Friday, June 11, 2021

Burning Down The House: Phantasy Star Online: New Genesis - First Impressions

There is such a thing as too much fun. Right now I'm struggling to keep up with the torrent of game releases, open betas and free weekends. It almost seems as if there's a new announcement every day. It's one thing to stay on top of the news, quite another to take advantage of the opportunities.

Just this morning, when I logged into Steam, I ran straight into another: five-days of Fallout '76 for free. It's a game I've never considered buying, although this would be the ideal time. It's on sale at 66% off. 

I've read enough blog posts about it to be curious enough to take a run around for free, though, so I dithered my pointer over the "Play Game" button for a few seconds before getting a grip. I do not have time for this. No, really, I don't.

The current glut of new games highlights a curious irony in the way I've engaged with the mmorpg genre since I started blogging about it nearly ten years ago. Way back in 2012, when the blog was fresh and new (well, new, anyway), when I was still in the process of leading all my hobbyhorses out of the stables and riding them around for everyone to admire, I wrote a whole post on how I don't like tutorials. And what have I done ever since?

Review tutorial after tutorial, that's what. I play a lot of new mmorpgs and write a lot of First Impressions pieces but half the time the tutorial is pretty much as far as I get before I lose interest and wander away. 

Judging by the costumes you start with, I'm guessing there's a cash shop full of outfits.


I was thinking about it this morning. I could quite feasibly start a blog where all I did was review tutorials. Most tutorials are good for a couple of posts; some can be stretched a good deal further than that. Throw in a few YouTube playthroughs and I probably wouldn't need to find more than a couple of games a month to sustain a regular posting schedule of two or three posts a week.

I don't in fact intend to start a second blog right this moment and if I did it would not be all tutorials all the time. If I did, though, I'd call it "Press WASD To Move". Who the hell would want to read it is another question but that's never been much of a concern here. 

Just as well because "here" is where all those tutorial reviews are going to keep turning up. Look! Here comes another! Brace yourselves.

Today's example comes courtesy of Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis. Like Fallout '76, this is a game I never intended to play. I remember being very mildly curious about the original Phantasy Star Online many, many years ago, mostly because mmorpgs were a lot rarer back then and PSO was not easily accessible to Western players.

I was never curious enough to do anything about it, though, and by the time the sequel appeared I'd all but forgotten the game existed. It was only when PSO2 received a very belated Western release last year that I began to pay it a modicum of attention. I probably wouldn't even have given it that much, had Belghast and one or two others not blogged about it a few times.

PSO2 scarcely had time to bed in before PSO2:NG arrived to replace it. The relationship between the two rests somewhat obscurely in the hinterland between sequel, expansion and revamp. I'll leave that discussion to someone more familiar than I with what came before. I'm just going to talk about what I've seen for myself.

Manon strikes me as a character with something of a backstory.


I played PSO2:NG yesterday for three and a half hours. That's a clue in itself as to how I felt about it. Three and a half hours is quite a long time to play a brand new game fresh out of the box. Developers used to cite statistics suggesting players often take not much more than a tenth of that time to make up their minds. 

When you consider the game uses a control system that would never be my first choice, has a setting that's never been one of my favorites, has scrappy, scratchy textures that generally feel slightly abrasive on the eye and, perhaps most tellingly of all, demands a level of skill to play effectively that I simply don't possess, the very fact that I stuck at it for almost four hours is probably all I need to say.

Yeah, that's not going to happen. I'm going to give chapter and verse on why I played for as long as I did and why it's more likely than not I'll go back and play some more.

The game opens with a swooping introductory video which I didn't watch because the music was so loud I was scrabbling for some way to make it stop. Once I'd sorted that out I had to pick a "Ship", a neat conceit for a space-opera game to use for servers, before it was on to the main event: Character Creation.

You can make two characters for free. If you played the previous version you can import that character. There are four races, all basically human, although only one is actually called "Human". Of the other three, one is a human in a mech suit, another is a human with horns and the third is a human with long ears. You can call that last one an elf if you want.

Like Crowfall, PSO2:NG neatly sidesteps any gender stereotyping by not referring to gender at all. The choice here is Humanoid Type 1 or Humanoid Type 2. It's going to be very interesting to see how this develops. I wonder if having just two choices is going to present a problem in the future, no matter what those choices are called.

Where did you get that hat, where did you get that hat?


There are plenty of options but the very first is a choice between three "Base Characters". DO NOT TAKE THIS LIGHTLY! I did and it was a bad, bad mistake. I picked the one with the funny hat because it lreminded me of the hat Michael Jackson used to wear when he was about twelve years old and I thought it would be funny. 

So far I have not been able to find any way to take the hat off! As far as I can tell it's glued to my character's head. She can change her hairstyle but she can't take off her hat. It's space magic of the worst kind. If I carry on playing I am going to have to re-roll because I cannot go through life, even virtual life, looking like that.

It gets worse. I spent a long time fiddling with the many sliders trying to get my character to look just right. I was pleased with what I saw in the editor but when I saw the same character standing next to the first two NPCs I realized what I'd done: I'd made her face as round as an apple. 

Compared to every other character I've since seen in game, NPC or player, mine looks inert. I'm not sure why, exactly, but her face neither moves nor has definition. If she could take her hat off I'd redo her - you get five hours to make changes for free, after which you have to pay - but the options available don't let you go back as far as the Basic Character. 

All in all I'd say Character Creation in PSO:NG is good but not great. There are a lot of options and you can make a reasonably diverse range of appearances but the controls are not always intuitive and mistakes are easy to make. Of course I may be bitter because that hat.

The game begins with a cut scene. I watched that and then I started playing with the graphics. You can actually do this in character creation but I was too excited to think of it then. I go a bit peculiar when I get my hands on a new character creator.

