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While I missed out on the original Phantasy Star Online (I never owned a Dreamcast), to say that I was a fan of Phantasy Star Online: Episodes 1 & 2 for the Gamecube and Xbox would be a massive understatement. My friends and I easily spent over 100 hours beating down Rappys, Boomas, and whatever other contrived, deformed animals pass for monsters in the Phantasy Star universe. With numerous failed sequels having been launched since the glory days of PSO: 1&2, it was difficult to get excited when I first heard about Phantasy Star 0 since I was convinced that it would only be another Phantasy Star Universe. I have great news for old-school PSO fans: this new DS entry in the series is exactly what you've always wanted, plus improvements.
Phantasy Star 0 can best be classified as an action RPG, and it features the same timing-based combat mechanism that the original Phantasy Star Online did. Unlike its predecessor, however, there is an actual story element here, and a pretty darn well-made one. Players can choose from three different classes: an android class (proficient in physical combat but unable to use magical abilities, or "techniques"), a magic class (proficient, obviously, in magic but weak in physical combat), and a human class (a well-rounded character that can hold its own in any situation).
There are three different story paths that players can travel, dependant on the class that they choose, although these story paths are little more than slight variations upon one another. The story reaches "epic" status by the end, and I really enjoyed it, which is not a common thing for me, as I tend to completely ignore the stories in most games. Fully-voiced cutscenes and interesting text-based dialogue scattered throughout the main adventure really lent a hand to my enjoyment of the tale.
Graphically, Phantasy Star 0 is impressive by DS standards, but a bit ugly when compared to the 3D visuals possible on platforms like the PSP or even iPhone. Environments tend to get bland and repetitive, but it's not likely that you'll spend much time focusing on them, as the real-time battles will require your full attention. Combat is made a lot more fun by the simple timing mechanic required to achieve three-hit combos, and a bit of strategy comes into play with the addition of the dive-roll maneuever.
All attacks, techniques, and items can be assigned to several of the DS buttons, so it's easy to customize your characters to enable them quick access to their most commonly used moves. Boss battles will demand both patience and some preparatory level grinding, and they might be the worst part about the game. They're interesting in that pattern memorization and quick reaction times are necessary in order to achieve success, but even on the default difficulty setting they're simply too hard.
The poor A.I. of your party members in the single player campaign certainly doesn't help when an epic boss fight arrives, but Phantasy Star 0 features numerous online capabilities and options which allow players to meet up and cooperate to take down particularly difficult challenges. The online features several intuitive things, like item drops that are unique for each player and are not viewable by others.
Unfortunately, Nintendo's crappy friend codes have set up camp here, and the codes need to be exchanged in order to get a real online experience. While it wouldn't take long to venture onto some message boards and meet up with people to get together a good party, this is a hassle that could and should be avoided.
Phantasy Star 0 is best described as Phantasy Star Online but on a DS, and that's exactly what everybody wants out of the series. While Nintendo's online services gimp the game a little bit, the rest of the experience is extremely well-crafted and a testament to the capabilities of the DS. Those looking for a fun action-RPG will not be disappointed if they pick up PS0, and those who were fans of previous games in the series will be absolutely delighted to find how well the formula has translated to Nintendo's portable device.
Players: 1-4 Players
Developer: Sonic Team