Phantasy Star Online and the art of visual storytelling

Phantasy Star Online has been quite rightly praised for a lot of things since it first set countless Dreamcast GD-ROM drives grinding away back at the turn of the millennium – managing to get real-time online multiplayer working internationally over a modem that couldn’t even reach a blazing 56kbps not being the least of its accomplishments.

For me though PSO’s main draw and the part that keeps drawing me back in for “just one more go” all these years later is its eye-searingly unique art direction; everything from the polished floor of Mines 1 to the fabulously unsettling neon grin of the Delsabers and of course the colour-coded item boxes are all just as much a part of the experience as using the Endless Nightmare quests to grind for XP and stocking up on items to feed your mag.

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But praising a game for its graphics is often seen as shallow, even when they’re as distinctive and timeless as the designs shown here. What makes PSO’s style so special isn’t just the way it makes pairing up neon techno-future sci-fi with lush jungles and giant dragons look effortless, it’s the way everything your character sees is just as much part of your Hunter’s existence as it is your personal gaming experience. Being online and always feeling like you were part of something bigger is absolutely fundamental to the game – this isn’t some MMO where you’re allegedly the One True Saviour of All The Things and yet somehow there’s this other guy called xXS3phir0thXx running around in fancier clothes than you and twice your level – PSO is structured to allow all these Hunters to exist side by side, with not one of them contradicting or overriding your own adventures. But this was never about facilitating personal role-play, this is about Sonic Team creating a cohesive world where everything, including online play, lobbies, and begging negotiating with other team members for rare drops are just as much part of the game as the “official” story, and this brave vision is part of the reason why so many people still remember their experiences with the game so clearly.

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Once you learn to trust the game’s visual feedback you start to realise just how deep it goes – character classes are instantly recognisable from a mere glance at their silhouette, enemies can be quickly identified and sorted into groups by their general shapes, and you can tell how someone’s going to fight just by looking at the weapon in their hand.

Even the environmental details go beyond being mere background decoration to spice up the semi-random map layouts and are instead used to silently flesh out the story as well as inform the player that the enemies and environmental challenges ahead have changed too - remnants of Pioneer technology carve long brown streaks into Forest 1’s lush green earth, Caves 2 teems with water and life in comparison to the harsh lava flows above and the sleek Gillchic from the clean and bright areas in Mines 1 give way to zombie-like Dubchic in the dilapidated ruins of Mines 2. It would have been far simpler to just slap a few new textures onto the existing models and call it a day – as they did at times for PSO v.2’s extra-hard Ultimate mode -  just so the player had something different to look at as they went about hitting everything that moved but instead these more thoughtful additions all work together to create a world far richer than the strictly-business level names you lead you to believe.

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This light touch applies equally to enemy behaviour, with a range of common-sense as well as occasionally surprising reactions to the player – kill the lead Barbarous Wolf and the Savage Wolves in a pack will howl with sadness and become weaker as a result. Poison Lilies laugh when they successfully poison someone. The hulking Garanz has its armour gradually fall to pieces as well as become more aggressive as it gets damaged. Paying attention isn’t only a matter of survival but also a chance to see Ragol come to life; the graphics, gameplay and the remarkable adaptive soundtrack all coming together to create a true role-playing experience without anyone having to say a word.

A lot of RPGs like to cover their cases with bullet points about having meaningful choices and immersive worlds through dialogue trees, alignment systems, user-created content and more lore than the Unseen University could hold to try and make players feel like they’re more involved with the “RP” part of “RPG” – PSO goes in the opposite direction, providing the framework and feedback players need to team up and venture down to the surface of a hostile world then leaving them alone to create their own legend. Remember the time you saw your first Hildeblue? Your first red drop? When everybody else died and you were just able to scrape through? PSO’s visual-lead world is built in such a way that it can accommodate all your tales – and everyone else’s – just by letting you play.