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Though it may cause me to lose some credibility as a hardcore RPG fan, I have a startling confession to make. I've never really cared much for Sega's Phantasy Star series. The original Phantasy Star wasn't too bad, but the second, despite being almost universally hailed as one of the best roleplaying games of the 16-bit era, was drab and featured some of the most frustrating dungeon levels in the history of gaming. Even the most diehard fans of the series admit that Phantasy Star III was complete rubbish, and by the time the fourth title came out for the Genesis, I had completely lost interest in the series and chose not even to bother with it. More recently, the Phantasy Star Online and Universe games did little to change my opinion either. So would Phantasy Star Portable, released for the Sony PSP in March 2009, finally be the one to win me over? Sadly, no, it isn't.
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Imagine my disappointment when I found out that this is essentially nothing more than a handheld adaptation of the latest Phantasy Star Universe game, Ambition of the Illuminus. Essentially, here's how it works. You start off by creating a generic character for yourself, choosing to create either a male or female character from one of four races, tweaking his/her physical appearance and ultimately choosing from one of several classes. The detail in the character creation system is impressive, as you can even alter the pitch and tone of the character's voice. After that, you can choose to play alone in Story Mode or join up wirelessly with a party in Multi Mode.
Either way, you're in for action-based combat and gameplay that focuses on completing missions, somewhat similar in nature to Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. The nub is used to control movement, while the square button is used for a normal attack and the triangle executes a special attack. You can set different weapons and items to a special menu, mapped to the circle button, that makes healing or switching equipment a snap. The X button is used to pick up items or investigate, and the L button can alternatedly be used to lock-on (when facing an enemy) or strafing (when running). Truth be told, the combat is my favorite part of Phantasy Star Portable.
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The game's Story Mode isn't exactly anything to write home about, and I understand that if you've ever played Ambition of the Illuminus (I haven't), you'll find the plot to be rather familiar. Your created character has just completed Guardian training, and now has the privilege of helping to police the universe. On his/her first mission, the protagonist is joined by his/her instructor and a new CAST named Vivienne. The party's objective is to find out why and put a stop to it. As it turns out, an intergalactic terrorist is responsible, and as the main character and his allies investigate, they find sinister forces at work. On the whole, it's pretty dull and serves little purpose outside of giving players a window of opportunity to level up their characters.
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Graphics and Sound
Visually, the game looks pretty good. It isn't as impressive as Crisis Core, but it's not bad either. The in-game portraits are decent, and the actual characters and environments you see during missions and combat are quite nice. Musically, the game is okay, but the songs aren't really as classic or memorable as some of the elite RPG soundtracks out there. The voice acting is shaky as well. The actors didn't do a terrible job, but at times their delivery comes off a bit stilted or lacks emotion.
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Did I like Phantasy Star Portable? No, I didn't. The combat was pretty good, but I was turned off by the dull plotline, the subpar voice acting, and the mission-based structure of the game (which actually was something I disliked about Crisis Core as well). Will you like Phantasy Star Portable? It depends. If you enjoyed the Phantasy Star Universe games, then yes, you'll be right at home here. If you enjoy MMORPG games, odds are you will like this PSP title as well. Fans of Crisis Core should probably give this game a rental, too, even though it lacks that title's polish and production values.