Some of my fondest gaming memories are playing Phantasy Star 2 on the Sega Genesis in controller-swap co-op. Over the years the traditional Phantasy Star series has died out, and since been reborn as an online pseudo-MMO similar to Guild Wars. While I'd love to see a new strong story based Phantasy Star, there's still fun to be had for the series in its current form. The latest iteration of this is Phantasy Star Portable for the PSP; a game that closely resembles Phantasy Star Universe on the Xbox 360. The one key difference is lack of online play, and therefore no fees. What we have instead is local AD-HOC co-op play for four players.
Phantasy Star Portable is divided into two separate game modes. The single player story mode has players creating a character from four races and three classes, and customizing the look of the character with an incredibly in depth character editor. The developers went as far as to allow you change your characters eyelashes, good luck trying to see them on the PSP's 3.5" screen. After you are done with character customization, you'll be off through various missions intertwined with comic book style cut scenes. Honestly, the story didn't interest me much, and after finding the skip all cut scenes button I rarely paid attention to what was going on. Any progress you make with your character in this mode is transferable to the game's Multi-mode, and this is where you'll have the most fun.
I don't even see eyelashes.
This four player co-op mode has players joining up via the PSP's Wi-Fi connection to hack and slash their way through various missions. I always enjoy seeing RPGs where players can fall into roles. The ranged player in Phantasy Star Portable may fight the game's lock on system a bit, but using dual blasters with an ice upgrade is something not to be missed. The melee combat is equally as satisfying with a combo system that's less about button mashing and more about timing. At times it looked like we were in some sort of kung-fu action movie as we defeated the strange creatures of Phantasy Star; what's up with all the chick-like things anyway? Phantasy Star Portable even offers co-op specific missions, designated in the mission hub, that forces players to do various co-op actions. Basically this means - "I stand on this pad while you go through that door."
It's all about level grinding, item collecting, and finding those oh so rare weapons that give you just a little bit of an edge in battle with your buddies. The items and weapons truly are the focus of the game, with tons of options available at your finger tips thanks to a quick pallete for switching between them. As you complete missions you'll earn points, discs and grinders that let you upgrade and customize weapons further. Depending on your character class you may find it difficult to use a weapon or piece of armor, so obviously you'll want to trade it. No such luck here as my partner and I couldn't find this option buried in the myriad of menus. It seems like an odd feature to leave out, so instead you'll just be selling your stuff at the in-game shops. Thankfully all the rare items are given to each player in the game when one player picks them up, so this helps balance it out.
Laser swords make everything cooler.
So even though you can't trade the weapons and armor, there's still the RPG fashion show aspect of the game. Picking up that big halberd with the blue laser thingy always yields "ooohs" and "aaaahs" from the crowd. If each player uses a different race or class you can see a great variety of the available items in the game. Although we couldn't test it directly, we heard some players were having slowdown issues when playing with more than three players, so you might want to keep that fashion show limited to two or three.
Fans of the recent Phantasy Star games will be right at home on the PSP with Phantasy Star Portable. It's pretty amazing what this little system can do, and my buddy and I easily blew through three hours of a Friday night. If you can get passed the game's quirks, there's a lot of fun to be had in co-op here.