What They Say:
Phantasy Star Online 2 is the most popular game on the web, and almost everyone at Seiga Academy is deeply immersed in it. When the school administration begins to worry that the game is causing more harm than good, student council president Rina Izumi sets out to prove PSO2’s virtual positives. To confirm her opinion, she recruits Itsuki Tachibana, one of the few students who isn’t already hooked, and instructs him to learn how to play so she can study the effects. What at first seems like a brilliant and simple plan instead lifts the lid off a Pandora’s Box filled with unexpected complications. As Itsuki’s life undergoes a rapid transformation, it soon becomes clear that PSO2 may be much more than merely a game! In fact, a whole new world waits on the other side of the net in PHANTASY STAR ONLINE 2 – THE ANIMATION!
The audio presentation for this release is very appropriate for the title considering that it is only available in Japanese subtitled Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 encoded at 224 kbps. You are not overwhelmed by the studio’s need to cover dialogue with unnecessary noise, and since this is an anime revolving around a video game, they can easily get carried away with the music and sound effects. There is a delicate balance between allowing the seiyus’ performances to carry the weight of the show and not other audio distractions. The separation between the two worlds of reality versus the online side are always distinctly noticeable, with the former isolated by the normality of classroom chatter and milder musical accompaniments; however, when we cross over to that other side, and the need for the massive online battles, that is when the dam bursts open as they allow a full orchestra to intensify the magnitude of those fights. While the sound effects are usually limited to clashing metal, roars of monsters or the sharp pings of laser bombardments, they all meld wonderfully to bring us an all enclosing environment which is parallel to the actual gameplay. But as the series continues, those two atmospheres beautifully clash and allow us a glimpse into those worlds.
But it is through the defining themes of this show which set the mood and general attitude for this anime. The fast paced opening J-Pop song called Zessei Stargate is appropriately performed by Itsuki’s seiyu, Shouta Aoi; this powerfully moving musical statement gives his character’s perspective of first diving into the game and how his excitement is bonded by the friendships he builds within that world. However, the ending theme, which feels like it came from FanCon pop idol concert with its upbeat dance rhythm is the complete opposite. Rare Drop! KOI! Koi! One More! is a comically fitting closing for each show, sung by Ayaka Suwa and Mao Ichimichi, the seiyus for Rina and Aika respectively. This piece fits in so much into the gamer mentality that you cannot but help to watch it each time due to the laughable situation of seeing rappys and the normally somber lone wolf Soro dancing away, always putting a grin on your face; as we hear about the pleasure in their voices of the finally getting a rare in game drop with your friends, you cannot but help to also think when it was better to experience such a moment than playing by yourself. These two themes really speak to the gamers who will most likely be the main focus for this anime.
This series is broken down into three disks spanning the breadth of twelve episodes, encoded in standard MPEG-1/2 DVD media format and 720×480 anamorphic resolution. The 16×9 aspect ratio playback helps to expand on the panoramic views of this series. While we experience the parallels of the real world and that of the online members, it is this expansive atmosphere which allows the audience to see all which either place encompasses. The bright sunlit reality of the city and classrooms are in pale comparison to the bleak darkness of the in-game world. Everything in that latter environment is almost sterile as the characters wait in the staging areas before venturing out into the play field. It is only then when we see how barren that world is compared to the one which awaits them as they turn off the game. This bizarre contrast of the two places is comforting that the characters know which is the reality, but as the series progresses and the worlds become more confusing, it that difference which works against them.
While the show itself is entertaining, it is in the translation of the world of Phantasy Star Online 2 by which the animation studio runs into problems. Since this anime is based on an actual video game, they tried to recreate it as accurately and faithfully as possible so as to please that online community. But in doing so, you begin to see the problems of trying to recreate a three dimensional world within a flat two dimensional medium. Of course, the most glaring would be the over use of computer graphics in an attempt to duplicate metallic finishes and the large otherworldly creatures known as the Dragon Tribe. Although the avatars are noticeable as being humanoid, there are times when the animators try too hard and give the robotic ones an artificially unnatural appearance, the colors being too harsh and brightly glaring – making them stick out against the backgrounds. Then on the opposite side of the spectrum, the draconian foes which the players face always seem stuck in darkness, allowing for them to exude a sinister aura. But it also appears that this was done to disguise the lack of any texturing, which is readily visible once they are shown in a brighter arena; these creatures now appear bland when you set them apart from everything else in the scene, therefore making them stand out or at times to disappear into the dimly lit scenery. While I can appreciate all of this hard work, I still do not understand why studios try to take short cuts with computer created animation, and this is certainly apparent when traditional animation is mixed with those generated characters. The latter in this case overpowers everything else, making the characters more visible and any flaws which were minor before are now magnified, emphasizing them and making anything else within the same scene seem minor, even the actors themselves.
Sentai Filmworks used a creative way to introduce the audience to the concept of Phantasy Star Online 2: show us the entire cast on the front portrait of the case cover. While it appears to be busier than the normal artwork, this illustration also helps to promote the camaraderie that is always present in any multi-player online game and is also an essential part of this show. We have Rina with her alter ego Soro prominently displayed at front since they were the ones who introduced Itsuki to the game, then the rest of their friends are shown below, almost as if they are carrying them to the future. The glistening blue Earth on the side and the dark vastness of space contrast off each other, almost as if they are fighting over which will have possession of the group, just like they do within the game itself.
Then to further carry on that friendship theme, the disks are cloaked in a dull white to make the pairings of the characters stand out. Upon each DVD is emblazoned a pair of avatars, the partnership within the game is comparable to the relationship they have in real life, showing how this closeness can also carry over across the dimension. And while the pale background may emphasize the more colorful illustrations in the foreground, it might have been more appropriate to link the disks to the cover by using the same space formatting, but it still works well for this color scheme.
While the same decoration which Sentai used for the silk screened disks is also used in this menu, somehow it feels a little more appropriate for this format, but not by much. At first the eye focuses on the in game/real life pairings off to the side of the screen, but this time you notice a star gate contrasted in the background, drawing the duo inward. Then we adjust to the episode names on the right side, boxed off in a Crayola Blue with a red winged cursor to select each one. Although this decorating scheme may seem mildly welcoming to the viewer, the starkness of that white does get a bit irritating after staring at as you make your selection. A darker color scheme such as the one used on the packaging’s cover would have made the eye strain more tolerable.
Then, as if this optical confrontation wasn’t bad enough, we have to once again put up with Sentai’s repeated flaw in this area by the first minute repetition of the upbeat J-Pop opening theme Zessei Stargate echoing in the background; though this may have been done to get the viewer ready for the show with its energizing beat, it quickly gets tiresome once it restarts at the end of the cycle. Sentai should have given us an option to turn off the music, but they might not anticipated the viewer to spend much time in this area since they are driving us away with this endless, if however apropos cacophony.
The extras for this collection may appear to be worthy of some redemption, once you get past the same eye draining menu decoration as used in the Main. However, as in the previous menu, the first minute of the closing theme Rare Drop! KOI! Koi! One More! still floats in the background. Although I can fathom the appropriateness for music in the main, why put it in a side section when all of their other shows have silence? While the melody is pleasing enough, I still don’t understand why it is in a place where most will only spend a few seconds before making a choice – seems like a waste of a wonderfully charming tune.
While Sentai included the standard clean opening and closing animations plus trailers for their other properties, the real pseudo-treasure for this section is the Japanese Commentary. Those familiar with anime collections dubbed by other studios will know of this treat where English voice actors talk about problems and funny situations arising from a recording session. But this is where the similarity ends since this one allows us to hear from the other side of the animation and introduces us to seiyus Shouta Aiu, voice of Itsuki, Takuya Sato, voice of Masaya and the creator of the original Phantasy Star Online game plus this show’s director, Yuya Kimura.
On the surface, it seems that this special will present viewers with some behind the scene materials as to how interesting it was to create an anime based on the video game. But after the trio begins recalling their favorite scenes from the show, it quickly becomes apparent that this presentation is more about promoting the original material than the animation itself. Of course they talk about the difficulty of translating Phantasy Star Online 2 into an anime which loyal fans will recognize, but after that initial speech it quickly degenerates into the need of wanting to go back and play the game and how people will notice how they slipped in special Easter Eggs into the show. Although this may be interesting for the Japanese audience since they can participate in this secret conversation, Western viewers will miss most of the nuances since this game is restricted to that part of the world and Southeast Asia. This is a shame since it seems that such a basic understanding would expand our knowledge into the anime, but since we are not privy to such information, all of this is lost to us poor viewers on the other side of the world.
Content (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
In the year 2016, a new elementary particle is discovered which the researchers promptly dub Ether. While they do not fully understand it, the scientists learn that it has the uncanny ability to transmit vast amounts of data at high speeds. And now in the current year 2027, thanks to a new series of transmission pillars called ESC-A Towers, the atmosphere of Earth has been seeded with these amazing particles and has lead to a worldwide era of high-speed communications. This new system is called the Ether Transmission Protocol, and thanks to it has led to an increase of people who now play online games; this popularity has been accomplished due to the installation on all computers of an application called Phantasy Star Online 2.
