Note: This review has 2 parts, one for my offline experience of Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution (which I'll shorten to Card Revolution), and the other for the series as a whole, based on my offline/online experiences with the Sega Dreamcast version of Phantasy Star Online Episode 1 and the PC version, Blue Burst. I felt I needed to put in the 2nd part of my review to discuss MMORPG: Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game communities as the thing that makes or break online play.
Card Revolution feels more like a card game creation tutorial than a revolution. Although the game mechanics work decently in terms of balance, it is lackluster and sluggish. The flaws from this game arrive from the pacing. Battle animations cannot be shut off, making each attack take about 7 seconds to do. This reminds me of Yu-Gi-Oh: Falsebound Kingdom taking the same amount of time for each attack to animate and monsters taking up to a dozen attacks to kill (2:37 in the vid link starts the battle). Both games stack this slow animation game flaw terribly; you will constantly replace your destroyed monsters or equipment in Card Revolution every turn and Falsebound Kingdom's monsters have a never-say-die attitude because they have too much health.
However, the animations in Card Revolution can take long enough that I can type this review in the middle of playing the game; this still shows you how slow the animations are. This will add up over time; it will take a couple of attacks to take down a monster or about 3 attacks to destroy equipment. If you have to destroy 3 pieces of equipment or 5 monsters, you already waited for over a minute in battle animations. This is much worse than the 10 seconds it takes to load and the camera pan/character appearances that take an additional 15 seconds. This video shows you how much time you will spend waiting for everything, even moreso as it is a 2 on 2 game.
Basically, this game sets itself up as a lackluster stall because you will be bombarded by equipment if you face heroes or monsters if you face villains while you fight across a small grid. The heroes have equipment decks that give them health and attack power whereas the villains rely on monsters to defend themselves. The game is a contest to see whether the weapons will last longer, or the monsters; the villain's deck is completely defenseless to attacks other than using support and attack spells (both are 1 use unlike equipment and monsters which stay on the field). You cannot create a hybrid deck that uses both monsters and weapons. At least both the heroes and villains can use support cards.
The story of the game is a bait and switch. It sounds intriguing playing as the good guys or the dark side that wants to stop the government. However, most of your dialogue is just being told where to go next and your character does not even exist outside of walking around the base. You just play as subordinates instead and these characters do not develop at all. Therefore, the characters are completely useless; you cannot battle with your main character, and none of the characters have any personalities.
Card Revolution was just a boring card game that lacked variety and speed. In short, this game cancels itself out: your own character that you create is not used in battle, the appeal of being a hero or villain is meaningless when you do not care about why you are fighting, battle animations take too long, and you will only be facing the same types of decks in the offline single player game.
The strategies feel terribly mundane and limited. If you play as the villain, you will constantly play the same strategy of breaking equipment while hoping your monsters in front of you can stay alive long enough to protect you. If you play the hero, you will play the strategy of stalling your opponent constantly with shields and weapons while you blast away their monsters. You will have to attack about 3-4 times to destroy equipment with your monsters although spells are stronger but 1 use. The weapons can easily kill monsters and shields take damage instead of weapons, making the stalling even more tiresome.
Lastly, drawing can be a pain because you cannot draw cards once you have 5 cards in your hand; if at any point in the game you're stuck with too many or too few monsters while you are a villain, you will lose because you do not have any safe means of attacking. At least you can at least fill out your 5 card hand if you have less cards. The online features really are not the point of this game because you do not explore.
According to this private server's website, Sega shut down its Phantasy Star Online servers for netplay although you had to pay to play for a Hunter's License on those official servers on the Gamecube. It is completely useless now because the Wii lacks netplay for Gamecube games; even if there were other games you could play online, who knows if the official servers are still up given the Gamecube is a dead system. However, the Sega Dreamcast version of Episode 1 was free when the official server used to be up.
If you liked prior Phantasy Star Online games, it is because of the dungeon exploration and teamwork to save you. This made up for the mages being unplayable in single player because they were too weak to begin with and obviously could not revive themselves unlike multiplayer where they can revive and support other players. You could play as your own character that you created although the timing battle system got repetitive after a while; attack, attack, heavy attack and run back 2 steps for close range and repeat. If you had long range, it would just be bombard enemies until they got close and run away.
Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution lacks a feel of teamwork because even the 2 on 2 battles just feel more like two 1-on-1 battles at the same time with its card setup that lacks any sophisticated combos; support cards only stall your death rather than have any creative abilities. The assist cards were pretty dull too, making universal effects for all players such as having a 6 card hand or your die rolls to get a +1 boost. Die rolls basically pay for movement, summoning, and attacking costs.
Given what I said about other Phantasy Star Online games, such as Blue Burst or the 1st 2 Phantasy Star Online games, it's hard to call Card Revolution a disappointment due to the nature of the other games if you were unlucky to have a boring community that did not say things to entertain you like in Blue Burst, or even worse, a potentially hazardous community like in the 1st Sega Dreamcast game that had a hacker kill you to steal your weapon and money or switch your character with theirs permanently.
At least there were some nice, memorable people on the Dreamcast version that made the game entertaining as my 1st online team role-playing console experience. Even with the hackers on the Dreamcast version, it had an overall feeling of a team and great interaction; a female player even played the role of damsel in distress but bailed me out when I put my foot in my mouth on a botched rescue attempt for her. This made it more fun to play than the silent people I played with on Blue Burst which made me feel like I was playing with AI drones instead of actual human beings.
Update On Apr 13, 2009: Regarding my overall score: 2.5/5 would be my total score of Phantasy Star Online if I was in a good community, as I mentioned in my damsel in distress story in part 2. However, Card Revolution would get a 1.5/5.