Phantasy Star Portable 2 is a strange game, a very strange game. Some people will put it down to our inability to fully understand Japanese culture, others will simply say that the Japanese are the craziest designers on the planet. Both statements hold some truth and partial reason as to why Portable 2 makes absolutely no sense. Originally released in Japan last year, the translated version has just hit our shores. The differences between East and West are plain to see, and that makes it fiendishly difficult to make a very Japan-centric experience appeal to the rest of the world. Much of Portable 2 is a convoluted mix of potentially drug-induced creativity, but that's what some people want. Hidden behind the absurdities that grace the media panel below, is actually a fairly solid new addition to the PlayStation Portable's ever-expanding catalogue of games.
The game takes place three years after what happened in Phantasy Star Universe, and as a result, suffers greatly for players who aren't familar with the series. The franchise has been around for a long time, and it's difficult to follow what's happening due to the enormous amount of characters and locations. Basically what we have are the following: a planet named Gurhal, a pandemic and a sub-space sailing theory. Make of it what you will, but it's not the most inviting story in the world. Of course, this is exactly what hardcore fans would want, so it's really a case of your history with Phantasy Star and the genre as a whole. The story plays out using some CGI sequences, but most of the plot is revealed through conversations - and there are lots. Remember to leave your reading glasses nearby, because you're going to need them.
Mercifully, the graphics are generally very good. The CGI makes great use of the PSP's impressive resolution, and for the most part, the game is bright and colourful. Every character is ridiculous but equally vibrant (red eyes, lime green hair, silly frocks - that sort of thing), and even though the art direction is questionable, it really does help in creating a completely outrageous cast of characters. Enemies are similarly 'out there'; one of your first encounters is with a shark man with some sort of glowing blades, and that's only the beginning. The locations vary however, and you could be wandering through areas with fascinating architecture, or banal green fields. Granted, there's always something fresh and unusual to look at, but some more consistency would have been nice. Overall though, Portable 2 gets a lot out of this little machine, and the visual direction is a striking change to games that are developed elsewhere. Regarding presentation, there's nothing out of the ordinary here but the layout works well. Menus can be navigated easily and even though there can be a lot of information on the PSP's small screen, everything you need to know is clearly visible. It's admirable to see an RPG that doesn't shower players with stat after stat - gameplay is the main goal here.
Portable 2 follows a traditional role-playing formula; defeat enemies, gain experience, level up, repeat. This is something that gamers either love or hate, but oddly enough, it's very user friendly. There's one very basic explanation for this, the lack of turn based battles. Unlike one of 2010's bigger releases, Final Fantasy XIII, players can pick this up and start hacking, slashing or shooting without the need for standing still and waiting for the AI to do something. This is a trait that Japan really needs to accept if games like Portable 2 are to succeed in other countries. Combat itself is fairly standard, you'll be using the face buttons to carry out the majority of actions. Movement is assigned to the infamous analogue stick, while the camera is controlled using the d-pad. This is the one area that fails, like so many other PSP games. Manually moving the perspective rarely works so why not keep a fixed angle? Humans didn't evolve with three thumbs, something that developers really should pay attention to. It's not game breaking though, as you can always snap the view back into place with the left shoulder button.
Once the rather lengthy opening has been completed, players will be introduced to a range of new characters and a new space station which serves as a portal to upcoming missions. From here, players can edit their character with plenty of new items and equipment before entering battle. If you have played the original Phantasy Star Portable, there's an option to import your save file to unlock more exclusive items. Character customisation is vast to say the least, and you can become anything from a mech to a Mr. Blobby lookalike. During the core missions, players will be able to bring a little companion along with them (who plays an important role in the story as the game progresses). As soon as your character and their little helper have been equipped as the player sees fit, it's time to hack and slash through a variety of missions. The objectives generally remain constant, so you're going to be killing lots of enemies until somebody drops a key to unlock a door to unlock another area to do the same thing again to reach a boss battle... phew.
The fact of the matter is that Portable 2 was designed with online multiplayer in mind. The game is built from the ground up to incorporate a healthy online community, and you'll be glad to hear that playing with others can make this game much more enjoyable. One word of warning however, you're going to be severely underpowered in comparison to other players. Three days after the game was released, we entered the online world at level six, only to find ourselves surrounded by people who were closer to level fifty. It's not a complaint per se, but it's something to be wary of when the rest of the group is tackling a difficult mission. Embarking on a four player co-operative quest can be very rewarding, not only because of the amount of XP you gain, but also because of the tactical elements that are required when using different characters. It's always nice to be part of a friendly community, and Portable 2 offers exactly that. You mightn't be able to understand your team mates, but the inclusion of multiple actions (including a hilarious dance) means that players can always get a laugh or two from this truly bizarre universe.
If you can bring yourself to ignore some of the most horrific audio recorded in this generation, including a diabolical theme song and forgettable voice acting, then you might be pleasantly surprised with the remainder of the game. Phantasy Star Portable 2 certainly isn't lacking in content, even though the PSP can't handle the enormity of console RPGs, you're still going to find plenty to do in single player. There are ten main chapters to journey through and that will definitely take your playing time into double figures. An almost mandatory feature nowadays is to have side missions, and it's a guarantee that you're going to get pulled away from the main story sooner or later. While it doesn't have the engrossing story similar to those found in alternative genres, Portable 2 is an ideal RPG that players can pick up and play without the need for continual dedication. By far the most noteworthy element of Portable 2 is its online multiplayer, and it's undoubtedly one of the better examples showing how to design a PSP game for a worldwide community.
Phantasy Star Portable 2 was developed with a very particular audience in mind, and whoever enjoys this type of experience should be grateful to see it released outside of Japan. The most unusual thing isn't the crazy style or the atrocious music, it's the fact that Portable 2 somehow manages to be enjoyable for people who wouldn't necessarily enjoy an RPG. Instead of being a brutally difficult series of grinding sessions, this brings a balanced offering to the table, one that just about anyone can appreciate the merits of. The game is far from perfect and has plenty of flaws, but as a quick relief from console gaming, Phantasy Star Portable 2 might be worth looking at. Even if the gameplay doesn't sound very appealing, it's always commendable to see a developer put so much effort into the online aspects of a handheld game. You won't find any pre-pubescent kids screaming through your speakers, just a friendly community who are more than welcoming to RPG newcomers. Not a bad achievement for a game that you can play on the move.