An unnatural apocalypse that devastates the surface of the planet. A ragtag group of survivors furiously struggling to survive against immense odds. Missions and strikes launched from underground shelters to fight against relentless enemies. No, I'm not describing another chapter of The Matrix or a George Romero movie. Instead, I'm describing the setting for Majesco's futuristic action/"card battle" hybrid that's recently been imported from Japan. Cover your nose and mouth, so you don’t breathe in the Phantom Dust floating in the air.
Phantom Dust starts with a global catastrophe: The world is bathed in a mysterious dust or powder-like substance that erased the memories of everyone it touched. Along with this planetary amnesia, a massive number of monsters and mutated creatures appeared on the surface, forcing the survivors underground to survive. While they rebuilt society, they also discovered a number of strange occurrences. First of all, there was a singular memory amongst every person of a place known as the Ruins, a mass of steel and concrete that everyone felt drawn to. Secondly, as a byproduct of this environmental disaster, certain people developed the ability to manipulate energy however they wished. These people, known as Espers, were tasked by the leaders of the underground to explore the surface for clues to humanity’s history, eliminating monsters and rescuing people in trouble.
Players are cast as a newly rescued human found on the surface, whose powers as an Esper, while latent, appear to be extremely powerful. However, since you’ve been trapped in suspended animation on the surface, you’ve forgotten who you are, where you’ve come from, or why you’re so innately powerful. Fortunately, you’re retrained by your liberators, who hope that you’ll rediscover who you are as you help them solve the mysteries of the new world they live in.
There’s essentially two parts to the single player experience. The first part of the game is interacting with the refugees of the surface, acquiring missions and other tasks from your fellow underground inhabitants. It’s here that you can also build, buy and edit your arsenal, or “deck” of skills. Arsenals provide you with the powers you’ll use in combat, and are generally limited to two major schools, such as Attack, Defensive or Environmental skills. These arsenals are also limited to 30 abilities per set, making the selection of abilities much more strategic in-between battles. This allows players to tailor their arsenals for specific attack combos, which can be devastating to opponents. For instance, a character can freeze another opponent, thereby slowing their movement, giving them a chance to fire a couple of homing beams or fireballs to strip away their target’s health.
Once you’ve picked your set of skills and a partner to adventure with (if at all available), you’ll choose an area to explore and fight through. Many of these are barren landscapes: deserted freeways, wrecked buildings, or empty courtyards. As you explore these regions, you’ll come across aura spheres, which will randomly give you a power from your arsenal that you can affix to one of the four face buttons on the controller. However, you won’t be able to continually fire off these abilities whenever you want. Triggering a power costs Aura points, which slowly regenerate over time; hence, the strategy of the game. Biding your time, hitting an opponent with a well timed attack and following that up with another shot will quickly end battles, netting you rewards and additional abilities. If you happen to miss your target, don’t fret, because you can potentially bring the destructive environments down upon your enemies, causing additional damage.
Graphically, Phantom Dust is one of those titles with apparent anime influences. Character models range from the lanky punk-infused heroes to hulking support characters and strange monsters. Many of the powers also seem stripped from Manga as well, with large streaking lasers, homing fireballs and shining energy shields that envelope their wielder. You’re not necessarily going to see a ton of variation with the backgrounds; in fact, you’ll see the same stage over and over again as you move your way through the story. However, the option to literally destroy every inch of these environments makes the generic nature much more exciting. Watching a pillar explode into pieces in front of you as you duck for cover is incredibly satisfying, and it gives you a sense of cinematic realism. The impressive graphics are supported with an eclectic orchestral score and a song from “auteur” Vincent Gallo, although you might not pay too much attention to it once you’re in the midst of battle.
The one thing that many players will notice is that the multiplayer included in Phantom Dust is much better than the single player adventure. First of all, a majority of the single player campaign, which can be completed in around 10 hours, is an extended tutorial designed to teach gamers how to use their powers, build their arsenals and fight opponents. In fact, you’ll feel like you’re only taking baby steps with every single stage and mission until the game finally throws you into the deep end. Secondly, no matter how much attention you pay to the game’s tutorials, you’ll continually find that you’ll have to experiment over and over again with the more than 300 powers available in the game. For instance, you won’t know how to successfully block incoming attacks until you’ve inadvertently thrown up shields at the very last second. This can be frustrating and somewhat tedious to play through.
Multiplayer, on the other hand, is where the vast majority of play is to be found. Like most card battling games, you can only acquire certain skills if you play against other people, and the variety of game types will ensure a certain amount of replayability. For instance, you can wager a specific ability on the outcome of a battle, play a tag team battle or limit the number of attacks to one specific school. You’ll also be able to take your newly gained experience and talents from multiplayer and import them into the single player game. With all of these additions, it’s pretty apparent that the initial concept of the game was designed to take advantage of Xbox Live: something that Phantom Dust does quite well at the expense of a deep single player experience.
However, it does have a major thing going for it – an affordable price. At 20 bucks, Phantom Dust is one of those “card battlers” that might appeal to haters of the genre, due to its sci-fi/anime appeal. With sharp, bright visuals, a ton of multiplayer features and a large number of skills that you can acquire, this could be the next big Pokemon – a grown up, apocalyptic Pokemon, but one that teens will probably gravitate towards as they get too old for Pikachu and his brethren.