Phantasy Star Online 2 is the kind of game I'll happily sink hundreds of hours into but if someone ever asks me whether they should start playing it I'll say no. It's an anime MMO with absurdly detailed character customization, demanding hack-n-slash combat, and a satisfying grind. But the things I love about PSO2 are also buried underneath frustrations that make it hard to recommend. During the Xbox Games Showcase last weekend, Sega surprised the community by announcing Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis—and, from the looks of it, New Genesis is an exciting bid to fix some of these sins.
What New Genesis actually is, however, is a little confusing. It's fundamentally a standalone game—an entirely separate free-to-play MMO to PSO2—that's set a thousand years in the future. It features an entirely new graphics engine, updated combat and character customization systems, and environments that are far bigger than PSO2's tight corridor-style levels. At the same time, Sega is saying that the two MMOs will actually work in tandem: Characters from PSO2 can freely jump between the old version and New Genesis, with most cosmetics carrying over while progression will be kept separate. PSO2 will continue getting its own updates but will also receive the graphical upgrades of New Genesis so the two look more similar.
There's still a lot of questions about how this will work—not to mention why Sega decided to divide its MMO into separate games in such a confusing manner—but I'm willing to be optimistic because the potential here is clear.
Starting from scratch
Despite being eight years old, PSO2 has some clever ideas I wish other MMOs would pay attention to. The real draw has and will always be its demanding combat. At higher difficulties, one wrong move can get you killed, which puts a tense but exciting emphasis on nailing perfect combos and studying enemy movements so you know when to dodge. Its nine classes range from gun-wielding Rangers that transform the game into a third-person shooter to Bouncers that fly around on a pair of rocket boots. Mastering the dozens of class abilities and how they work together is fun, so I don't care that the graphics are outdated or the levels lack variety. PSO2 is all about killing stuff.
For an eight-year-old MMO, there are some surprising innovations to combat, though. While developers like Bungie and Gearbox are constantly patching out "loot caves" to stop players from cheating the grind, PSO2 turns it into a strangely compelling minigame. Parties who manage to kill enough monsters in a given area quickly enough can trigger a special event that causes more monsters to spawn rapidly and increase the odds of them dropping rare loot. If the party can continue to kill these respawning monsters at a fast enough pace—it's not easy—the time limit on the event is extended. It encourages players to work together, with the reward being an endless torrent of monsters to kill and loot to scoop up. One time I had a party that dragged this out for an exhilarating 15 minutes. It was like looter shooter nirvana.
But thoughtful innovations like this are contrasted by how ancient and esoteric other parts of PSO2 frequently are. Outdated graphics I can forgive, but needlessly confusing menus and a bad inventory system not so much.
PSO2 is a complex game with a lot of ways to tweak your character, resulting in a convoluted and nested menu system that is a nightmare regardless of whether you're using a controller or keyboard. Windows that I use all the time are buried deep in vague submenus, and information is rarely where you expect it to be. It's a nightmare for a new player, and it makes something as simple as joining a party often feel confusing. I still don't know what certain options do in the party finder menu.
The worst part is the inventory, however. PSO2 has a little bit of DNA from action RPGs like Diablo in that, over the course of a mission, a lot of loot drops from enemies. While most of that gear will be worthless—broken down to power up other gear or sold off for spare change—the whole process of determining what to keep or sell is beyond painful. You can't check the stats on loot without first picking it up, and your inventory only holds 40 items so I'm constantly having to send loot directly to storage so I can check it later when I'm not at risk of being eviscerated by a giant demon turtle. The menu constantly gets in the way and wrestling with it—especially in the heat of combat—is annoying. Bad menus might sound like a small complaint, but it's a pervasive problem that affects almost every aspect of PSO2 in some way.
While the New Genesis trailer didn't show how its new menus looked (probably because menus aren't as exciting as fighting giant aliens), the trailer promises big updates to the underlying systems. Some of that is obvious: Bigger environments mean players will need ways to traverse it efficiently, for example, but there are more subtle changes too. The combat UI looks more refined, with different lock-on indicators, damage numbers, and other subtle cues. I'm praying that this is an indication that work is being done to the UI and menus as a whole.
New Genesis can improve on other aspects of PSO2, as well. After a big update that trimmed down the boring objectives of story quests, what's left is a series of incoherent cutscenes with the odd boss battle scattered in between. I've tried multiple times to get through the story, but it all feels pointless. New Genesis, however, has its own campaign set in the future, so I'm hoping Sega takes some of these lessons and builds a new story that's actually worth playing and won't need to be trimmed down in a few years.
It's weird half-measures like this that make PSO2 an MMO with a lot of baggage. For fans like me, it's easy to reconcile these annoyances because the thrill of fighting elaborate bosses and grinding for that next big upgrade are all really fun. But I have a hard time recommending a game that requires players to watch hours of videos just to understand some of its basics. New Genesis, though, feels like a clean slate. Taking what already works about PSO2 and modernizing it seems like an easy win. Hopefully that's what Sega is actually planning rather than a surface-level update with fancy graphics. Big new environments and higher-detailed characters are fine and all, but it'll mean nothing if New Genesis doesn't fix the core issues keeping PSO2 from being great.