Phantom Dust

Review

posted 5/4/2005 by Cyril Lachel
other articles by Cyril Lachel
Going into Majesco’s newest strategy game I didn’t quite know what to think, on one hand the cover art promised a game that is “unlike anything else on the Xbox”, but at $20 I had my doubts on the quality. But there was no need for me to worry as Phantom Dust is not only a rare gem, but it’s one of the best games of its type currently available for any system … all for a mere $20.

The game starts out with an intriguing premise. A mysterious dust has covered the planet causing all of humanity to lose their memories and forcing the survivors underground. Here these survivors travel to the surface to collect information on the dust, the new life forms that have taken over, and how they can improve their living conditions. One day the search team comes across a couple of escape pods, each containing very sick looking men. Like everybody else, these two characters have no recollection of what happened to them, but there’s something special about them that the others can’t put their finger on.

Edgar is a rough character who is in search of a girl he’s seen in a picture, he doesn’t know who she is, but knows that she has something to do with the mystery. And then there’s your character, a figure that has to be the ugliest human being I have ever seen in a video game. With his bright yellow 1980’s jacket, a haircut nobody would want, and one of the worst shaped faces of all time, your main character doesn’t have a lot going for him.

Thankfully there’s a lot more to this game than just a hideously ugly lead character. The game has a lot in common with a lot of Magic: the Gathering-style card games; but you might not see the connection at first. Instead of cards you have bright, glowing spheres, each with their own pros and cons. Three of these spheres generate at the start of the match, and every time you pick one up another one will take its place in random succession.

Unlike most strategy games, Phantom Dust happens in real time as opposed to being turn based. It means that you are in charge of everything from dodging, to attacking, to navigating around the level all at the same time. You can only hold four spheres at any one time (one for each of the Xbox’s four main face buttons), so you are forced to choose which skills are important to you. Since the spheres regenerate in random order, you frequently have no choice but to toss some skills in order to spawn others. All this is happening while you are worrying about the enemy’s attacks, your partner’s life, and finishing all of the tasks in the level.

Phantom Dust’s game play takes a few rounds to fully understand, but before too long (and after a rather lengthy tutorial process) you will understand how to use your skills, how to fill up your deck, and how to barter with the local salesman. After you’ve mastered the basics, the rest is pretty straight forward and easy to work with. You spend most of your time underground in a small, cramped area. It’s a pretty bleak locale, with only a few rooms and not a lot of people to talk to. The various people underground have their own reasons for sending you up to the dusty surface, most of the time it has to do with some sort of research or to retrieve a memory box (items that will eventually reveal the full truth behind the game’s mysterious premise).


Thankfully the missions are more interesting than the living conditions. There are only a few locations you will be going to, but they are large fighting arenas that are almost completely destructible. There’s an amazing sense of damage in this game, as just about every missing fireball destroys some part of the environment. And it’s not just the big things, its little aspects of the game make you feel like you are a lot more powerful than you should be, so much so that I sat up a few times with my mouth wide open in amazement.

Although it may seem like you’re simply fighting in the same levels over and over, eventually you branch out and see some truly spectacular level designs. One of my favorite areas involves a strange city where cars and trucks appear to be suspended in mid-air, and you fight on top of a giant television set. It’s fun to see the area before the fight, and a tad humor to see it all torn up after the fight is over and done with.

Even with one of the ugliest protagonists of all time, the graphics in Phantom Dust are certainly worth talking about. It’s not the character models (which are sometimes blocky and other times just unattractive); it’s the way they perform their moves and fight in a crumbling environment. It’s hard to tell by the graphics that this is a $20 game; everything down to the weird little cinemas is done with a true sense of style.

Even better is the music, which manages to mix industrial sounds with traditional classical compositions. Even when it’s not famous orchestral songs, the incidental music is ripe with violins, horns, and things you might not normally hear in game soundtracks. None of the music seemed out of place and mixed with the sounds of machines working, it made for a truly haunting arrangement.

The game’s length is also impressive; with a good 20+ hours of game play on the single player campaign. Unfortunately the story telling gets to be a tad tedious, often becoming too wordy and rather preachy. Still, even with some cringe-inducing dialog Phantom Dust proves to have a better than average story. In fact, I found the story to be extremely interesting … especially towards the end. Through some twists and turns, Phantom Dust could end up ruffling some feathers with some serious talk about religion and how we look at our leaders.

The big reason to play through the single player campaign is collect as many skills as possible, customize your deck, and then fight others in the multiplayer battles. Not only can you play against a friend split screen, but you can take your deck online and play with up to four players in a single room. There are several types of games you can play, as well as a bunch of rule settings that the host can change, so it’s usually pretty easy to find some variety with the Xbox Live. Not only are there skills you can only unlock by playing online, but you can also trade and win other cards from the other players.

Phantom Dust is not a great game because of its depth or great presentation; instead this is a game that excels because it manages to combine action and strategy in a way I never saw coming. No matter whether you’re into all out action games or involving strategy games, you’ll find something to love in this game. It’s not without a few faults, but it’s hard to knock a game that takes such a huge risk and does so much right. At $20 it’s hard to go wrong, but this game would be worth it at full price … it’s that good.





B+
Phantom Dust is the sleeper hit of the year, with fast paced action and in depth strategy. No matter what kind of games you like, chances are you’ll find something to love in this $20 masterpiece.