Phantom Dust is an extremely engaging and creative action RPG game that mixes elements of card games and anime. And for the price it's a solid title for your library.
The original Phantom Dust was developed and published by the Japanese arm of Microsoft Game Studios and then ported to the American audiences by publisher, Majesco. It has one distinct advantage over the Japanese version: It only costs 20 bucks.
Phantom Dust begins with the destruction of the earth sometime in the future. A strange dust has covered the planet resulting in death for most and memory loss for the rest. Those who do survive are forced to live underground, only to venture to the surface for 15 minute increments lest they have their memories erased as well. You are found in a capsule-like container with no memory and no name. You are with someone else who is given the name of Edgar since that's what is carved on the locket around his neck. The idea of the story is to find out who you are and where you came from. The idea of memory loss is not new in games and the quest to find out who you are has been done over and over. However, the setting and odd characters breathe new life into what could have been an ordinary, clichéd story.
Phantom Dust is an action-RPG game meaning that there are elements of Role Playing Games and elements of action fighters. throw in some tabletop card gameplay and you have the essence of Phantom Dust. The game is on constant 3rd person view and the control scheme is surprisingly easy given the complexity of the game. When you are underground, the thumbsticks control movement and the camera and the A button initiates conversation or acts as a general Action button. When on the surface engaged in battle, each of the buttons is assigned a power. More on those later. The point to realize now is that the user assigns powers to each of the buttons in the midst of fighting. So no complaining that the buttons were mapped poorly. If they were, you did it yourself.
The RPG elements of Phantom Dust are not going to please hard-core fans. You walk around the underground through a total of about 6 rooms talking to no more than a dozen different people. The conversations that appear are not multiple choice like in Jade Empire or KOTOR. So there is no character choices on your part. The characters is developed according to the script.
In addition, the conversations you have are all text. So if you hate reading your video games, you might want to skip this one. I understand that localization costs can be frightfully expensive and the tradeoff here is acceptable: I have no problem reading conversations if I can shave $30 off the price. Plus it allows me to pace the conversations to a length equal to my reading speed.
The meat of the game is skills. As you progress through the game, you get acquire more skills. These skills come in the form of Attack, defensive, special, etc. These all have different uses in the game and are earned as you progress. with well over 300 skills, you can see how this is starting to resemble a card game similar to Magic. Collect cards with powers and skills to play against friends.
The first missions are tutorial and they seem to be quite extensive. After the tutorials, the player is introduced to arsenals and cases. This is such a complex system that the game is actually interrupted with videos explaining how to navigate the interfaces and use the arsenals. Without going into painful detail, the arsenal is explained as a container of dust that you take to the surface. Inside each container is a set of 30 skills that you choose based on what you've earned or purchased. When you take the container to the surface, 3 skills will appear for you to assign to buttons. The order is random but all the skills will be from the arsenal of skills you have organized. Use up a skill and more appear. One twist: you can't load up the arsenal with skills alone. Each skill takes a certain amount of aura points to use so you need to pack your arsenal with aura particles as well. When they appear in battle, you can assign and use them as you would skills. They have the effect of bumping up your overall aura points which are recharged after using a skill over time. This leads to firing a few volleys and then running around in fear while your aura recharges.
After each battle, the player will earn credits. These credits can then be taken to Mac's shop to buy more skills, arsenals or junk, a collection of 5 random skills at a bulk rate. Much like you'd find at Costco. If they sold magic powers.
The AI in Phantom Dust is good, but not great. The enemies tend to run around more than necessary and often switch directions for no reason. however, they do get difficult as the game progresses and know how to use skills and defensive powers. It is quite a feat of engineering to program AI to correctly use over 300 potential skills.
Overall the gameplay is fairly addictive, if somewhat repetitive. there are long, medium and short distance weapons, but each may take a different arc on it's journey to your enemy so the player must know the environment and the correct position to effectively use the skill. But the game is really won in the lab where you edit your arsenal. This reminds me of the MechWarrior franchise where the person who won was usually the one who could build the most effective 'Mech before the game even started. This is the same way. The person who can put together the most effective arsenal will probably win despite any button mashing skill differences.
In a word, fantastic. As one would expect from a 1st party Xbox title, the graphics are beautiful. While the underground environment is extremely small, the attention to detail is amazing. Bump mapping and hi-res textures make the underground world dank and cramped.
My only complaint with the environments is that the battle arenas consist of only 4 or 5 different locations. And with nearly 100 missions, players will soon get tired of playing over and over on the same levels. That said, the levels are fantastic, with the same attention to detail as the underground with one overwhelming advantage: The levels are almost completely destructible. Fire enough volleys into a crosswalk and it will crash down on your opponent. Come smashing down to earth from your levitation spell and you'll leave a huge crater. Holes can be punched, staircases destroyed, walls smashed. Almost everything in the world can be crushed. Very effective and very immersive.
Some could call the character models strangely beautiful. And they would be correct. Keep in mind that this is a Japanese game and they have a different sense of design. While not falling under the umbrella of anime like some titles do, the characters have a definite anime influence. The arms and legs are longer than humanly possible and very thin. The hair and facial structures lean toward effeminate. The run animation of your character is goofy and limp-like. This is definitely not a hero that you would want to emulate. But he sure is interesting to control.
With over 300 skills, you'd expect the effects to be churned out and repetitive-looking. Not so. They are detailed, bright, and varied. Obviously the attention to art was a huge priority. And it paid off in spades.
The voice work in Phantom Dust is limited to a few cut scenes. The acting is decent due in part to the fine translation that never ends up in pigeon English. You won't find any "All your base are belong to us". Sorry of this is disappointing to some of you.
And the music, Wow! While underground, the music is an eclectic, sometimes creepy mix of ambience, techno, elevator and classical. I was shocked to hear Clair de Lune and Beethovens Moonlight sonata in a game. Pleasantly surprised that is. The music is weird and wonderful and worked for me. They could have gone to basic techno or industrial Goth crud, but they mixed genres to create a compelling soundscape. If you disagree, the game has full support for custom soundtracks.
Multiplayer is where the card game aspects really come out. if you haven't earned or purchased a certain skill, you can't put it in your arsenal. So the first time you go online, you'll find some smacktard kid with an uber skill who just kicks your @ss.... Adding insult to injury, you can tell how much better that smacktard kid is than you by looking at the included leader boards. While not nearly as extensive as Halo2 or MechAssault 2, the multiplayer support is quite good especially for a budget title.
There are 3 basic types of multiplayer: battle royale, tag team and 1-on-1 each with a few variations to mix things up. Again, not as extensive as other multiplayer games. But definitely enough to keep players occupied.
The game supports system link and Xbox Live with up to 4 players. This is not a huge amount by today's standards, but since most RPGs don't have any multiplayer support (such as Fable or KOTOR), we should be thankful.
Phantom Dust also supports voice, but strangely, all voice is available to everyone all the time. There is no team chat even in team games.
Parents Should know...
Phantom Dust is rated T for Teen, and is safe for that age group. There's no blood, but some of the cutscenes could be a little frightening for the young kids. The overall weirdness and dark storyline won't interest most youngsters, but is perfectly acceptable for older kids.
Phantom Dust is arguably the best budget title for the Xbox given it's extensive gameplay and fine support for Xbox Live. Don't be turned off by the low price tag, this title deserves a spot right next to your $50 titles.
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