Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II

Year Released in US: 2002
System: GameCube

This is hardly a new game for me, having sunk hundreds of hours in versions 1 and 2 of the Dreamcast Phantasy Star Online. Consequently, when I started Episode 1 on the GameCube, I was actually starting with more than just your average level 1 character. True, I had no hand-me-downs from a higher level character (my second and third characters on the DC version inherited or were given outright choice pieces of equipment from my first character), but she benefited from my experience as a player, and that took her through Episode 1 far faster than the first time I did it on Dreamcast.

Gameplay is much the same between the two versions, which suits me just fine so I don't have to deal with a learning curve again. There are just a few nits that bother me, one of them being that I can no longer reposition myself as easily when I'm standing right next to an enemy. It used to be the player could keep walking forward into an enemy while using the analog stick to fine tune the direction he or she was pointing. This was handy for enemies that liked to get up close and personal, just in case your own targeting cursor wasn't lined up just right. Well, they took that out of the GameCube version, which on occasion has caused me to take a hit when I wouldn't have otherwise. Backing up then fiddling with the analog to readjust one's aim is very cumbersome. It was easier to keep standing next to the enemy by walking into him and fine tuning from there.

The main appeal for me is the new character classes. I'm a character class fiend and being able to play a new type of adventurer has a lot of appeal to me. Also, it was refreshing going through Episode 1 from scratch with a different character type than last time. My first character on the Dreamcast was a hunter with a fondness for partisan-type weapons. My new character on the GameCube is a ranger and seems to actually like handguns more than rifles. Only time will tell if she develops a different preference later on.

Episode 1 was largely the same as before, with the exception of a few new cut scenes in the quests and the addition of four of the download quests. I had been hoping that Central Dome Fire and Sunset by the Secret Base (especially Sunset by the Secret Base since it never came up for the US version) would have been included as well, but apparently they weren't.

But still, that's better than Episode 2, which has no quests at all. Fancy that. I had been leveling up my RAmarl (female human ranger) hoping for a joyous ride in Episode 2 and well, I didn't get it. At first I thought it might have been because the first two areas of Episode 2 involve VR training, which doesn't sound exciting by any stretch of the imagination, but even after that; no quests.

And Episode 2 was a disappointment in more ways than just that. First, there are only four areas just like in Episode 1. However, because the first two areas are VR training, that means half the game is just an extended prologue to what you're actually doing regarding the plot of the story. To make things even worse, the first two areas are just a lousy test to see if you're good enough to go down to the surface! The VR Temple, the first area, is loaded with traps, twists, turns, and narrow hallways, but the area itself is sparsely populated with enemies. Episode 2 allows first level characters to jump right in, but I wouldn't recommend it. The experience is terrible because of the lack of enemies, and the enemies themselves are quite tough, and some of them have status attacks. Given all the traps and the enemy status attacks, the fresh-faced level 1 character had better have a lot of money in order to buy all the curative items he/she will need!

The VR Spaceship level got better, but still threw in almost every trap in the book. I had hoped things would improve once I completed VR training and got to explore the Central Control Area, and honestly it would have been a pretty fun area if the EXP was any good. I had already beaten Episode 1 on Normal by the time I started Episode 2, but the monsters were giving me as much or more trouble as the Ruins enemies in Episode 1, but only half the EXP! Even allowing for the fact I was still learning their attack patterns, I don't think it should have been that difficult. Judging from the type of treasure I was finding, this area was meant for a character ten levels below me, but I know if my RAmarl had been level 19 instead of 29 she would have been toast.

Still, it was otherwise a good level. The Gal Gryphon boss was not the Dragon-rip off I expected after playing against it in E3. It pulled some nice tricks out of its sleeve so I was satified. Well, I can't help thinking of the griffon in Devil May Cry when I saw it shrieking, but I guess that part can't be helped. At least its beak doesn't open up in four directions like that one's does.