A new semester has just started at Seiga Academy and Itsuki is coming back from a relaxing summer break. He has no idea that what his best friend Kouta has been doing, until someone asks if he can play PSO2 tonight. Blissfully unaware of its popularity, he has never tried the game, thinking the hobby as a passing fad, that is until he receives an e-mail from the Student Council to meet tomorrow after his club meeting. While he has good grades and a perfect attendance record, Itsuki does not belong to any organizations, but instead substitutes for missing team members, essentially making him a surprising replacement for any who need him. It is this adaptability which prompts Student Council President Rina to offer him the position of Vice President with one purpose: to investigate the very MMORPG which he had no interest of playing; it is her intention to have this unaffected person investigate how the student body interacts with Phantasy Star Online 2 and see how it affects their grades, with the strict warning that he himself must not allow his own to suffer thanks to this research. If the Council can prove that such social interaction is helpful for the growing minds of the pupils, then the governing body of the Academy will allow it to continue, otherwise all future communications will be severely restricted.
That innocuous icon on the computer desktop marked PSO2, Itsuki has never been tempted to open it before, but now he has every intention not to disappoint Rina. But, there is one major problem: having never played any such games before, he has no idea how to even start this daunting endeavor! It is only with the aid of his friend Kouta that the new inductee has a chance to launch into the world of Phantasy Star Online 2, but now that he has entered this amazing world … what does he do? As this rookie gazes around the spectacular confines of the space station, his confusion attracts the attention of a towering man dressed in gleaming white armor, It is obvious that the new member of the Council has no idea what comes next, but before the stranger can approach, the annoyingly loud screech of a klaxon alerts everyone gathered within the area of the impending invasion. Amused by the idea of leaping into the fray, Itsuki joins the battle not knowing that his inexperience will soon land him in danger. As of the frightful creature is about to land a critical blow, the massive soldier clad in white rushes in to save the day.
Delighted to have someone to mentor him, the imposing figure introduces himself as Soro and proceeds to show the newbie commands so as to control his avatar to the fullest. After several hours of frenetic play, the proudly converted player departs with a hardy goodbye and rushes off to start his impassioned report. It is not until the next afternoon does Rina know how much her new Student Council member is remarkably affected by his premiere adventure into the world of PSO2. The glowing grin is one indicator of his pleasure, but the other is the incredibly enthusiastic account of his activities within that virtual world – including the countless praise he has for that helpful soldier named Soro. The President cannot but help to applaud Itsuki for his zeal, but she feels the need to remind him of the promise, of which he acknowledges wholeheartedly. However, Rina still feels that his current attitude may land the Vice President in more trouble than it may have solved.
Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation would be an enjoyable journey into a remarkable game and the characters are delightful examples of your typical school-aged teenagers, if you consider this series a separate entity. However, that is the dominant complication for this show: this anime is based upon current situations, quests, players and ultimately the consequences of PSO2 affecting the real world. While the beginning of the show is a refreshing glimpse into the fan culture, obsession, cosplay and conventions based upon that MMORPG, this is where any relational comparisons can be made stops for Western fans of the animation.
Sadly, this game is only available commercially in Japan and Southeast Asia, and due to this fact, we viewers who are unlucky enough to be denied access to Phantasy Star Online 2 cannot fully understand a majority of the hidden Easter Eggs or terminology buried within the series. While the studio does try to give the uninitiated a generalized knowledge of the concepts through intermission information placards, that still is not enough to fully comprehend what is happening within the show – and sadly, it also appears that even more of these informational tidbits were cut from the final Western release.
Although the show itself still contains with enough entertainment value to please normal otaku, those who consider themselves Western connoisseurs of Japanese culture will find Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation lacking in the completeness of the show. Unless you have played the game which this show is based upon, there will be minor lapses in the plot which the generalized supplements will not adequately fill to make much of a difference – most strikingly being the Japanese Commentary. While you may be able to gloss over that lack of knowledge due to differences in perception, it still leaves this show unfulfilled to the potential of the studio to satisfy foreign audiences.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Japanese Commentary, Clean Opening & Closing Animations & Sentai Trailers
Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: C+
Extras Grade: C+
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: March 7, 2017
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Review Equipment: Sharp LC-42LB261U 42” LED HDTV and Sony BDPS3200 Blu-ray player