When Phantasy Star Online first launched on the Dreamcast, I had the copious amount of free time that comes with youth, not to mention access to a trove of Dreamcast games. I had not played Diablo at that point, so PSO was one of my gateways to that style of game. I dropped countless hours into exploring the forests of Ragol, slashing away with my very cool, lightsaber-sounding sword.
I revisited the series when Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II launched on the original Xbox. In that instance, I didn't go as deep, likely because following a short free trial you had to pay a monthly subscription, and I was poor. Since then, Phantasy Star Online has always been that thing hovering in the recesses of my mind. I enjoyed it, I moved on, and I acknowledge that others are still big fans of the game.
Playing Phantasy Star Online 2 for the first time, I'm oddly surprised at how much hasn't changed in the formula. Humans, Newman, and CAST are still here as playable races, joined by the new Deuman. The combat still revolves around slashing and dodging. Most of your exploration is done in discrete levels, usually split between 2-3 stages and a boss room. And everyone is full anime, with massive glowing swords and axes, armor missing most of the protection, and flips and flourishes to make you look badass.
Ultimately, I'm glad folks in the West are finally getting the chance to play Phantasy Star Online 2. I'll probably play it more. But I also can't ignore the fact that Phantasy Star Online 2 is clearly showing its age. It originally launched in 2012, and textures and environment design stretches anywhere from "decent" to "last gen."
It's time for Phantasy Star Online 3
As I was slashing my way through Dagans, Diggs, and Dinians, I found myself thinking that it was time for Phantasy Star Online 2 to update itself. There were only six years between Phantasy Star Online and Phantasy Star Universe, and another six between that and Phantasy Star Online 2. It's time for a Phantasy Star Online 3.
Imagine if Sega gave a new Phantasy Star Online some further resources. Take the jump from Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate to Monster Hunter: World, which is nothing short of astounding. The core loop of the game is the same, but the world itself feels fully realized. There's care put into the illusion of the world. The Ancient Forest looks like it's growing out from within the roots of a huge ancient tree. The Coral Highlands is a magical location that feels like it should be under the sea, with beds of anemones twisting underfoot.
There's a reason that WoW and Final Fantasy 14 update themselves continuously. The visual look of these worlds is part of the verisimilitude. We want these worlds to feel real, like we're actually exploring a brand-new far off planet. Monster Hunter: World partially improved on the past entries because it felt real, while still being distinctly Monster Hunter. All the layers of "game" were still there, with a vastly improved exterior. (Hell, there were some new game concepts thanks to more vertically-oriented maps.)
I think Phantasy Star Online could see a similar benefit. Imagine if the vast world of Phantasy Star Online 2 actually looked like real, distinct worlds. I don't think that PSO needs to go open-world, as that would ruin the simple charm of the game, but the levels themselves could be more complex. Imagine Volcanic Caves where the lava flowed freely, consuming and change the path ahead? Or a Frozen Tundra where your party would leave footprints in the snow, and the long dead creatures and ruins peaked out behind the ice.
An update would also see brand-new character models with improved character customization. It's not hard to see that costumes and visual customization is a big part of enjoying Phantasy Star Online 2 for a lot of people. The ability to mix and match more clothing items would be fabulous, and a much easier armor dye system would go a long way towards letting players show their true colors. Final Fantasy 14 and Black Desert Online are absolute winners in regards to visual character customization, and even World of Warcraft's Wardrobe system makes it a breeze to make costume sets from existing gear. It would be great if Phantasy Star Online were on that level.
Phantasy Star Online 2 is damned fun, and I'm glad we can finally experience it here in the West, but it's time Sega to cast off the past. We need a Phantasy Star Online 3, one built on current technology, aimed at another 8-10 years of operation. A game leaning heavily on the excellent localization department Sega now has, with a global launch. Phantasy Star Online 2 doesn't have to die, but it is time to look to the future and make something new. The heart of Phantasy Star Online should remain, but the body that contains that heart needs an injection of youth.