After 20 Hours

Phantasy Star Online 2 has finally received a proper English release, and it has been a long time coming. I’ve been playing on Xbox One (X) since the closed beta and have A LOT OF THOUGHTS, so I’m going to collect them in chunks over the next few weeks (months? years?). It’s gonna be a ride.

The short version is, if you love PSO (and all its quirks), you should definitely play PSO 2. It’s free to play on Xbox now, with a Windows 10 Store release in late-May, so there’s very little risk involved. So give it a try.

Now begin the more nuanced thoughts. The good, the bad, and the laggy.

The first thing I noticed when starting PSO 2 is how much they nailed the PSO aesthetic. While the game may not exactly be a “direct sequel” story-wise, it is absolutely aligned aesthetically. Classes and items are carried over and expanded upon, and many enemies and areas echo their PSO predecessors. The overall visual style feels like an HD version of PSO.

What I’m most impressed by however, is how the team nailed the music and sound effects. Not just remixes of PSO tunes, the soundtrack (by Hideaki Kobayashi, Mitsuharu Fukuyama, Kenichi Tokoi, and Tadashi Kinukawa) manages to capture that same electronic orchestra vibe.

While the game may look and sound like PSO, it plays much differently. While the original PSO sometimes felt almost like a strategy game in how you are positioning your character to line up attacks and avoid damage, PSO 2 feels much closer to a modern action RPG. In addition to full camera control, players have access to character action game staples like double jumps, dodges, and even air dodges. It’s not exactly Bayonetta, but combat feels more action-oriented and intense.

You’ll appreciate the new level of speed in PSO 2, because there are SO MANY places to go and enemies to take out. Possibly the result of getting the game 8 years after its Japanese release, there is an almost overwhelming amount of content in PSO 2. Within a few hours of playing, you will have dozens of quests available to you. Some quests advance the story, some unlock mechanics, some are timed events, some are daily, and some just exist. Oh, and most of them can be completed on four different difficulty levels. Most quests can be completed in five to ten minutes, making PSO 2 a great game for quick pick up and play sessions.

PSO 2 also sports a battle pass (known here as a Misson Pass), akin to the seasonal content found in games like Fortnite.

As you complete *another* set of quests, you level up your Mission Pass, which unlocks items and accessories every other “tier.” If you want to pay some real world money, you can unlock a parallel tier with even more content. This is a good time to remind you that PSO 2 is definitely a free to play game, for better or worse. There are all the free to play trappings here: quality of life improvements, boosters, fashion items… all available for purchase with real world money. So far, I haven’t felt like I’ve really needed to spend any money yet, but we’ll see if that continues as I progress.

PSO 2 is an insanely high quality experience for a free to play game released in 2012, except in one area: performance. While I’m totally fine with the slightly dated visuals (I feel the aesthetic is so strong that the somewhat simple graphics don’t detract), I don’t understand how the game occasionally runs so poorly. While (thankfully) the game mostly runs smoothly in outdoor areas, once there are a lot of characters on screen in areas of the ship, it becomes a hot mess. Textures are slow to appear, the framerate crawls, and there is some of the nastiest screen tearing I’ve seen in recent years. There are options to reduce visual settings, but it seems ridiculous to have to do so in an 8 year old game on an Xbox One X with an SSD.

It will be interesting to see if the Windows 10 release is better optimized and/or the XBO version is patched and improved. Since the game appears to support cross saves, I’ll happily hop over to PC if it runs better.

Despite the technical issues, Phantasy Star Online 2 has absolutely been worth the wait for me. The original is one of my favorite (and most played) games of all time, so my expectations for the sequel were enormous. There are still some unknowns around late-game content, continued support from SEGA, and advanced systems, but I’m excited to continue to explore the world(s) of PSO 2, both alone and with friends.

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