Developer: Microsoft Studios Japan
Release Date: March 8, 2005
Humanity as we know it perished in a mass of warfare and pain. The civilizations we cling to are gone, leaving behind only silent ruins and a handful of survivors, living underground and struggling to remember the past that the dust has taken from them. Mutated wrecks haunt the surface, a few powerful Espers trying to found out what went wrong and survive at the same time. Makes you wanna move to Mars, don't it?
One of the most popular games of 2004 in Japan is preparing to make its launch here in the States after much delay, bringing with it an innovative combat system, high intensity fighting, and an underlying light-RPG system mixed with a "deck building" component that Magic players will feel right at home using. As an Esper with amnesia who has been found buried in a cryogenic capsule, you and your partner must fight the forces of the surface world in order to find both humanity's future and your own past.
Phantom Dust uses something that feels like a card-based system, where your "armory" of abilities are completely user configurable; things from flying laser beams and meteors are available for your assaulting purposes, with a multitude of defensive abilities backing you up. Expect a touch of strategy as you clamber around devastated buildings and highways – your powers determine your success as much as your ability to use them, since only a few are available randomly at any given time during a fight. The environment is your weapon as well – floors give way, walls collapse, debris tumbles down, blocking paths and most of all letting you set traps for the unwary.
This pre-release build looks wonderful, with a variety of well-detailed characters and good environments that actually permit some degree of exploration. At this point, enemies don't seem to take much advantage of the maps, though, and sometimes they feel very restrictive. I imagine that'll be tweaked in the final release. Targeting is handled via the back triggers smoothly and accurately, while aiming with the sticks is just as effective, especially for setting up environmental damage. Powers are assigned to each of the four main buttons – extremely easy to use, and with everything clearly marked and ability information available on the fly.
The adventure mode is where missions come from, giving you a chance to wander about the secret underground facility, interact with the cast, and find new missions. This part probably needs the most work right now: dialogue is limp and lifeless, characters are flat, and there's really nothing to do here except find the next mission or organize your arsenal. Given a bit of polish, this could be every bit as fun as the action segments; right now, you could likely replace it with a plain menu system and get the same effect. It would certainly benefit from a better mapping system – it's easy to get lost.
Phantom Dust only needs a bit more elbow grease to clean up the things that don't work right now; with just that little bit of effort, it could become something truly awesome. One can't expect dramatic change – Phantom Dust came out in Japan some time ago, so likely the most that will change is the language. Even then, it's shaping up to be something that action fans can appreciate just for the unique combat system.
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