Review: Phantom Dust (XB)

Phantom Dust
Developer: Majesco/Microsoft Japan
Publisher: Microsoft
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 03/16/05

I’ll admit, I tend to find a lot of games that develop a cult following to be shallow, insipid and boring. Beyond Good and Evil, the Final Fantasy series, and Advance Guardian Heroes are just some examples. To me the stories in those games are poorly written and conceived and the gameplay is far too easy, and overall they are below average games that I will never understand what people enjoy about them. Maybe it is just me. Maybe I just function on a completely different wavelength. I’d rather play Shadow Hearts or Digital Devil Saga or Ikaruga or Animal Crossing over those games. Different tastes for different folks, I suppose.

And Phantom Dust is one of those games. A games I see getting 7’s and 8’s, and I wonder, “How?”

Obviously yes, I’m letting on I was more than underwhelmed with this game, and when asked what I thought of it before writing this, I used the adjectives “boring, far too easy” and “poorly written” to describe this game to kliqmates and friends. So yes, zealots of this game are probably going to hate this review simply because god forbid, I don’t agree with them. But that’s all the more reason for people to read this review. Because you’re actually getting an opinion of someone that has said, “Seen better, played better, beaten better.” Ignore the hype and read on to why this game is mediocre at best.

But before that, why not a little history about how this game came to be.

Over in the US, the Xbox is pretty popular. Xbox Live has proven to give Microsoft a strong edge over the PS2 and Gamecube in the area of online play. Both Sony and Nintendo dropped the ball here. But in Japan, the Xbox is pretty lukewarm. Only about 1 million or so systems, if that, have been sold. The reasoning behind this is the Xbox is geared towards American gamers, not Japanese ones, and to be honest Microsoft was pretty clueless as to what the Japanese wanted.

Did the Japanese want Halo? No. FPS games aren’t big over there. They like games like Gradius and R-Type.

Did the Japanese want action RPG’s? No, they tend more towards turn based RPG’s like Megaten, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest.

Do the Japanese care about Grand Theft Auto and killing hookers and gore? Not especially. It’s more quirky fun games that succeed over gangland games.

And Microsoft finally realized a few years into the Xbox’s life that they needed to make some changes. They got Sega to do Panzer Dragoon for them. The RPG content rose for the system. And Microsoft started getting developers to make games that they thought would appeal to gamers over there, as well as gamers over here.

Enter Phantom Dust, a game Microsoft was sure would be super successful. It’s a little bit of an action game, a little bit of an FPS (in terms of pvp deathmatches), a little bit of an RPG, and involves a great deal of Xbox Live in order to get the most out of the game. And so Microsoft thought they had the perfect game to appeal to the Japanese finally. The Halo for the Asian gamer. And how did it do?

Well, it did okay. Not like Halo 2 did over here, but it did decently in Japan. And so they brought it over here. But look? For some reason it is a budget title in the states. Why do you think that is? Because Microsoft geared this game to what they thought would appeal to a Japanese gamer first and foremost, and so the thought (this is my hypothesis, so don’t take it as fact) is that Majesco decided it’s better to sell a lot at half price, than a tiny amount at full. Lack of confidence in the game’s quality, or smart marketing strategy, hoping word of mouth would spur sales?

Now, like I said, I didn’t like the game very much at all. But then I don’t like CCG style games, which Phantom Dust tries to emulate, I dislike FPS a lot, and I like strategy over mindless violence. So it’s not the game for me, but it may be for you. So why don’t we cover each of the ten points now, and see if this may be the game for YOU.

Let’s Review

1. Story

Phantom Dust takes place in an apocalyptic wasteland. The surface is all but destroyed. Monsters and mutant roam the land, while humanity has been forced underground. Those of mankind that survived are complete amnesiacs, knowing neither their name nor history. All that remains is a collective unconscious memory of “The Ruins.”

As well, humanity has a mutated offshoot, a group known as the Espers who have the ability to absorb concentrated amounts of the dust covering the globe and channel it into psychic powers and energy. These Espers attempt to find the ruins and try and put together who they are and what happened to the world.

