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The forests of Ragol are a strange, chimeric hybrid of technology and nature. The vast, sprawling seas of grass and trees are sprinkled with electronic gateways, metal and plastic structures, and technology of indeterminate purpose.
The forest’s pathways are overburdened by bears, wolves, and rabbits. Many clearings are rigged for ambushes, and wildlife will charge hunters with reckless abandon, fighting to the death with anyone who invades their territory. Hostility, unnerving silence, and the scarred journals of a missing scientist are all that wait on the surface of the planet. Further beneath, in the cavernous depths of the Ragol underground, the planet gathers traits of the grotesque.
Ragol is pregnant with apprehension. The entire planet feels consumed by whatever technomancy is altering the wildlife, but there’s also a distinct silence to the atmosphere that the indulgent soundtrack could only obscure, rather than mask entirely. The planet, with the exception of cries of violent animals, was silent. The wind is apparently absent, void of any rustling or sounds of nature. No birds, no water, just a void from which nothing but darkness stems. The darkness is really all that Ragol has to offer, leading hunter into catacombs and caverns, further underground and further withdrawn from any sign of non-hostile creatures.
Despite the alien and alienating landscape presented by Ragol, and the dominating, uncanny technofantasy aesthetic of Phantasy Star Online, the planet of Ragol feels like a childhood clubhouse, or a vacation home in a faraway land. Something about the planet, the effortless ambiance of the soundtrack, and the chaotic scramble against death surrounded by teeming life has stuck with me for a number of years, long after any actual ability to settle down and play Phantasy Star Online in the same way has passed.
For however lush the flora and fauna of Ragol were, the opposite could be said for the hub ship. Made entirely of sharp lines, bright neons, and administrative minimalism, the ship that hosted the Hunter’s Guild felt entirely pragmatic, giving short walks and tight clusters of shops, medical clinics, banks, and administrative buildings. There was almost no waste built into the Pioneer II, and any open space existed only to help manage the flow of foot traffic, a practical exercise, rather than existing for aesthetic design.
Another aspect that separates the Pioneer II from the surface of Ragol is in its population. Though the ship is brusque, to-the-point, and practical, the omnipresence of hunters gave the atmosphere a dense feeling of bustle, with hunters weaving into and out of crowds at a moment’s notice. Shops become something akin to street markets, where the crush of bodies force hunters to slither through little pockets of open air. There’s a constant chatter of player dialog, the sounds of menus opening and closing becomes inseparable from the music that plays over the ship’s lobbies. There’s a palpable sense of community in the throngs of the population milling around the station, with a fair bit of bustle, and all of it lacking the maliciousness felt from the creatures on the planet’s surface.
When small squads of hunters would transport themselves planet-side, the sense of community was built into the team. Groups of aggressive wildlife would hurl into battle, but the support of a handful of other hunters gave the experience the feeling of camaraderie. The very human support from a team was far more overpowering than the disquieting rage and disconcerting quiet of the wild landscape of Ragol.
Even beyond the surface, mechanical experience of Phantasy Star Online, the grand mission to save Red Ring Rico was likewise a very humanizing effort. To collect and save what humanity could be salvaged from whatever horrors lurked on the planet was an adventure in empathy as much as it was a fantasy journey through trials of sabers and savagery.
The biggest tragedy of such reflection is in that it can never be recovered the same way. No matter how much it feels like an old home, a place old hunters could return for comfort, few will likely ever return to Ragol. Any official servers for Phantasy Star Online, or its spiritual successor, Phantasy Star Universe, have been deactivated.
The only other alternative is a sequel, Phantasy Star Online 2, a game has been released since July of 2012 in Japan. Four years ago today, Sega’s last official word on the subject of Phantasy Star Online 2 in Europe and the Americas was a blog post. It revealed that there would be a Phantasy Star Online 2 demo available at PAX Prime. The only other words Sega has released on the subject are occasional Twitter responses that read, effectively: there is no news.
Every year that passes in silence marks a decreasing likelihood that Sega will localize the game for western audiences. Sega’s prolonged silence grows increasingly funereal; Phantasy Star Online 2 feels dead, to be mourned rather than given any chance to succeed or fail.
I would love to see Ragol again one day, although it feels impossible. I suppose the only thing I can do is hold onto a glimmer of hope.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user CircinusPrime.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and hopelessly enthralled by games beyond his reach. Although he mourns the loss of one community, he hopes endlessly to develop another through his Twitter.