Sonic Team's Phantasy Star Online series has made the rounds to just about every single console, yet every release has seen some sort of addition in the form of extra levels or character classes. The Xbox version of Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II is no different. Though there isn't really any new content, this version of the game possesses one thing that was sorely lacking in its GameCube counterpart--a form of communication that's just as simple to use as the game's built-in symbol chat and less cumbersome than holding a keyboard in your lap. Thanks to the Xbox Live service, Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II supports voice communication, making it incredibly easy to chat with other players in the lobby or devise strategies with three other players in an online game while plowing through the game's many dungeons. It makes the entire experience of playing the game online much more personable and consequently more entertaining.
PSO finally makes its way to the Xbox.
Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II offers the same three character classes as the original game: hunter, ranger, and force. There's also an additional character type for each class that features slightly different attributes from other characters in that class. For example, most characters in the hunter class are proficient with swords and can use other weapons, including some of the less-accurate long-range weapons, and some can also use magic. The new female android hunter introduced in Episode I & II, however, can't use magic at all, but because of her metallic body, she's immune to poison attacks, whereas other hunters are not.
There are similar advantages and disadvantages to using characters in the other classes, as well. The rangers use guns as their primary weapons and can use all the rifles and other specialized long-range weapons in the game, but they have only a limited ability to use melee weapons. In the original game, only one character in the ranger class had magic capabilities, but in Episode I & II there's another character who can use a variety of offensive spells to offset her inherently weak strength. The force class is made up of magic users who can't use some of the stronger weapons and who are generally weaker than any other characters. The new character added to the force class is for hard-core magic users and is incredibly difficult to use in the early levels simply because of his low defensive capabilities. It's also worth noting that new players should level their characters up in Episode I before attempting to take on Episode II, because of its higher difficulty.
Voice communication makes a big difference.
The characters in Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II are pretty well balanced, which encourages you to have a healthy mix of classes in your online party or in the offline split-screen multiplayer mode--at least during boss battles and in the later stages of the game. In the earlier levels, you'll notice that the long-range-weapon users (the hunters and rangers in particular) have an advantage over melee characters simply because enemies can't walk through entryways. This allows for the strategy of walking into a room, firing a few shots at an enemy, walking back outside the room, and then repeating the process until all the enemies in the room are dead. If you're a melee character, fighting in close quarters puts you at risk of being counterattacked by an enemy and then being trapped by a group of foes. When that happens, you better hope someone in your party has the ability to resurrect your character, or you're going to head back to the Pioneer--the equivalent of a home base, where you can buy weapons, armor, or items. You don't lose any of these items when you die, though you do lose money. You can also use the Pioneer as a safe area to feed your mag. A mag is somewhat like a virtual pet, and it gives you bonuses in different attributes. The mags can become stronger and change in physical appearance after being fed certain types of items, which will determine what sort of special attack the mags can unleash when their energy meters are full.
Those just learning to use Phantasy Star Online's combat system may be seeing the Pioneer quite often, because there's a small learning curve for using the system effectively. Regular weapons have two attacks--regular and strong--while unique weapons have both of these attacks and a special attack. To launch a combination of any three attacks, you have to properly time them, which can be a little difficult initially, and it can be made even more complicated by the game's relatively poor targeting system. Instead of letting you manually lock on to an enemy, the game automatically decides what to lock on to, which is usually the object within your direct line of sight, whether it's a treasure box or an enemy. As you might suspect, this becomes problematic when engaging a group, because the game won't necessarily target the nearest enemy, thus allowing that enemy to slip by and attack. In addition, you'll occasionally find yourself struggling with the camera to adjust your line of sight so you can target a specific enemy.
Thankfully, if you're playing the game on Xbox Live, you can always just tell your teammates that you're in trouble and need some help. Of course, this also pretty much negates the usefulness of symbol chat, a system that allows you to edit and create basic images and shapes to indicate a certain problem, such as a need for a health item. Indeed, symbol chat has become somewhat of an added customization feature in the game, allowing you to create something that will make your character stand out from the packs of people playing the game. In addition, voice communication has completely removed the need for a built-in software keyboard or even an actual keyboard, although Microsoft is offering an attachment that lets you use a keyboard for the game. But in any case, voice communication is a welcome feature that helps enhance the community aspect of the game and cures most of the GameCube version's shortcomings in that particular area.
The graphics aren't all that impressive, compared with the graphics in other Xbox games.