As far as Closed Beta tests go, Phantasy Star Online 2’s westward expansion went far better than most. The first seven or so hours I tried logging on were a complete non-starter as servers buckled under the pressure of huge swaths of players slamming the game within seconds. But after several hours of downtime, they were up and running well through the rest of the test, including an extra day of up-time. Honestly, it felt more like an Early Access headstart than a closed beta. Nothing was restricted in terms of content and no progress will be wiped before launch or Open Beta either, allowing us to just play through the first several hours of the actual game.If you’re unfamiliar with PSO as a franchise – you can get caught up by learning everything newcomers need to know about Phantasy Star Online 2 – but at a base level, it’s a lot like Monster Hunter. The big difference being that it’s less about targeted and specific hunts and more about completing quests and raid-style missions. If you could make Monster Hunter a more traditional MMO with a heavy dose of sci-fi, then you’d have something pretty close to PSO2. There’s a similarly-designed lobby area where you can run into all kinds of other players, as well as instanced missions, but – similar to Destiny’s Exploration mode – you can also come across other players out in the field even if they’re not in your party.
So it’s not really a big open, connected world to explore. Instead, you queue up quests from the central hub that then send you to a transport ship where you can tweak your loadout, recruit NPCs if you want, and get ready before going through a portal down to the planet. Like Monster Hunter, zones each have their own types of enemies, loot, and environmental designs to make them feel distinct.
Notably, PSO2 was an extremely easy game 90% of the time. If you’re playing content that’s marked as appropriate for your level on Normal difficulty then you likely won’t even need to heal through the entire mission. Even Hard missions targeted at 10 levels higher than my current level weren’t very difficult. The exception to this is boss battles, which can be incredibly overwhelming if you’re not paying attention and your group is ill-prepared.Combat in PSO2, meanwhile, is flashy and intense. As a Braver, I can dash in for a quick combo, counter enemy attacks to block and return damage, enter a hyper-powered state for increased speed and effectiveness, and even juggle enemies in the air with my katana. The bow is my ranged-option packed full of huge attacks that eviscerate single-targets alongside plenty of other options that hit a large area for massive AoE damage. And while special attacks and techniques use up your PP energy gauge, basic attacks rapidly refill it so you’re never going more than a few seconds without doing something cool.
Exploring zones and doing quests was fun enough, but the highlight of the Closed Beta was undoubtedly the Urgent Quests. At specific real-world times, everyone that’s online gets a server-wide alert message that there’s an emergency situation. You go up to the quest counter and queue up for the Urgent Quest, which takes place over the course of a half-hour interval. Once you’re sent to the mission you’ll join up with up to 11 other players for a big 12-player raid-style mission where boss fights are intense, albeit not very difficult. But from what Japan server veterans have told me that changes dramatically once you get deeper into the game – these Urgent events were very much designed as introductory experiences.
The overall format and structure of PSO2 isn’t groundbreaking, but the execution and polish in terms of gameplay is unrivaled. Sega has done a fantastic job of distilling and capturing the iconic flare that goes with anime-style games like this and managed to repackage it into a persistent online multiplayer RPG that defies expectations. After eight years I expected PSO2 to feel archaic by gaming standards, but other than some jagged edges on textures, some performance hiccups associated with the beta, and admittedly dated visuals, I’m hard-pressed to find issues worth complaining about.Obviously I only played the first dozen or so hours, the key moments of any game that constantly throw new mechanics at you to keep things fresh, so I have no idea if it will start to get tedious soon or not. But my gut tells me that between the nine different classes and fighting styles there is plenty of variety to warrant playing for a long time to come – especially considering it’s a free-to-play MMO. Finally, There’s no indication of what the cash shop will be like in the North American version, but hopefully it will lean toward convenience items and cosmetics rather than pay-to-win elements.
What I played was still a Closed Beta, is unfinished, and had its share of translation errors, but I’ve been assured the team is aware of all that and is actively working on getting it in top-shape for release this Spring on Xbox One and eventually on PC after that – including cross-play – though there’s no official word on other platforms for the North American version yet.
David Jagneaux is a freelance writer for IGN. Talk RPGs with him on Twitter at @David_Jagneaux.