The last level, the Seabed, I actually did not realize was the last level until I got to the boss. I went in there figuring there would be at least one more level after it, because the VR training couldn't really be half the game (boy was I wrong). And to be nice I'd have to say that the Seabed is an aesthetically pleasing level and would no doubt be lots of fun in multiplayer. For better or for worse, it's a hellpit alone. There are a lot of traps in Seabed. Not just the exploding kinds that pop up out of nowhere and damage or confuse you. There are floor traps too. Some of easy to avoid--don't touch the moving laser barriers. Others you can't see coming until they spring (these nasty beartrap-style ones that the designers like putting in narrow hallways). By then you're either in the trap or you're not, and all you can do it memorize the location for later. I went through Seabed three times before I was able to beat it, and by the third time I adopted a pattern of behavior that allowed me to avoid all the traps (except for one because they hadn't placed a trap in that type of location before). When you're in hallways, run along the edges, not down the middle. When you're in one of the long rectangular rooms, run along the walkways on the longer sides--assume there are five traps in the room with one in each corner (more or less) and one in the center. One of my frequently complaints is that there are too many rooms with traps for the amount of trap visions you can carry (unless you just like piping up and down back to town) and that there are so many ways to get status effects for the amount of Sol Atomizers you can carry. Previous levels in Episode 1 used minimal amounts of status effects if they weren't paralysis and poison, which had their own curative items, but the Seabed makes use of all status effects other than those two, and nothing but the cure-all Sol Atomizers will do.

So I got to the boss of the Seabed and didn't realize it was actually the last boss when it showed up. I actually expected a machine since I was told that Olga is a computer. But Olga Flow is something else. It was only after a moment of studying Ogla Flow (who is upside-down during his first form otherwise I probably would've recognized him sooner) that I realized that he was the strange giant figure in the new opening movie. Then I knew that I had to be facing the last boss.

The first form was nothing, but the second darn well slaughtered me. Apparently (I am told) Olga Flow has an attack that does 600 hp worth of damage on Normal mode offline. I had 190-something so obviously I wasn't surviving that anytime soon. I just wish the player was encouraged to stay away long enough to realize that the attack doesn't reach that far. I died a couple times before asking online for help, at which point I learned the limitations of Olga Flow's attack. Even then I still died a couple more times, but they weren't always to that particular attack (one death was due to a rock that fell from the ceiling and landed on me) and I had scape dolls to revive my RAmarl.

Story-wise, Episode 2 also disappointed. Not only where there no quests, but the main plot was pretty weak. I think Episode 2 is more of a gaiden than a stand alone game, whereas Episode 1 was actually stand alone. The whole point of the VR simulation, other than to fill up half the episode and see if you're ready to go down to Ragol, is to fix the player up with an operator, who is Elly from Episode 1 (but even if you did the quest involving her she won't recognize you in Episode 2--how lame is that?). Then the rest of the story is about following a series of messages left by Heathcliff Flowen. Hm... that sounds familiar? Didn't I follow a trail of messages left by Red Ring Rico in Episode 1?

However, unlike Rico, who was learning as she went along, Flowen actually has a bit of a clue. Not much, but a bit. He hints at a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, the shifty stuff we didn't get to see much of in Episode 1 even though we knew it existed; things like bio-weapons and secret government research. But, we only get that through a total of six messages left by him, so needless to say, that isn't a whole lot information. All we know for certain, really, is that Flowen offered himself to be a subject of a government experiment and the experiment failed. They dumped him into the waste disposal area and you fight him there as Olga Flow (for a piece of junk experiment he fights pretty darn hard).

And when you beat Ogla Flow you get to see Flowen's body fly up out of it, just like Rico's did after defeating Dark Falz in Episode 1 on Hard, Very Hard, or Ultimate difficulty. Flowen's sword even slams into the ground like Rico's ring drops on Normal. Then in the ending credits instead of seeing Rico's ring spinning around, Flowen's sword is sticking up out of the ground and slowly distingrates away. Sheesh, I know it really looks nice, but couldn't the designers have been more original than that?

I do like Episode 1 & 2, but I think I'll be primarily playing in Episode 1. Episode 2 just doesn't have enough to it to make it stand on its own.