Mindful of my experience in Crowfall, I checked what default setting the game had given me.

Well, that seems harsh! Over the course of the next few hours I gradually ratcheted my graphics upwards until by the time I logged out they were on Super. The game looked better and better and my performance remained exactly the same. 

Movement was smooth and fluid, there was no hitching or stuttering, nothing flickered or glitched. The entire time I played everything felt as smooth as butter and just as sweet. Even when I arrived in the main city and there were other players everywhere my frame rate remained the same and I had no graphical or performance problems of any kind.

About the only difference I could tell was the fan on my graphics card had to do some work. Most times I play most games you can't even hear it. I checked the temperature and it was more than fine. I'm forced to assume whatever algorithm the game is using to determine appropriate settings is either ultra-conservative or just broken.

With that sorted it was time for action. In short order I learned how to move, jump, glide, fight and open boxes. My character and her two companions met, fought and defeated a DOLL, the game's oddly-named prime enemy. It was a good fight. We won. Then half a dozen more DOLLS arrived and a big, musclebound oaf with a bare chest leapt in to save us.


Here I am to save the day!

I confess I took against him. And the game, for a moment. It seemed so retrograde a scenario, the plucky but barely competent girls being rescued from the big bads by a brawny boy. I still think it's ill-judged but the revelation that the man was the father of one of my companions and the mentor of the other, along with his concern for his as-yet untrained daughter did give some ameliorating context.

As things progressed my concerns withdrew a little. The writing, while in no way original, is better than merely competent. There are some nuances. The voice acting is variable but the actor playing the big fellow makes him seem genuinely concerned rather than merely overbearing. Conversely, the other Meteorn (Just go with it. It'll take too long to explain.), my second female companion, turns out to be oddly reticent and uncertain. After a while I could see why intervention might have been deemed necessary. The three of us really wouldn't have been able to handle all those DOLLS.

After that it was on to the usual introductions. The big man, subverting his stereotype, went off to cook us all dinner, while I wandered around the village introducing myself to the locals, doing them favors and getting a series of short instructive lectures in return. It was jolly restful. I should have known what was coming.

I'd get those drinks down you while you have the chance...

The evening concluded with a cookout and dance party on the beach. With horrifying inevitability my host declared his intention to make absolutely certain no harm ever befell his paradisaical home or its innocent inhabitants... whereupon a vast portal ripped the sky apart and a fleet of spacecraft screamed across the bay, disgorging an army of DOLLS, which set up on the revelers with grim abandon.

We fought them. We beat them back. Then a gigantic spaceship like one of the Easter Island heads blown up to the size of a small moon arrived and began razing every building in the village to the foundations with blazing blue laser beams. 

My character and her two friends were told to run for the caves and we didn't need to be told twice. I could see we were so far out of our league we didn't even deserve to be carrying the oranges for half time. The big guy seemed to think he could handle it. I had my doubts. I was right, he was wrong.

Uh oh! That can't be good...
The first part of the tutorial ended with everyone but my character and her two companions either dead or missing, the village destroyed and a general sense that the world as we'd known it was at an end. Just like the end of every other Tutorial Pt. 1 in other words. This is literally the same basic plot as used by Blade and Soul, Bless Unleashed, Guild Wars, Allods Online... 

It gets used over and over because it works. At least, it does when it's done well. It establishes a connection between the player, their character and the world that feels comfortable, pleasant, desirable, welcome... and then it rips almost all of that away, leaving the player feeling something's been lost that they want back. 

Do it too well and you get pre-Searing Ascalon, a five level tutorial a whole load of players moved heaven and earth to keep alive forever. Do it badly and you get Rift, a confusing mess almost everyone hates. PSO2:NG does get it just about right, although I did come out of the far end wondering just how the hell the planet was going to survive.

No-one's walking out of that.


That's not the end of the tutorial but it's the end of this post. I think I was only Level Two when I came out of the first phase and the next introduces a whole bunch of movement and combat concepts that I barely managed to understand let alone perfect. I was Level Five by the time I got through that section and it deserves a post of its own.

Whether it will get one depends what else happens between now and Monday. We're going away for a couple of days at the start of the week so there probably won't be any posts here after the weekend. If I don't get the second part of this First impressions piece done before then it's going to be too late to bother.

In case that happens I'll say now that I was quite impressed with Phantasy Star Online: New Genesis. I don't think it's the game for me for quite a few reasons but I would bet it's going to be the game for somone. It's well-made and it has a good feel about it. 

Of course, I have only seen the tutorial, but I've seen a lot of those and I've seen plenty worse.


  1. Well it certainly looks like they've solved that sex/gender problem by renaming male and female. Don't see anything too gender-stereotypical in the screenshots or tutorial description — LOL. "Conventionally beautiful" is one thing, but why oh why does every game have to be "conventionally sexy". (14-year-old boys, right.)

    Honestly, if you aren't going to address the actual issues, just leave "male" and "female" alone — maybe add a "non-gendered" character option and throw a few non-gendered NPCs in, which would be pretty easy and would be at least a step toward the current century.

    1. I'm finding it increasingly fascinating, watching the developers and publishers dance around the central issue of diversity. It's going to get more and more awkward for them to refit their games for different markets as the differences between regions becomes more marked. The days when the big fear was supposedly the whole world turning into one bland mid-American mall seem a long, long time ago now.

      As for the costumes in PSO2:NG, I find them quite odd. They manage to be both sexualized and oddly sexless at one and the same time. The aesthetic reminds of sportswear, somewhat. I keep thinking my character's wearing a swimming costume. Well, except for that bloody hat. Hard to think about anything else she's wearing while she has that thing on her head.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide