Phantom Dust is a strange beast. It grips you with excellent presentation, CGI sequences, and premise, hinting that the game will perhaps be a fast-paced action game, or RPG with a sci-fi theme and uniquely drawn characters. Once into the game, you realize that it is quite unlike anything you've ever played; it is, acutely, in a unique genre all to itself. Though gamers might compare it to Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution, making that comparison is selling it short. The only thing Dust has in common with PSOEIII: C.A.R.D. is a similar element of strategy. Combining elements from table top card games like Magic The Gathering, videogames like Pokemon, and loosely utilizing the combat scheme from Virtual On, Phantom Dust is in a category all to itself.
Phantom Dust is a collectible-type game played in real-time with destructible arenas, special abilities, and action/adventure elements (and a lot of dialogue) thrown in the mix. Think of it less as a mutt, and rather as a unique endeavor. With some eye-popping graphics, original gameplay, and a fresh approach, Xbox owners might find it impressive that the game only checks in at a budget $19.99. Though it might not appeal to everyone, those looking for something new, cheap, and with long-lasting freshness will find Phantom Dust a must-have.
Thank you very much, oh, Mr. Ma-jes-co?
I have to hand it to Majesco for publishing this game for the US audience. Microsoft Studios Japan did a fine job of making an anime-inspired, post-apocalyptic storyline that was already translated into English for the Japanese audiences (don't ask why) and it was only a matter of time before Phantom Dust was brought over to the States. Phantom Dust was originally part of Microsoft's attempt to penetrate the Sony/Nintendo dominated Japanese market (where it was - and still is - floundering). As Microsoft gets its Japanese act together, Majesco took over and gave western audiences the opportunity to play this unique game. Before I get into the goods, bads, and whatnots, allow me tell you a bit about the premise?
In Phantom Dust, you play the quintessential sleeper? hero who is awakened from a techno-tomb at the start of the game. You are recruited by the Visions, a mysterious group that leads the survivors of a substance known as phantom dust. The dust is inexplicable and tied, somehow, to the fate of you, the survivors, and the known world. These recruiters have been surviving by living underground where the dust doesn't permeate because prolonged exposure can make people deranged, mad or, even worse, dead. Temporary exposure for the average person leads to complete memory loss. Of course all this ties into the sometimes melodramatic, but otherwise complex storyline. Because I am a stickler for actually experiencing the story - there are some really great moments throughout the respectable 12-hour single player game - I will not spoil it, but needless to say, Microsoft will throw a few wrenches in the story, a few twists, and a whole lot of HUGE BOSSES.
Assemble your Arsenal
I mentioned earlier that there is a collecting-card aspect to Dust. Don't let that fool you though, not once in the course of the game will you see a collectible card. Aura particles and skills function in a similar way, but without all that shuffling. The card-elements are arguably the best of the game, since nearly all the strategy comes in building the best Arsenal. Throughout most of the game you'll only be able to have 2 schools in an Arsenal - or types of skills - so balance is important. Say you have many skills in one school, but you think one or two skills from another will dramatically help your Arsenal. The other skills in that school you don't really like. Finding the perfect balance of skills among the schools at your disposal is some of the more brilliant work Microsoft did on the game. From a gameplay standpoint, making a decent tradeoff of cost, power, and efficiency of skills becomes essential. This was all taken to heart, and the end result is quite satisfying.
It takes about two hours of gameplay before you get access to an Arsenal. Your Arsenal is your deck? if you're into Magic The Gathering, or your lineup? if you're a Pokemon habitué. You construct an Arsenal of up to 30 skills, but you'll want to leave room for Aura Particles (think mana) which help you build your magic power and allow you to cast higher-costing skills. In actuality you'll probably keep 15 skills and 15 Aura Particles, but you can find nifty ways around this (such as 0 aura cost spells). The flexibility with the Arsenal system is the game's strongest point, and brings high replay value. Each skill has a school, a cost, a damage, and sometimes an effect (such as steal ability?). There are defensive skills, as well as attack, status, environment, support, and steal abilities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, certain defensive abilities can parry attacks, some deflect or reflect projectiles...there are literally hundreds of skills (340 to be exact) that will keep you busy with new strategies.
Graphics wise, the game looks quite good, but there are few areas to speak of, so the trade-off for quality is, in this case, quantity. Utilizing real-mapping, the game's arenas take damages, collapse, explode, fall, crumble, etc., and the effect is quite jaw dropping. The first time I blew a hole in the center of a map I was like, Holy friggin' crap, I didn't think you could do that!? There are little over a half-dozen arenas, some of which are the same just at different times of the day. But the maps we do have are highly-textured and fully destructible; they are so destructible that it's possible to be hit by stray debris that can cause damage, or even be used as an offensive tool. Some of the maps are big, some medium, some small. At the beginning of a duel you'll start at one end, your enemy at the other, and then begin battling with the skills you chose to fill your Arsenal. The skills spawn at random in your starting area and you assign them on the fly to the face buttons X, Y, A, B. Since the arenas are all rather different, you'll have to customize your arsenal to cope with the surrounding environment. For instance, the Palace area is small, comprised of enclosed rooms and stairways; in this area it is unwise to choose a long-range Arsenal, or a rain? type arsenal because of the overhead roof. In the Highway area, long to medium range skills are preferable, but some players might find tricky ways to get close enough to use their fire sword.? Finding your own way to play is as much a part of Dust as the flexibility.
Unfortunately, it is possible that some battles can become rather mundane. At times, my enemy and I would just sit at our spawn point firing long-ranged attacks back and forth. This won't happen always, and the enemy AI (which is at once intelligent and vapid) will sometimes try to engage you on your own turf. On the opposite end of the obtuse battles there are some heated, attack/block/counterattack battles that are more enjoyable. Most of the battles can be turned for the better with a wise choice in Arsenal construction, but the game does seem a little hollow when playing against computer opponents. Though the battles are fun, they can be a little repetitive. Playing against a human opponent, as with many games, is the most inspired part of the Phantom Dust. And I hate to say it, but the AI battles can leave a sour taste in your mouth if your intent is frenetic, action splurges. Much of the time the gameplay is in waiting, anticipating the opponent's next move. If that's your cup of tea, then, by all means pick up Phantom Dust now.
The sound in the game does its job and then some. The opening music is eerie and mysterious, and the techno-remix of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is rather refreshing. In the arena, there's really no music to speak of, and if you do decide to speak of it, you'll notice there's not much to say. The most important thing in the arena is hearing enemy missiles flying your way so you can put up a shield in time. For this reason, the sound effects are quite good. The voice acting, however, is laughable. Voice acting kicks in for the few CGI scenes throughout the single player mode, and while you'll want to skip them from the inanity, the scenes have a flair to them. In this way, you'll stick it out, like I did, despite the voice acting.
Thankfully, the in-game dialogue is done through text, and won't cause you that much of a migraine. You'll interact with many characters at home base, which consists are few areas: a bar, battle area, Arsenal library, shop, and many hallways. The storyline is advanced by running around and querying your fellow survivors. Unfortunately, this is where the gameplay of Dust falls apart. You'll complete a mission, receive some information, and then have to systematically run around and talk to everyone who might have another mission for you. There's no rhyme or reason to these events, but they're needed to advance the plot. At times I just wish the game would have let me keep battling, which is where the real heart is, instead of trouncing around aimlessly, hoping to trigger an event.
As far as multiplayer goes, Dust is a mixed bag. The split-screen functionality is limited, since the game splits the screen vertically and resizes the window to about a fourth of the actual screen size; the rest is taken up with various on-screen data. This is the worst way to play Phantom Dust. Personally, I would recommend online through LIVE if you had to choose.
Online through Xbox LIVE is more interesting, and more fun. Once online you'll find a number of people (a surprising amount of people, actually) who will be willing to team-up or go against you in the arena. It is also possible to trade skills with people online; this option can be incredibly useful. It also extends the feeling of the online community that Xbox LIVE has been lacking for a long time. The online layout is decent, but can get in the way if you need to change Arsenals in-between bouts.
The experience is terrific once you get online with three other people. And it seems to work best if you get to know, or already know, a few people. Phantom Dust can also be played over system link, which works just fine, though the real experience - and lasting gameplay - will be found over Xbox LIVE. There are even special rare skills that can be gained only online by doing things like fighting in 30 bouts.
What the Phantom asks of you?
Really, in the end Phantom Dust asks the player to remain open-minded throughout. The game will not appeal to everyone due to its premise, but for those who want a unique style of game with staying power, Phantom Dust is your game. While some character animations could have been better, some dialogue, a bit sharper, Phantom Dust remains atop my, I'm addicted,? list. I simply cannot pry myself away from this game. It sucks you in and hours just fly away: for good or ill. Given the investment of $20 bucks and a few hours, I believe Dust will do the same to you.