Eventually there are two escape pods that are found and brought down into the underground city. One contained a man named Edgar, and the other is the main character who you can name from a series given to you. Edgar and the Protagonist are awakened and it is learned they are Espers. They go through some training to understand their powers and begin to investigate the world around them, only to encounter a woman named Freia who speaks cryptically constantly and to the point of annoyance. “Oh, I don’t want to do this. But I must…for him.” Is basically all she says for the first half of the game. Ugh.

And this my friends, is the plot of Phantom dust. There is little to no characterization. There is little to no depth or background given to the characters, and what little there is goes to Feia and Edgar, who still get less character development than Super Mario.

The plot is boring, the characters are badly written, and the dialogue is atrocious. And more the pity as Yukio Futatsugi is behind this game, but then Panzer Dragoon Orta was the least of the series. At most the plot is to give you the barest thread of reasons to do the missions. And then all you do between missions is run around, talk to people who rarely say anything of value or substance, and then go do another mission. Boo yeah.

It’s too bad too, as Phantom Dust had a lot of potential plot wise. But it fails to live up to even the smallest of expectations. I might as well have been playing Ikari Warriors or Contra in terms of plot here. You can see everything coming a mile away and often times your eyes will be rolling or at least a sigh will come out of your mouth and you will shake your fist at Bebito saying, “God damn it, I could be playing Dark Alliance 2 right now. You know, an actually well written and fun Action RPG!”

Wait no. That would just be me saying that.

Story Rating: 4/10

2. Graphics

The character models are some of the worst I have ever seen in this generation of gaming. I mean that. They are ugly, uninspired and look like a horrible inbreeding between Jawas and random characters from Dune. Both your main character and Edgar look like they have suffered severe face trauma every day of their life and cover it up with poofy hair and strange inhuman expressions that they wear constantly. Freia looks like an albino goth ski instructor, and the rest of the characters are even worse.

And don’t get me started on the monsters. Boring, dull, and often times stupid. Flat out stupid. Oooh. Floating Eyeballs. Oooh. Cyclops in ski masks. Oooh. Giant slabs. And the bosses are just pathetic? Voltron’s robeasts had more imagination put into them.

Yes, anything human or monster in this game is awful. But then Phantom Dust makes up for it by putting in some nice level designs. The outside apocalyptic level designs are amazing, although I keep wondering why there is constant building wreckage falling like rain. Eh, we’ll call it artistic license.

The levels are fully interactive, and you can blow up just about anything, and there will be marks left. It’s just too bad there’s so few levels and you will constantly repeat them until you have them memorized and that just manages to sap what little fun there is in the game out even more.

So we’re talking some nice outside level designs, some mediocre interior designs, and some really terrible character models.

The CGI is a little above average but not great. This game just doesn’t push the Xbox anywhere near what it can do graphically. A fraction above average, but that’s because the levels and background designs bring up the subpar quality of the rest of the visuals.

Graphics Rating: 6/10

3. Sound

WOW. If there is a high point of this game, it’s the music. An amazing version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is in this game. It’s excellent and goose bump raising. I would sit there and listen to the soundtrack of Phantom Dust just while doing other things (like say, writing my Super Monkey Ball Deluxe review). The entire score of Phantom Dust is brilliant, and if they sold it, I’d buy it. One of the best musical scores I’ve heard in a game for a very long time. Castlevania: SOTN quality.

And then there’s the voice acting. The only thing worse than reading Freia’s lines, was having to hear her speak them. With Shatner-esque pauses. Wow. “Me… Speakenglishgood… for him.” That’s the equivalent in pacing and depth. And it’s about that same throughout the entire game. Bad voice acting (oddly enough, the entire Japanese version of this game was 100% in English as well; I’m curious if it is the same voice actors) but an amazing score.

The final score for sound is brought down a little by the voice acting, but keep in mind for $20, you’re getting an average game, and a terrific disc to listen to while you dust or vacuum your house.

Sound Rating: 8/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Okay, here’s the thing, the first two chapters of the game play differently from the rest of the game, but not too significantly.

At first you run around in the game waiting for aura spheres to appear. You press a button to capture the sphere, which can give you anything from attack to defensive to movement skills, to even the ability to erase skills from your opponent. It’s neat, but they take far too long to come back, and because they only appear in that same part of the level, you will rarely move from that spot, which is a shame because the levels are quite vast and impressive. But yes, instead you stay crouched around the same spot being rather defensive, wishing a better skill had appeared than the crappy ones that showed up. And with 300 skills, often times a crappy one will show up rather than a good one.

I found “Bullet of Fire” to be the best in the first two chapters overall, in terms of an appearance to actual usefulness ratio.

For these first two levels, the game plays nothing like the CCG style Phantom Dust claims to have in terms of gameplay. Instead it’s catch a skill, use a skill, wait for your aura points to replenish and fire mindlessly again, or pick up a new skill and repeat.

BORING. The first two chapters were so mind numbingly dull I couldn’t believe it only took me an hour per chapter to finish. And note that these two chapters contained about 22 missions or so of the “100+” Phantom Dust has. Yeah, I rarely had a non boss mission last more than 5 minutes.

Also, the biggest problem with gameplay I had was that your camera is annoying to aim while playing, especially as the game is fast and frantic and is usually mindlessly blowing up the enemy due to the complete lack of AI in the game and how easy it is to hit them, and then occasionally blocking when their attacks come close enough to hit you. And then there’s the fact that when you use your R trigger to lock onto an opponent…it freezes your camera in place too so you can’t see around you. This is utterly stupid, and I’ve never encountered this in a game before. I should be at least allowed to move slightly or turn around to get a better shot of what I am locked on to, but nope, not in Phantom Dust. Pathetic.

Once you’re past the beginning the first few chapters, the store in the underground city opens up and you can start to buy skills and create your arsenal, which is the equivalent of your deck for those CCG players out there. You can have up to 30 skills in your arsenal and you can make 16 arsenals so that’s a lot of skills you can get.

Like in trading card games, the skills show up randomly on each level. This is fine and all, but unlike a CCG, this becomes, “Stack my arsenal with the few actually good attacks in the game and blow everything away without any skill or strategy.” It’s like the M:TG game on the PSX, or M:TG Battlegrounds on the Xbox. Neither game captured the true feeling of thought process needed to make a deck in Magic (which I will readily admit I’m not very versed in that game, as I was more an Illuminati and Mythos player, and those required even more thought). Yes, there’s 300 skills, but who cares when only 1-2 dozen will ever be used frequently, if at all.

I’m sorry, but this game was dull and boring to me, especially in the gameplay mode. The freezing your camera when you lock on is amazingly poor in my opinion, and I blazed through this game with little strategy at all. Even when you do have an arsenal, because the computer’s AI is so poor you can stay put in the same tiny part of the map and pick it off.

Yes it is nice to have a lot of skills and missions and powers, but when your enemies and maps are limited, and they’re always easy to beat, who cares? It just comes off like you’re trying to hide how shallow the game is with a lot of cursory crap.

At most, we have an average game whose controls are average and that the games sells itself by saying “Sure, you only need a tiny fraction of what you can do in thus game to beat it, but look at all the useless junk we have for you to use too.” Snore. I’d have been happier with a lot less skills, and a lot more levels.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 5/10

5. Replayability

Besides the Soundtrack, the thing that really sells this game in the online, player vs. player Deathmatch ability. Because god knows the story mode isn’t worth playing through more than once.

Via Xbox Live, you can trade skills, get new items, levels, missions, etc (although there’s not much downloadable content right now), you can do one-on-one battles, tag team battles, and a battle royal. There’s 11 match types, and 3 of the 11 are used for official Phantom Dust rankings. You can also play a split screen mode against your own friend at home.

Xbox Live is the only real reason to keep playing this game, but after just a few battles, everything blurs together and it comes down to who has the better skills/who has the better skills come up first rather than any real skill or ability. By the time you have decent skills, you pretty much have the maps memorized, so there’s nothing really challenging for you. You will get bored quickly, and since the game has a low print run and since most places got 1-6 copies of the game in, it’s close to or is completely sold out (every store I talked to only got enough for preorders), you will find the same few people to play against. And like I said, it gets boring fast.

