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Have You Played Phantom Dust?

Edited by: Tiffany Lillie

All to Dust

Back when I was young, my family went on a vacation to the Boston area. My brother had been accepted into a summer camp there, and since my parents weren't used to either of us being away for extended periods, we went with him. While we were waiting for my brother to finish his camp experience, we stopped by a local Gamestop to keep my young self entertained. We hadn't intended to buy anything while we were there, but while perusing the shelves, I found an Xbox game on discount. I had never seen this game before, but something about the style, the back of the box advertising, something hooked me. I wanted this game. I brought it to my parents, begging them to buy it for me, going so far as lying about how much I knew about it to finally land the sale (sorry, Mom and Dad). That game was Phantom Dust, and it went on to be my favorite game of all time.

Life at the End of the World

Now, you may be a little confused reading this. We here at OPN are PC gamers, not console gamers. What am I doing writing about an Xbox game? Well, while Phantom Dust was originally released back in 2005 for us over here in North America, Microsoft Games Studio and Code Mystics rereleased it for Windows 10 back in 2017. While we didn’t cover it back on release, I feel it has unfairly sailed under the radar for most gamers. So, sit down, and allow me to sell you on this hidden gem.

Phantom Dust is a third-person action game centered around card battle mechanics. You prepare an Arsenal of thirty skills and use them in an arena to lower your opponent's life to zero. You can play either online or in a single-player campaign. While the viability of online play may fluctuate with the game's popularity, the single-player campaign is still worth playing. The world of Phantom Dust has already ended by the time the single-player campaign starts. This ruined world is covered in the titular Dust, which grants a select few special powers. All, however, eventually lose their memories after prolonged exposure to the Dust. For your part, you're found in a mysterious coffin over a crater opposite a second, similar coffin. You and your friend Edgar, the occupant of the other casket, are taken in by the Visions, the group of survivors that found you. What follows is a series of missions as described before, where you must use your skills to kill your opponents.

Highly Skilled

While the first handful of missions will see you constrained to the Nature school of skills, this is to acclimate you to how the fighting system works. You fight in real-time, with a suite of four skills at your disposal. You also have three additional skills on the field that you can swap out at the expense of one of your four held skills. Skills come in six flavors: Attack, defense, special, status, erase, and environment. Attack and defense work as you expect: attacks deal damage and defenses prevent damage. Special skills have different effects, like teleporting you around the field or allowing you to levitate. Status skills inflict statuses, such as increasing your attack or stunning your opponent. Erase skills remove skills from your opponent. Environment skills are the rarest, giving a field-wide effect for as long as they are in play.

This may all seem rather straightforward on the face of it, but the substance comes in the variety and interactions with the skill types. For example, blocking a powerful attack with a weak defense will shatter your defensive skill, removing it from your hand. Worse yet, if the attack had the piercing quality, then you take some damage besides. Then there are different ranges and projectile arcs of attacks. These can be countered by the various types of defense skills, like the omnidirectional shelters or redirects.

Further complexity emerges in the four other schools outside of Nature, the most basic of the five. Psycho skills specialize in manipulating the environment and redirecting attacks. Ki skills are predominantly close range and focus on erasing your opponent's skills. Optic skills are mainly attack focused with weak defenses, good for overwhelming your opponent, and dealing a lot of damage very quickly. Faith skills are all self-sacrificing, dealing damage to yourself to deal more significant damage to your opponent.

Resourcefulness

This is to say nothing of deck construction. The first few missions won't bother you with the minutiae, giving you a standard Nature deck with a few skills and set power level of five. Soon, however, you will need to balance your own deck between aggressiveness, defense, and actually being able to use your skills. Each skill, you see, has a cost associated with it, which you pay for with a resource called Aura. Aura regenerates over time up to your level. Level increases with the use of a particular skill called an Aura Particle. At the beginning of a match, your deck is randomized, and you're dealt seven skills, four in your hand and three on the field. Not enough single-use Aura Particles in your deck, and you can't play anything. Too many, and you can't kill your opponent.

As a third-person action game, there's an additional consideration to be had: the combat arenas. As mentioned, the world has ended, and the surface is all but uninhabitable. The stages are suitably trashed, from a disused mall to a warped and ruined highway. There are also a few stranger, more supernatural arenas, like the skyscraper fallen on its side and suspended in midair. Overall, the aesthetic is post-apocalyptic anime à la the Shin Megami Tensei games, or, more recently, Nier: Automata. The character models are clean and stylized, which is helpful in the manic pace of combat. The soundtrack adds to this sense of forlorn despair, composed almost entirely of remixed and slowed-down versions of classical pieces. It all feels haunting and appropriately hollow.

At the End of It All

Suffice to say, I really like Phantom Dust. Hopefully, I've at least piqued your interest in it. To this day, I've never really played anything else like it. While the control scheme may take a little getting used to (e.g., you jump by pressing L3 since your face buttons are taken up by your skills), once you get it, it really gels. And if the preceding eight paragraphs weren't enough to sell you on the idea of this game, perhaps this will: It's free to play. While you can pay to skip grinding out a playset of all the skills, you risk nothing but your time by giving it a try. So really, I guess the more apt question is, why haven’t you played Phantom Dust?

John Gerritzen
Written by
Tuesday, 03 December 2019 06:16
Published in Editorial

John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.

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