The game's launch was a complete disaster. Mine is rigged with half a dozen mods that make it run smoother than it should, so keep that in mind. If your client is running poorly, make sure you get the PSO2 Tweaker to let it do the necessary changes to make it run more smoothly.
The story of Phantasy Star Online 2 (PSO2) is a little weird. The reason is that it involves time travel shenanigans. The main enemy is the Profound Darkness and its various spawns that appear as Dark Falz in different forms. Each of them can also transfer and infect other people. In the timeline that everything goes wrong, your created character turns into "Persona", another incarnation of Dark Falz that wields a sword. But, thanks to their interference, it is possible to save Matoi, another one of the incarnations.
You do have to complete the explorations of each area before you can rush through the story.
The game looks alright. It is not bad for an MMO, but it is dated when compared to other things, especially since this is a game that originally came out back in 2012 and only made it to the west this year. But, it is not bad looking unless you are one of those people who always want to see next gen graphics. The biggest fault of the game lies within the backgrounds. The reason is that the backgrounds were clearly designed at different times. Even areas within the central hub show noticeable differences in quality. But overall, it is not too distracting.
One of the best features of the game is the fact that there are a lot of customization options. The issue is that like most free to play games, it is tied to the cash shop. You get one free chance to change your character's appearance, but that is it. The rest of the time, you can only change from a limited selection of clothes and hair styles unless you pay money for loot boxes or earn enough star gems to purchase it from the "Fresh Finds" shop. Gems can be acquired from story mode, the Season Pass (seasons are very short though), and from grinding with fashion items that still have a gem icon.
PSO2 is an action RPG. But unlike its predecessors, there are four people in a party, but twelve people can be in most areas at the same time. This makes it easier to farm and get things done as progression is counted as long as you are within a decent range from the other people. This of course opens up the way for leeching, but it is rarely a problem. You can bring AI controlled characters with you, but they are pretty dumb and are more or less just damage sponges if you can roll a lower threat generation from the drinks station.
The four races are divided into male and female, but the differences between them are small. Humans are humans. Newmans are pointy ears, making them space elves. Casts are androids though the male ones are far more robotic looking compared to the female ones. Deumans are humans with tiny horns on their head and heterochromatic eyes. The differences between them are purely cosmetic.
The seven starting classes are Hunters (swordsman), Rangers (long range gunners), Force (mages), Fighters (speedy melee), Gunner (close ranged guns), Bouncers (magic kickers), and Techers (support). There is an eighth coming soon in the Japanese version I think. Each of them comes with their own skill trees. As you level up, you get a single point (+10 more from quests and additional points you can get once you reach the level cap by just getting more experience again though it costs 100% more from the base amount required each time). Skills are mostly just small status bonuses, but some can change the way a class is played. The most noticeable differences for me were in the Force and Techer classes, which can each turn one of their status effects into an additional bomb like effect instead. Sadly though, you have to pay with real money to reset your skill tree and I feel many people will make mistakes and this will cause a lot of frustration for people.
The game opens wide with the sub-class system at level 20 (this should take you around half an hour if you follow the game's tutorials). Upon completing a quest, you unlock a sub-class that gives you 20% of the chosen class's stats and the ability to use the weapons that the sub-class can. The sub-class can only level up to 55 unless you change it to your main class and it earns experience at 10% of the normal rate, so you will have to switch it out at some point. Not all skills are shared though and these are marked with a "Main Class Only" type of message. Most people end up choosing Hunter for the damage bonus, but you can use Force and Techer to give yourself access to magic too or sub-class a Ranger so you can use a Rifle on a mage.
Each area of the game is randomly generated between several potential layouts. Spawns will also change, so things could be different each time you go through the map. Most areas have two areas before reaching the preparation area for the boss. Defeat the boss and the stage ends. Some stages just have two areas and the objective is at the end of the second area. Depending on the layout, some enemy types are more likely to spawn than others, making it difficult to get certain spawns to occur if you are not aware of this. The game also utilizes a smart loot system, which makes drops favor the class you are using. If you are using a Force or Techer, you will see a lot of spells (they are called Techs in game) drop while a Hunter will see more weapon skills (called Photon Arts I believe). In general, the higher the number of stars on gear or the higher level the disc is, the more powerful they are. Weapons currently go up to 13 stars while armor goes up to 10.