The Story Mode lasts about 20-30 hours, depending on how good you are and if you play All the missions or just want to get it over with, and Deathmatch is fun for a while just because you don’t have the awful AI of the computer. But it’s again average at best. No real anything about the game to keep you coming back for very long.

Replayability Rating: 5/10

6. Balance

Okay, an amazingly easy AI, where only the bosses give you the slightest bit of trouble and that’s only until you figure out their pattern and weak spots. Of course, your computer controlled partner is equally as stupid and is usually little to no help. ESPECIALLY in battles where you are defensive only and they have to do the attack. You better hope for some about face (reflect) skills to show up, or you’re going to be very bored and frustrated.

The game comes down to, as I said earlier, whoever gets the best skills first wins, in multiplayer mode, and it’s basically a cakewalk through scenario mode.
There’s little balance at all to this game. You’re use only a tiny fraction of the skills, and once you are making arsenals, the game becomes even easier. No real challenge at all here, aside from the human opponents you face.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

Well this isn’t the first CCG style action RPG made. It’s also not the first one on the Xbox or the first one to take advantage of Xbox Live. Magic: The Gathering Battlegrounds is pretty much the same thing as this game, just Phantom Dust is futuristic instead of fantasy.

The plot idea is pretty original. Even if it isn’t executed very well at all. An entire civilization of psychic amnesiacs is just bizarre and could be explored a lot further than the game did.

300 skills, 100 battles, and everything sounds nice, but when they’re all pretty similar, it’s just rehashing your own content in the same game. Not cool at all.

In all, Phantom Dust tries really hard to come off as unique or original, but a discerning gamer has seen it before, and seen it better in other, older games.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

Eh. It’s neat at first, but due to repetitive levels, poor computer AI, easy gameplay that lacks any real skill, and worst of all, horrible storytelling, you will get bored with this game very quickly. After the first two chapters I was amazingly bored. And they are really just the intros to the game. If I could stay interested past the introduction chapters, why would I want to keep playing? But I did, and I was never rewarded.

Playing Phantom Dust was a chore, not a pleasure.

Like I said, I can’t see how people really enjoyed this. At first I went ping-ping-ping through the missions. But even after the first dozen I was like, “My god, this game must think I’m stupid as it’s always the same damn mission.” Phantom Dust just felt like a constant insult to my intelligence and gaming skills.

Addictiveness: 3/10

9. Appeal Factor

Well it has the “cool” word of mouth spreading from its fanatics, and reviews with scores so trumped up I can’t imagine how someone got a 7 or 8 level of enjoyment out of this amazingly average game. But hey, who am I to judge?

It’s got a very small print run, but it averages out with a cheap 19.99 price tag. It’s got word of mouth, but little more than that. Some strong reviews, but this one counters them hopefully.

In all, if you like action RPG’s you’ll be let down because of the FPS feel to this. If you like FPS games, you’ll be let down because it’s far more complicated.

But people are enjoying this game. Maybe it’s just a mix of genres that doesn’t work for me. In all, Majesco and Microsoft are doing a good job at creating a tiny underground grass roots buzz for this game, and it will hopefully attract those that could find this game entertaining.

Appeal Factor: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous

There’s a lot in Phantom Dust. Just none of it is truly that good or mind blowing. Lots of variance, and having online play and the ability to trade skills is a nice idea, and it goes through well in the actual application. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing that makes this game stand out.

With a better AI, better writing and characterization, and some more variety into levels and enemies instead of a lot of lackluster and similar skills, Phantom Dust could have been something pretty nice. Instead, it’s merely meh.

Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

The Scores

Story: 4/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 8/10
Control and Gameplay: 5/10
Replayability: 5/10
Balance: 4/10
Originality: 5/10
Addictiveness: 3/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 5/10

Overall Score: 50/100

Short Attention Span Summary
Throw-away game that no one will care about in 90 days with an excellent soundtrack. That’s the best way to describe Phantom Dust. It’s not worth buying unless you find it used. It’s worth a rental at most. But trust me, you’ll do all there is in this game over the weekend you check it out for and will then send it back, even without beating the game, knowing full well whatever you haven’t played through feels exactly like the rest of the game you’d played repeatedly.



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