It’s amazing for veteran video game enthusiasts of the 16-bit era or older like me to look back on the development of franchises that continue to endure the test of time. Some franchises like Mario or Metroid soar gloriously beyond their roots. Other franchises seem to be coughing and sputtering towards their graves; unfortunately Phantasy Star Portable 2 is one of these. Phantasy Star Portable 2 shows that despite some incremental gameplay tweaks, the formula is stale and nothing we haven’t seen before. What results is a lackluster game at best with the multiplayer being the only spot of reasonable fun.
It almost feels insulting to bring up the story for how squandered the single-player narrative is. Three years after the events of Phantasy Star Universe the Gurhal System’s lack of resources is putting it in great peril. The world is saved by the development of a new form of interstellar travel that lets Gurhlians migrate to the depths of space. As your mercenary team, Little Wing, travels into the great beyond you encounter old and new threats that form the bulk of the story. The story doesn’t take a back seat so much as it just gets left behind in the dust, as Phantasy Star Portable 2 drives off without a clue of where it wants to go.
The setting of Phantasy Star has always been creative, but get past the interplanetary setting and the story plays like a massive tutorial. Despite the dungeon crawler atmosphere of Phantasy Star Portable 2, the game insists on walking you through a tired, absurdly clichéd plot laden with filler where you need to do pointless side missions to proceed with the main quest ala Assassin’s Creed. There’s a fair amount of padding and exposition through before the actual story gets in and the narrative routinely gets lost when it isn’t force-feeding us dialogue from the generic, irritating characters. In short, there’s nothing to see here.
The reason for this is that Phantasy Star Portable 2 is solely a dungeon crawling, item collecting game by nature and winds up hitting and missing the same notes as a game like Monster Hunter Tri. Phantasy Star Portable 2 is definitely solid at item looting and upgrading for new weapon models to do but never really has any ambition beyond that. You start off in a space colony that functions as a hub world where your mercenary team, Little Wing, has set up a base of operations. This hub world has everything you need in the game including places to trade items and upgrade weapons as well as a teleportation system that lets you take new missions.
When you do take missions there’s at least a bit of variety. Sometimes you’ll have a time limit for killing enemies, other times you’ll need to kill a specific number, sometimes you need to utilize a specific technique. Even with the game offering a special S-rank if you fulfill certain in-game objectives you generally wind up chopping and blasting your way through legions of the same baddies hoping the item you need for the next upgrade drops. It’s the same problem you see in Monster Hunter Tri and likeminded games where it’s all you do and the routine makes the game stagnate quickly.
The other problem is that Phantasy Star Portable 2 is just inconvenient, especially given the portable nature stylized in the title. The game lacks an efficient fast-travel system and there’s no ability to save where you want or even quicksave. The most bizarre problem is that you can’t pause, even in single player. This is one of the few PSP games almost impossible to play on the go because it demands more focus than you would expect from most handheld games.
Combat is functional and even fun, but the sheer amount of it contributes to the monotony. You have a basic attack and you can time or chain them to launch a unique special attack. As a combat system in a game where you’ll be doing a lot of fighting it works on its own but never evolves; it’s almost unchanged from past Phantasy Star games. It’s streamlined enough that you can quickly switch between weapons and tactics on the fly but for how much you do but this and other clever ideas still leave the overall system feeling rigidly unchanged. Single player also falls short when you realize that your only company in battle is the incomprehensibly stupid allied AI teammates whose strategies of running in circles and periodically attacking will not endear them to you.
Phantasy Star Portable 2 is presented well outside of the story and makes use of the customization and item collecting nature. You have the ability to customize your main character’s gender, facial features, body and voice. Photon Points return from previous Phantasy Star iterations although they’re now used in tandem with your character rather than weapons which allows you to tailor your character more specifically, a definite improvement. You also have a room on your space colony hub world that you can decorate. Visual elements like this are what give item collecting games their style and Phantasy Star Portable 2 doesn’t disappoint.
The breadth of the customization also extends to your fighting style and class preference. You have “extend points” in Phantasy Star Portable 2 that you use to increase the strength of your weapons and you can freely add or remove points and even test out weapons that are not a part of your class; it simply costs more extend points. It’s an appealing system that lets you test out different strategies and tactics in combat without locking you into a specific role, but again when applied to how limited the combat is, it loses luster.
Another similarity Phantasy Star Portable 2 shares with Monster Hunter Tri is that sharing the experience with friends brings out some of the fun that you won’t find in the single player. Fighting monsters and hunting for loot together is as fun as it is in any dungeon crawler, especially if you have friends with PSPs and copies of the game. Going online can be a hassle however since it’s difficult to find people your level but it’s more entertaining than the single player by far.
At the end of the day Phantasy Star Portable 2 is functional and offers competent multiplayer but there’s little to offer beyond that. The single player story is an absolute joke and for every clever gameplay tweak there are two or three bad design choices. Phantasy Star buffs will get their fill but there’s nothing else to do.
The universe of Phantasy Star is presented reasonably well but the main narrative is extremely weak
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Sounds and music are semi-decent, but generally bland
The single player admittedly lasts a while, but it's so dreary that the multiplayer is all you'll wind up doing
Phantasy Star Portable 2 is a bare bones dungeon crawler with little appeal beyond the Phantasy Star fandom