Game: Phantom Dust
Platform: Xbox (backwards compatible on Xbox 360)
Developer: Microsoft Game Studios (with designer Yukio Futatsugi)
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios (Japan), Majesco (USA)
Release Date: September 23, 2004 (Japan), March 15, 2005 (USA)
Players: 1-2 (2-4 online)
So intent are we, as a culture, to categorize everything that it’s currently difficult for a unqualifiedly “different” form of music, film, or video game to be declared. So when a game like Phantom Dust comes along and creates a hybrid of styles too outlandish in concept to fill any established genre niche, we tend to ignore it, as if it disgusts us by virtue of the way it defies our flawless system of artistic taxonomy. Besides, experiments fail all the time; surely the safe and familiar establishes a better insurance policy for disappointment, right? Alas, the falsehood of this common belief is one of the key lessons I’ve learned in recent years. And thanks in part to recent run-in with a brilliant but infamously overlooked video game title by the name of Psychonauts (which is something I won’t be reviewing here, though perhaps this guy could tell you all about it), I’ve been reminded of just how delightful certain titles can be even when the majority of the populace has eviscerated them from their hearts and minds in favor of Vaguely Sci-Fi-ish Alien Shooter Gore Fest 3 or whatever. And so, I present to you what I feel to be the most unheard-of little gem in my treasure chest of games, Phantom Dust.
But I perhaps I should confess that I stumbled upon this glorious title completely by accident. It wasn’t even a conscious purchase, but a gift, probably one persuaded by its $20 budget price. But Mario-Party-hatred not-withstanding, let it never be said that I am completely opposed to the virtues of chance, because without it I never would have been able to preach the virtues of a game that allows you to, among other things, telekinetically hurl bombs at people, generate flaming swords out of your hands AND make a pact with Mephisto for in-game bonuses (if any of the above premises made you either raise your eyebrows in confusion or pump your fists in a fit of manly excitement, then please, continue reading).
Phantom Dust is not only a very, very fun ride, but it’s also a very, very perplexing one that, even several years later, I still have a hard time describing on a whim. Were I forced to pigeon-hole the game into an official genre title – in accordance with society’s whim to drain the fun out of anything – I would call it something along the lines of an real-time-arena-fighter with competitive trading card game elements. And the truth is, it’s actually a little more complicated than that.
This guy is the protagonist, by the way. Make of that what you will, but at least be thankful he doesn't talk.
The story starts out simple enough: it’s yet another post-apocalyptic scenario with the last remnants of humanity left on the fritz, framed in the styling of surreal Japanese anime. This is no Fist of the North Star, however; in this particular rendition of the end of days, the surviving members of our species have lost all of their memories and been driven deep into the underground thanks to a mysterious, memory-draining (and dare I say, phantom-like?) dust that covers the surface of the Earth. Sure, it’s common for the protagonist of a game to start out with an empty head, but it’s a whole other story when the entire cast is filled to the brim with amnesiacs. In fact, the only memory left that everyone seems to share is of some enigmatic ruins…along with the inexplicable urge to go there. And so you join the ranks of the Espers – those who have learned to concentrate the power of the dust into psychic energy – in order to search the dangerous surface world for clues on the location of the ruins, and eventually unraveling a revelation far more shocking than you bargained for.
Well, that’s all well and good, but how exactly do these trips to the surface pan out in-game? Well…that’s where things get a little tricky.
See, each Esper brings to the surface with them a set of psychic skills, known collectively as an arsenal. These skills gradually spawn in the form of capsules on the battlefield, three at a time, at which point they can be assigned to one of the four face buttons on the controller. These skills are used to combat enemy monsters and beings, each with their own set of skills…assuming, of course, that you have enough energy to use the skill, which regenerates over time but must have its capacity increased by collecting Aura particles, which are also incorporated into the arsenal. Oh, and as a reminder, all of this pans out in real-time.
It's processing the sheer amount of raw data that appears on screen like this that should theoretically give me my OWN psychic powers.
Still with me? Well, then there’s the issue of creating an arsenal prior to charging out on the battlefield. An effective arsenal must strike a perfect balance between offense, defense, and that ever-present white Aura stuff that glues it all together. And with 300+ skills available, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options on hand.
First there are your attack skills, with can strike at various ranges (long, medium, or short) and have various patterns (shot in an arc or a parabola, falling from the sky onto your enemy’s head, in the form of a blade, etc.). Then there are defensive abilities that can protect you from the aforementioned attacks, shielding your front, sides, or all around you, or perhaps even sending the attack right back where it came from, among other possibilities. There are skills that boost your stats and skills that decrease those of your foes, or even a skill that allows you forcibly trade your stats. There are skills that erase, stripping the skills right from your foe’s hand or devouring their capsules…but watch out, because the price for many of these abilities might involve erasing so of your own possessions. There are skills that allow you to dash, levitate, teleport, heal, turn invisible, turn invincible (briefly), paralyze, freeze, confuse, distract, summon a precision strike from a satellite-mounted death laser…the list goes on. Hell, there are even skills that allow you to change the rules of the entire game, altering what skills everyone can use, how much damage everyone does, or even just reversing everyone’s analog controls (which inevitably results in everyone drunkenly wandering off cliffs). Oh, and another thing: each skill is divided into one of five classes, and you can only have a certain number of classes in any one arsenal at a time, depending on the size of the arsenal case, dictated by…
Make no mistake, the learning curve for Phantom Dust is not so much a “curve” at all as it is a jagged, foreboding cliff face. But once you’ve grown accustomed to the game’s unique brand of combat, it suddenly morphs from a bewildering experience into an engrossing one; after growing acclimated to the bizarre system, you begin to realize the vastness of possibilities the it presents. Sure, I’ve made my fair share of vanilla “shoot-things-move-until-they-die” setups, but the true fun of the game is getting really creative with the more esoteric skills available.
For the sake of example, I was once able to develop an arsenal that revolved around me boosting my speed to such ludicrous levels that I could dodge most homing attacks by simply running away from them. I’ve created vampiric decks of skills that bolster my health and Aura levels by draining it from my enemies. I’ve made arsenals that focus on depriving everyone of energy so that my weaker, low-cost skills could reign supreme…and, inversely, ones that purposefully boost my enemy’s energy to insane new heights so that I could later use a skill that did damage equal to their Aura levels for one-hit-kills (I call that one “Backstabber”, in case you were wondering). But perhaps my favorite is one that doesn’t even have any attack skills in it at all; the goal is simply to sneak (or sometimes, teleport) into the enemy base, steal or destroy all their capsules, then flee, repeating the process until the opponent completely lacks for both skills and, well, hope. And let me tell you this with certainty: just one victory utilizing such a devious, cerebral scheme is more satisfying than any number of frag kills in any number of generic first-person shooters you could ever play.
Sadly, I can confirm that even in such a brilliantly strategic game, cheese tactics still exist. You wouldn't know from this picture, but you are actually witnessing the Phantom Dust equivalent of a "Zerg rush".
Once you’ve grown addicted to the Dust’s power, and subsequently hooked some of your friends, the skirmishes that unfold are truly a fantastic sight, especially with additional players over Xbox Live (try using the skill that allows you to listen in on the enemy team’s headset conversations…classic). It’s a shame, then, that the single-player campaign – where you must unlock the capacity to even make arsenals and acquire skills in the first place – is such a tedious chore.
The first two or three chapters in single-player are essentially an epic-length tutorial, which is perhaps necessary due to the sheer bulk of knowledge necessary to fully enjoy the game. But even after that, the missions rarely boil down to anything more complex than “go here, kill everything, and come back”. It doesn’t help matters that the various monster types rarely differ in anything other than arsenal setup and health amounts, and that there are a mere seven levels available, only five of which you’ll ever visit on a regular basis. Granted, the levels that exist are brilliantly designed and tie into the surreal, post-apocalyptic setting quite well – ranging from an abandoned mall (that the game’s characters refer to quite certainly as a “palace”) to a true mindfuck of a city where gravity and perspective are flipped by ninety degrees – and the end of each chapter usually has a hulking boss battle to spice things up. Nonetheless, only the joy of testing and fine-tuning new arsenals on the battlefield will carry you through the repetitive scenarios, essentially leaving the burden of having fun on you.
Even worse than that is the underground city that serves as your hub between missions. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the design of the place, nor the functional aspects of it (namely, the zones where you can buy new skills or edit your arsenals), there IS something wrong with having to play hide-and-seek with mission availability. See, while you’ll get the majority of your assignments from a specific NPC tasked with exactly that job, occasionally he’ll run out of errands for you to run and suggest that you talk to someone else for new quest. And because that someone could be essentially anyone, it forces you to play duck-duck-goose with NPC dialogue boxes until you finally find the guy who will allow to progress the story along. It’s boring, it’s unnecessary, it brings the game’s pacing to a screeching halt, and it kind of makes me want to use my dust-fueled telekinetic powers to detonate the heads of whichever game designer thought that adding a marker on the map telling us who to talk to next was too much.
Like this. (gotta love Scanners, by the way)
But, surprisingly, all of these flaws actually end up fairly irrelevant. In the end, what you pay for in Phantom Dust is its unique gameplay, and the system it developed for that purpose couldn’t be any more perfect. It sets out to found a startlingly new form of in-game combat, both fast-paced and rich in strategy, and accomplishes its goal with flying colors. As stated before, the game was discount price upon release, ensuring a cheap bargain deep at the bottom of your local discount bin; the graphics still look impeccable, despite being a generation behind and five years of age; and the cries of its surprisingly robust underground community have cemented its backwards compatibility on the more modern Xbox 360, so it’s far from too late to enjoy this rare and undeniably unique experience.
There, now maybe somebody other than me will own this damn game.