Developer: Microsoft Studios Japan
Release Date: March 15, 2005
Buy 'PHANTOM DUST': Xbox
You have to hand it to Majesco for even bringing this game over from Japan. Phantom Dust was originally slated as a Japan-exclusive title, but for some reason, Majesco eventually decided to bring this niche action/card-battle game to the States. Perhaps Majesco wanted to establish some "street cred" among hardcore gamers. Maybe, in some idealistic, rose-colored reality, Majesco executives realized what a beautifully unique, well-executed game it is, and felt utterly compelled to release it stateside. Regardless, it's here. Phantom Dust is a real-time action card battle game, with a dose of RPG influence (did you get all that?). It's designed by the creator of Panzer Dragoon, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, and the much-sought-after Panzer Dragoon Saga. And it's only $19.99. Xbox owners who are looking for a new, unique gaming experience have little excuse to pass this one up.
If you've experienced the Panzer Dragoon games, you know that Yukio Futatsugi knows how to craft a tale. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world. Humans have moved into underground communities in order to avoid monsters on the surface, as well as a strange, toxic dust that hangs in the air. The spread of this Phantom Dust causes people to lose their memories, and nobody knows their past. The dust also has a beneficial side effect for a select few people, as it enables them to turn their will into energy. You play as one of these people, who are known as Espers. Your character, who was found in a strange capsule on the planet's surface, is an especially gifted Esper. Like the rest of the survivors, you are trying to unlock the mystery of your past. There aren't too many central characters, so you get pretty attached to a few. The post-apocalyptic backdrop may be a popular setting, but the amnesiatic psychic elements set the story apart from the crowd. You'll likely find yourself anxiously trying to find out what happens next.
If you watch someone play Phantom Dust, it's very difficult to tell that this is heavily influenced by table-top card games. Observing the pace and style of the matches would lead you to believe that this is an all-out action game. There certainly is a lot of action that takes place, but this game isn't about combos and button mashing. Battles take place on a few, relatively small, arena-like levels. The psychic weapons you use are called skills, and they are represented on the level as orbs. Each player (there are up to four players per battle) has kind of a home base where their orbs appear and regenerate. The orbs, which appear three at a time, are assigned to the four action buttons on the controller. You simply walk into an orb, and press the button to which you want to assign the skill. In order to use the skill you picked up, you press the button that you assigned it to. Each of these skills has a number attached to it, which represents the amount of "aura" it uses up. You have a certain amount of aura, and after you use a skill or skills, it takes a few seconds for your aura points to regenerate. Once you have enough aura points available, you can perform a skill.
So where exactly does the card-battle aspect come in? There are over 300 skills in Phantom Dust, and these skills are basically cards you draw randomly from a deck. For example, there are skills for attacking, defending, movement enhancements, and "erasing" opponents' skills. After a few hours into the game, you'll be able to use what's called an arsenal, which is a 30-slot "deck" to which you can assign skills, and during battle, these skills in your arsenal will appear as orbs. After you gain the ability to use an arsenal, you'll also have to pick up your own aura particles by capturing (assigning them to a button) and then using them. More aura points means that you'll be able to use skills more frequently. The catch with the arsenal is that, although there are 30 slots in which to place skills, you need to leave some open. The number of empty slots in your arsenal represents how many aura particles will show up during the course of a battle. You need to keep a balanced amount of aura particles in your arsenal because they are the "fuel" that allows you to use skills.
It's not as complicated as it sounds. In fact, the game is quite easy to get the hang of, but as you progress, you realize how deep the game can be. You acquire skills by winning battles, buying them, or even trading them on Xbox Live. A real strategy element comes into play when picking and choosing from your library of skills, and putting them in your arsenal. If you're losing a battle repeatedly, your best bet is to analyze the enemy's attacks (when you're hit, the skill they used appears at the bottom of the screen), and modify your arsenal to counter or overcome the enemy's arsenal. Your skill selection can make the difference between complete ownage and all-out domination.
The battles in Phantom Dust range from fast-paced blast-fests to slow, calculated chess matches. Some encounters may be chock-full of attack and defense skills, which results in a pretty aggressive matchup. However, if players have skills that steal aura points or reflect attacks back at opponents, they may just walk around at leisure, waiting to be attacked. Distance plays a large role in the effectiveness of a skill, so, for example, if you stack your deck with close attacks, obviously you'll want to stay near the enemy to make an impact. Aiming is accomplished using a lock-on method. Pulling the triggers allows you to locate and cycle through multiple enemies.
Combining card battle and action elements means you have to think on your toes. The majority of the skills require you to take not only distance into consideration, but also timing. Defensive moves such as shields and barriers must be executed at the moment certain attacks reach you. You'll also have to watch out for destructible environments that can collapse on top of you, or from underneath you.
There aren't too many arenas to fight in, which hurts the game's variety factor. On the other hand, with the small selection of levels, you will come to learn the environments intimately. Also, you don't meet very many characters, and most of the ones you do meet are fairly shallow. The main characters, however, are very intriguing. The variety in Phantom Dust is really found in the hundreds of different skills and strategies you can implement. The battles, strategy, and overall gameplay are the main highlights, which is how it should be.
Those with Xbox Live can enjoy battles with up to four players. You can play in teams or it can be every man for himself. Aside from standard matches, there are 10 more modes of play that apply different conditions and limitations to skills, aura levels, and number of lives. Lag isn't an issue, and jumping into a match is easy. Depending on the game type, you can use one of your arsenals to match it up against players from all over. All-in-all, Live play is a great time, and probably the most intense "card game" experience you'll have online. If you don't have Live, you can still play two-on-two split-screen battles, but it doesn't quite match the awesome four-player online action.
Even if you didn't know that Phantom Dust came from the mind of Yukio Futatsugi, you'd probably be able to figure it out on your own, as the visuals are very reminiscent of the Panzer universe. The environments capture the feel of a desperate world that is just scraping by day to day. While not the most technically impressive game out there, the actual design and atmosphere of the underground community and surface arenas are quite immersive. The skills incorporate a wide variety of animations, which is impressive, considering how many animations the developer had to come up with for the 300+ skills. The visuals are just as unique and impressive as the gameplay.
You may notice the high-quality soundtrack as soon as you boot up the game for the first time. Like pretty much every other aspect of the game, the music draws you into Phantom Dust's world. The tracks fit the game perfectly, mixing sounds of "normalness" with hints of "weirdness." It's hard to explain, but the music is very good. You also have the option of using a custom soundtrack if you want. Sounds of battle are very satisfying, with swooshing projectiles, crackling electricity, crumbling rocks, and psychic swords slicing through the air. It's all very crisp.
So, this game is different. A lot of games attempt to differentiate themselves from the crowd, but not many are truly well-executed. It's obvious that Phantom Dust was created from the beginning with a certain vision in mind. This game was meant for "hardcore" gamers, but really, all gamers who want a unique title that is also highly playable should buy Phantom Dust. It takes ideas from a few different genres both in video games and outside of video games, but the final product is far from a mish-mash melting pot. The elements fit together cohesively, with purpose. The only minor complaint is the lack of arenas and characters. This shortcoming just makes you hope that there's a sequel that keeps the same ideas, but executes them on a more epic scale. Yes. A huge sequel, please. However, for $19.99, it's hard to complain. You get a fresh gaming experience with slick Live play, and it even comes with a full color instruction booklet. Phantom Dust may well make you question why you spent 50 bucks on your last game.
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