Pretty much every enemy in the game has a weak point and there are some quests based around them too. Hitting the weak point will deal additional damage (some weapons benefit from not hitting the weak point though). On most bosses, the weak points are part of their mechanics and it can be hard for the close ranged classes to hit them without the right skills or the double jump ability (unlocked at level 40). Destroying certain parts may prevent them from properly using their attack. For example, destroying the parts of the Quartz Dragon will cause it to crash into the ground instead of driving its horn into the ground. There are also rare forms of many enemies that have different abilities and a higher chance to drop a rare item. All rare enemies right now also drop badges that can be traded for decent 12 star equipment.
By the time you reach around level 50, you can start preparing for the end game. The good part is that unlike other games, you do not have to wait until the level cap. As long as you have the attribute requirements to use certain gear, you are fine. Most weapons cap out at +30 enhancement unless you fuse it with more of the same item. This will also increase its bonus elemental damage up to a cap of 50 (13 star weapons seem to be able to hit 60 though). Identifying and refining item is where most of your money will go to and it gets extremely expensive. You are also guaranteed to fail a lot as potentials on weapons do not have a 100% chance of succeeding. The good ones have as low as 10% success rate though it can be boosted with some special items you can earn from daily quests. At refinement +10, you can choose a Hidden Potential. Most weapons only have one choice, but some may have more than one. By the time you get to 12 star weapons, these potentials can be extremely powerful and some may even out class 13 star ones. Elder Rifle for example gives a 30% ranged damage bonus as long as you have moved in the last second or Sigma Fagan's critical rate and damage boost as long as your health is above 50% (which is most of the time). The result of this is that the 13 star weapons just feels impractical right now. Armor just requires enough characters to farm for materials (you can have up to 3 before you pay for extra character slots).
Monetization comes primarily in the form of loot boxes that grant cosmetic features, though there are multiple subscription and storage expansion features. Unlike with PSO1, mags cannot be traded and require you to buy additional ones for 300 ARKS Cash each. Additional character slots beyond the 3rd cost 500. Loot boxes are $2 each or $22 for 12.
The biggest problem with the game right now is the performance. There are a ton of problems with the PC client. The lobbies stagger when they are only half full. The game lags during Urgent Quests even though enemies continue to move and when everything catches up, a third of the players are probably dead. Trying to connect to an Urgent Quest when too many people are starting them up may lock you out of the NPC until you change lobbies. You can even join a quest and end up not actually joining the game if the lobbies are full. Maybe they will get around to fixing it. Until then, the PSO2 Tweaker for the NA version will get the job done.
The most frustrating part for me is the end game Advance Quests. The main reason for this is the use of capsules and the weekly resets around it. For what should be the end game content, the difficulty does not scale very well. The capsule drops limit your ability to enter them and the weekly resets essentially makes unlocking the Very Hard versions frustrating as it takes 100 of any capsules for a single run. Considering that this is the only place that you can farm for end game gear right now (all the other locations are based on limited time Emergency Quests), it just turns into the traditional grinding so that you can grind more problem that a lot of free to play MMOs have.
One issue I have is with the 50 inventory slots. While it seems like a lot at first, having just one weapon and a full set of gear is already 7 slots. Throw in the bare minimum consumables and you hit 12. These slots are also used for quest items, which a full run of quests might take another seven. There are special currencies that you earn, gathered items, and drops from instanced events that can easily push you to 50 before you even realize it. I tend to hover around 70 to 80 items.
Final Score: 7/10
For a free to play action RPG, PSO2 manages to avoid the grinding pitfalls that other games do by making levels less important. You might not be able to access the highest difficulty levels until level 70, but levels mean a lot less compared to other games. It is pretty simple though a lot of RNG things when it comes to upgrading gear might end up frustrating. Luckily, it is pretty hard to screw up your build. You will be doing a lot of the same stuff over and over again to grind for gear. The most frustrating is needing to harvest and fish in order to upgrade gear. But as an online action RPG, it is quite enjoyable and is probably my favorite among those on the market.