Phantasy Star Online 2: Episode Oracle Part 1 heralds the second time this cult favourite MMORPG has received an anime adaptation. With mixed thoughts out there, let’s tuck in to see how round 2 went…
Phantasy Star Online 2: Episode Oracle Part 1 works on adapting the first three episodes of the online JRPG into a 25-episode TV series, the first chunk of which are included in this release. The story follows the journey of Ash, a new member of the ARKS colonies wandering around space searching for bad things in order to shred them to ribbons or blow them up. During a routine training mission to Naverius, Ash’s troupe is set upon by a group of Falspawn leaving only himself and fellow cadet Afin to fend for themselves until they are rescued by two legendary warriors from ARKS. Things get weird when they stumble across a mysterious white-haired girl being hunted by a mask-wearing bad guy, triggering a series of events that see Ash, Afin and said white-haired girl Matoi getting involved in a series of missions which slowly unveil a complex network of politics, history and conspiracy theories.
I’ll be honest – I jumped at the chance to check this one out as I have a deep-seated love of Phantasy Star. Not necessary Phantasy Star Online 2 as I haven’t spent much time on it yet, but the 16-bit Phantasy Star games were my foundational JRPG experiences that made me a lifelong fan of the genre.
I mean, when you get rad pixel art like this (in this case from the closing scenes in Phantasy Star 2), how could you not adore such a stylish and amazing series?
But I digress.
This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at Phantasy Star Online 2 here at Anime Inferno – I reviewed the bizarre but enjoyable promotional anime Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation a few years back. It was by no means an amazing production, but it was light hearted, a bit silly in its premise but good fun. It also proved a good excuse, like the above, to reflect on how amazing Phantasy Star is.
Phantasy Star Online 2: Episode Oracle Part 1 ditches the odd isekai thingo from the former and goes head long into anime space opera territory. It’s this commitment to the world and story that lends it a surprising amount of heft which isn’t something I expected at all. Not being familiar with the story of PSO2 this was all new for me, and given it follows the first three episodes of the MMORPG probably makes this a very different experience for anyone coming from that headspace. Is it a faithful retelling of the story, is it all a bit silly, did the characterisations become convoluted in the transition?
It’s hard to say, but what’s impressive is that the storytelling is tight and stands on its own without requiring familiarity with the source material, which is actually quite impressive when you consider that adapting a video game into film or TV is extremely hard to do. Even in the stylised world of anime it’s historically been prone to a huge swing in achieving something meaningful – Street Fighter: The Animated Movie was a great self-contained biffo fest, but all the other adaptations really struggled teasing out a plot. Tales of Symphonia was a cracker of a game, but the anime often felt like a series of montages. Darkstalkers, Tokimeki Memorial, Garou Densetsu and many others have tried to bridge the gap, but it’s often a bit convoluted. Even Sakura Taisen, a property that seemed to be most at ease with such an adaptation, arguably struggled at times.
Mind, as a Sakura Taisen fanboy I’d argue the OVAs and movie are amazing, but I’m trying to be a little balanced here in setting the scene.
To its credit, boring Ash is at least likeable, and it helps that Afin and Matoi actually have a little personality. The story moves along at a steady click too, with some action setpieces kicking in far earlier in the story than I thought they would. While this only covers half of the anime (the other half has just come out around the time of writing this review), the rhythm and pacing felt satisfying and engaging, with some great twists towards the end of these episodes that got a little weird and meta which I enjoyed.
The production values were also quite nice, and surprising in a way given this is the first Gonzo production I’ve seen in years. I thought Gonzo had completed dropped out of the industry in the late 2000s, which they technically did but have since merged and restructured significantly into its current form. It’s an interesting situation – the space battle sequences took me back to their work on Vandread over 20 years ago which felt like a really interesting experiment with using fully CG-rendered space battles that felt a little bit like adapting a bullet hell shmup into a 3D animated space.
Granted their animation production and 3D rendering workflows have evolved significantly since then, but in a way it feels fitting that Gonzo, who pioneered digital animation in the anime industry in the 90s would still be doing a solid job all these years later. Sometimes it comes off a little distracting when they fold in 3D rendered character models for Maria and Regius and keeps me wishing we’d see more hand-drawn mecha in modern productions, but a production’s budget is always about compromise and it probably keeps things consistent with the game. The action sequences also don’t tend to feel like a video game cut scene as well which is nice.
For the local release we have something of a pragmatic package. There’s no dub for this one, it’s purely in Japanese with English subtitles, and the only bonuses are creditless ops and eds. But considering the price and the content, it’s still great value.
Phantasy Star Online 2: Episode Oracle Part 1 is best described as surprising – while there’s a little bias due to my love of all things Phantasy Star, I do believe it does a great job of setting up an interesting space opera that can be brutally engaging at times. I’ll be looking forward to checking out the remainder of the series when it gets released shortly!
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.