There's no reason fantasy role-playing games should be rooted in Tolkienesque folklore. Certainly, Sonic Team made a break from the past when it relaunched Phantasy Star. Sega's space-based RPG brought manga cuteness and accessible action gameplay to the genre.
We're not so sure quite why the designers were so keen on capital letters though. Maybe shouting is all the rage in the future?
And so it is that Phantasy Star Portable launches you, as the newest member of protective intergalactic force the GUARDIANS, into an investigation involving the return of a malevolent alien force known as SEED. These extraterrestrial terrors had been defeated and locked away, but reports of SEED activity have prompted an enquiry by the GUARDIANS. Fresh from training, you're sent in to find out what the HELL IS GOING ON...
Your work begins on the massive Colony, a multi-racial space station and your base of operations. From here you accept missions, joining up with other members of the force - you can gang up with up to three computer-controlled sidekicks - and zooming around to save the universe.
The standard role-playing formula applies here:
button mash complete missions for experience and money, which you then spend on better equipment and other character customisation features in the local malls.
Early missions keep you at the Colony, but you soon embark on tasks taking you to the nearby planets Moatoob, Neudauz, and Parum.
Phantasy Star Portable emphasises the relationships among four distinct humanoid races - Human, Newman, CAST, and Beast - as a means of layering narrative significance to its gameplay. Watching interactions between the artificial CASTs and emotional, often sexually-motivated humans, for example, gives the game an interesting slant.
Phantasy Star Portable's gameplay is more formulaic. It isn't completely devoid of entertainment, of course, but while the mechanics are well designed the familiarity of its structure is an issue.
Missions seldom vary much, consisting of little more than hack-'n'-slash runs through increasingly repetitive levels. Forcefields requiring access keys and mini-bosses are attempts to mix things up, yet these serve to highlight the limited scope not expand it. The simple minutes-long level-grinding missions are ideal for portable play on PSP, though.
Two areas where Phantasy Star Portable does wear complexity lightly, however, are the controls and user interface. Non-combat controls are rooted in easily navigable menus, but it's in battle where the UI design shines.
You handle basic actions via taps of the face buttons, while holding down the Circle button brings up the action palette. Via this window, you can quickly swap weapons or access items without having to shift through full menus. It's an inventive shortcut, and one that makes the game infinitely more playable in combat.
Further depth is introduced in the myriad options available as you develop your character. Right from the start, you're given freedom to craft the avatar of your liking from their gait to their eyebrows, eyelashes and the colour of their underwear.
This extends to a complex network of systems including weapons customisation, special abilities, and battle classes. It brings plenty of choice to Phantasy Star Portable, and combined with the variety of new items, clothes, armour, and weapons you can pick off the battlefield, it's a key reason that keeps you playing.
The balance between complexity and accessibility is upset, however, by considerations of experience and equipment management. You're allowed to tinker with eight battle types (read: 'classes') with their own levels, race-specific abilities, photon arts, and technic types. It takes more time to maintain these systems than it does to complete a standard mission.
Beyond the time necessary to manage these various elements, there's an impact on the interface. Phantasy Star Portable admirably squeezes everything onto the handheld, using abbreviations and shorthand in menus to keep things clean.
This introduces a learning curve in terms of familiarising yourself with the long list of acronyms and game-specific terms. For example, the first couple of trips to a weapons shop require you break out the manual to find out exactly what ATP means.
This sort of thing is a byproduct of the game's originality. The fact you begin the game unfamiliar with many of the abbreviations lining the status screen is a sign of how it differs from others in the genre. Your reaction to being thrown into such situation is likely to be a measure of how much you enjoy the overall experience.
So this is a marvellously deep, fully-featured game - particularly when you consider that it allows local wireless multiplayer missions supporting up to four players. Its complexity means players have to overcome a high barrier to entry though.
Series adherents and the most patient of role-players will be able to push through the learning curve. More casual players may fall by the wayside, perhaps wishing for a more familiar reprise of orcs and dungeons.