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Phantasy Star Zero

Is the fantasy real on the DS?

At the start of our recent hands-on session with upcoming DS RPG Phantasy Star Zero, Sega were quick to mention the original Phantasy Star Online. Our imaginations were immediately cast back to 2003, and we fondly recalled the old days of plugging our phone line into the Dreamcast's 33.6k modem to jog around Ragol's boiling hot caves, futuristic mines, and lush forests. We never did get a legitimate Spread Needle, sadly.

But after the server complications, subscription upsets and repeated false starts of Phantasy Star Online's sequels, especially 2006's poorly regarded Phantasy Star Universe, even the most devout fan of the series has likely had their faith shaken. Phantasy Star Zero, however, takes the game back to basics: they've finally given up chasing the MMORPG market. Instead, Sega have realised they'd like a little taste of the success Capcom are presently enjoying with the Japan-conquering Monster Hunter franchise. That means we're on a handheld, we're stuffed to the brim with loot, and we're not faffing around with overly complicated character creation systems anymore.

As with the original, you select your avatar's class - from well-rounded Human, magic-loving Newman or cybernetic Cast - and give them a job type. Then you fuss about with your haircut, naturally. Eventually you come out the other end with something silly sounding but quintessentially Phantasy Star Online, like HUnewearl or RAcast, and go off on your merry adventuring way. Indecisive types might be upset to discover that, unlike Phantasy Star Universe, character jobs cannot be changed after you've begun the game. Best stick to your guns once you get going, then. Phantasy Star Zero

Fans of the series will be glad to hear that MAGs, tiny little lovable robotic sidekicks that hover behind you and unleash the odd devastating attack, also make their return.

Unlike Phantasy Star Portable or Monster Hunter, Phantasy Star Zero comes equipped with an online mode. This alone gives it an edge over the competition: pressing a couple of buttons and getting whisked off to a party is, by far, easier than trying to find three other people to sit in the same room as you and play. The game also uses an effective evolution of the messaging system from Phantasy Star Online, employing the DS's PictoChat to allow people to create message macros such as "Help!", "It's a trap!", or a smiley face with a willy for a nose. Ahem. Because of the obvious potential for mischief, then, you'll only be allowed to see custom macros from players who you've exchanged your Friend Code with. It's a family friendly device, after all.

We used a character Sega created for us, lovingly named Sonic, so we bypassed the creation screens and were instantly taken to the hub town. It's, unsurprisingly, riddled with shops, NPCs and, most importantly, quests. You'll be plopped in a random one of these if you search for a game online, as there's no matchmaking screen or lobby system, although if you've got their Friend Codes you'll still be allowed to play with your chums. Up to four people can play together, and whilst there's a fully functional singleplayer mode (you're backed up with AI sidekicks) the multiplayer component is clearly what the game's been designed around.

Once you've bought your trinkets and fiddled with your gear, you'll accept a quest and go off to a dungeon. In our demonstration we navigated around the sandy Gurhacia Valley to hunt down a menacing boss monster. In order to boost the game's longevity, areas in Phantasy Star Zero are randomly generated, so even basic navigation has a maze-like quality. To further make getting about a bit more difficult, levels are strewn with traps, locked doors, and dead-ends. Phantasy Star Zero

But random dungeons come with a price. Perhaps Sega are simply working to the technical limitations of the hardware, but the knock-on effect is that Phantasy Star Zero's environments feel somewhat claustrophobic. From our demonstration the game appeared to take piecemeal chunks of land and stitch them together, resulting in a combination of numerous tiny areas and ultimately offering very little in the way of exploration.

Peppered around the random areas are, thankfully, plenty of monsters. The familiar combat system allows you to chain together a combination of three light or heavy attacks, with strikes becoming more accurate with subsequent hits. There's also the ability to charge your attack by holding the button, giving you an expectedly beefier attack at the cost of your mana. Players assign commands to the Y, X and A buttons, although it's unlikely you'll ever have anything other than light and heavy attack to Y and X, with three further commands mappable by holding the R trigger. Your other slots are likely to be filled by class-specific abilities and restorative items.

In the level we were shown, fighting the nasties was as simple as running up to them and knocking them about a bit with a few simple combos. We were informed that this was an early stage in the game, and our characters were all quite powerful. Sega promised plenty of challenging gameplay, especially for series aficionados, in the finished product.

Our hands-on demonstration ended, fittingly, by fighting a dragon: we were reminded of the original Phantasy Star Online and its menacing dragon boss. Our first impressions, likely from the simplicity of the preceding areas, was that it wasn't very threatening; we were quickly humbled, however, when we tried to kill him solo with a few melee attacks and got subsequently battered. Eventually our party struck a nice balance of ranged, melee, and magic attacks and we took it out without suffering any embarrassing deaths of our own. We all got a reasonable bounty of loot, too. Phantasy Star Zero

Our time with the game left us with mixed feelings, though. Phantasy Star Zero seems less epic in scope than the original Phantasy Star Online, although we're assured there's plenty variety in the finished product. Time with the released Japanese version seems to indicate as much, with snowfields, wetlands, cities, and ruins all ripe for exploration.

But the real question is whether it's too little, too late. The game's been out in Japan since December 2008, and many devout Phantasy Star Online fans are now playing the more in-depth Monster Hunter instead. But where Phantasy Star Zero has the potential to succeed over Capcom's hack-n-slash behemoth, at least here in Europe, is in its accessible gameplay and online implementation.

The game sees its US release in November, but Europe will unfortunately have to wait until early 2010. Bummer.

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