Originally developed as a niche title by Microsoft Game Studios Tokyo for the dwindling Japanese Xbox market, there was never any thought given to porting this game to North American shores. Import reviews of Phantom Dust, however, did nothing but whet the appetite of North American gamers who were being exposed to more and more quirky titles like Katamari Damacy and loving them. But Microsoft still held fast and gave no sign of wanting to translate the game into English. Enter Majesco, publisher of the fun and sexy Bloodrayne series, who accepted the challenge of publishing the title in North America. And the rest, as they say, is gaming history.
The story is epic in its telling. A cloud of dust engulfs the earth. The surface world now lays barren and inhabitable. Mankind, forced to live underground, has lost all of its memories. A gifted few, The Espers, are tasked with exploring the top-world in search of clues and memories, while fending off various attacks. On one such patrol, they discover two forgotten escape pods each containing one man: The Protagonist (who's name can be chosen from a given list) and Edgar, a quiet man who is found with a locket around his neck containing the picture of a mysterious white-haired woman named Freia who may hold the secret to both their pasts. The two of them are recognized as having the potential to become Espers and they too begin exploring the surface world in search of the earth's past.
To give anything else about the plot away is to do Phantom Dust a great disservice, but rest assured, the wonderfully nuanced story holds at least one twist which may rival that of Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic.
The game's Scenario Mode (a token training mode which also serves as a way to acquire skills and arsenal cases) begins by dropping you on the surface world and letting you dispatch a few monsters with various skill orbs. To try and explain the gameplay mechanics of Phantom Dust, however, is much like trying to describe a perfect sunset to someone who has never opened his eyes; suffice to say, it isn't going to happen! Phantom Dust is the hybrid of an action game, a collection game, a card game and a chess game. In its simplest form, it is about gladiators thrown into an arena and trying to survive the encounter. In its most evolved form, it is a game where you must plan, anticipate, analyze, outguess, rethink and outplay your opponents. It also helps to be a little lucky too once in a while.
Yukio Futatsugi, the producer/director of Phantom Dust has explained that he was inspired by Magic: The Gathering, Japanese Anime/Manga, Pokemon Card Battle and to a certain extent, Yu-Gi-Oh, when creating this game. The end-result does not stray far from his vision. The gameplay, when not walking around talking to Non Playable Characters to further the story along, consists of entering a battlefield with a certain amount of health and 4 empty skill slots, gathering randomly generated skills from a pre-selected arsenal and then using these skills at the appropriate time and place to lower your opponent's health until only one character remains. The arsenal cases (available for editing at the beginning of level 3) can contain one or more school of skills (Psycho, Optical, Nature, Ki, Faith) and in turn, each school can contain various skill types (attack, defense, Status, Erase, Environmental, and Special). Within those skill types, each skill has a specific range to be used at (short, mid, long). Now, if 300+ skills weren't hard enough to chose from when forming an arsenal (which can contain a maximum of 30 skills), remember that you also need aura of a certain level in order to use each skill. These aura levels generally vary from 1 to 5 (each skill is also rated on a scale of 1 to 5 for rarity and power). While aura regenerates over time, you need to keep "empty" slots in your arsenal in order to have any aura available to you on the battlefield. If this sounds complicated, it isn't at all. The game takes great pains in slowly walking you through the whole learning process until you are ready for play on Xbox Live. But still, picking 15 skills to go into battle (out of 300) is hard enough.
The first thing you will notice when logging into the Live service is that a patch has been available since Phantom Dust's release date. The patch adds many new skills to the game, but actually acquiring all of these will involve a dedication of Herculean proportions. Much like within the game's scenario mode, you will also be able to edit all your arsenals and also purchase new skills at the shop (new skills can be purchased separately or within random packs of 5, referred to as "junk"). In the Live menu, you will also be able to advertise what skills you are searching for and trade them with other Live users. There also scoreboards available and the option to download a clip of various players and play against them.
At its core, however, Phantom Dust on Xbox Live is about competing is various match types (Battle Royale, Tag Team & One on One) all the while being able to control all parameters of the bout. Losing is inevitable as it takes a great deal of time to perfect an arsenal, but unlike most games, a lot can be learned through failure. And this is mostly due to the fact that anyone can lose or win a match against anyone. Yes, it helps to have very powerful skills, but a little luck and knowing when and how to use them can make up for a lot as well. As it stands, Xbox Live is a solid and entertaining place to perfect your Phantom Dust skills and contains and endless replay value.
As a budget title in North America, expectations lower when looking at graphics. This needs not be the case. Phantom Dust's high resolution graphics show both a wonderful sense of artistic freedom and a keen use of the Xbox's hardware. The indoor world is meticulously detailed and functional, while the battle grounds on the surface are well animated, wonderfully rendered and completely destructible. The only downside is that there are very few maps to play on, but the ones available are memorable and intelligently laid out.
The soundtrack, surprisingly, is a high point of this game. From the little strains of classical music heard within the underground to the compositions available for each map, there isn't a bad note in the bunch. The highest complement that can be said about the music is that it fits. When you close your eyes, you can almost see the world of Phantom Dust through its sounds. There is also an option to set a custom soundtrack (one song only) for each map, but the included songs fit so well, you may never bother.
And so, after hearing about skills and orbs and card games and arsenal cases, what defines what Phantom Dust really is? Why is this game such a big deal? Why was it ported to our shores to begin with? Well, I played the scenario mode for an hour wondering not only that, but also what was the real point of this game. As an action title, its mechanics were clunky and as a strategy game, there was something intangible that was sorely lacking. The gameplay seemed childish and repetitive, but seeing as I was still in level one (and still learning the ropes), I held my tongue...
Level two added a few new skill orbs to use, a few new locations and characters to speak to, but nothing incredibly special. I was already dreading level three at this point and wondering if Majesco may have made a mistake. And then, near the end of level two's missions, the realization came to me. It wasn't one of those soft ideas quietly and gently lodging itself in my head either. No Sir! This was a very palpable moment of realization. A light-bulb not only going off, but actually feeling the crack of the bat hitting the side of my head and launching me back in my seat. Fireworks erupted! There was noise! This was a moment of epiphany only rivaled by learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. And nothing would be quite the same after that.
What I had considered a ho-hum game (at best) until this point now became a cerebral game of chess. I was no longer pressing buttons to send little colors whipping around the screen, but I was commanding a battle. I was thinking up stratagems. I had plans, issues, concerns and purpose. Very few moments in life can render such a thrill of self-discovery. But this game can.
Many will play Phantom Dust and dismiss it outright, and truth be told, it isn't a game that will appeal to everyone. It's not a game that can be shown off at a party or which can be played and enjoyed without a commitment. Many may even play Phantom Dust, finish it, and never experience that moment of realization. But for those who play this game, really play this game, there is a wonderful moment in which the world ceases to exist, where time stands still and where you become one with Phantom Dust. This game is that brilliant.