Review by midwinter
"The Very Definition Of Sleeper Hit"
Microsoft just don't know when to quit. Since the release of their Xbox in Japan almost three years ago, they've managed to sell a total number of 600,000 systems in all. That's it. No more. Terrible isn't it? In fact so badly was it received, it's now not uncommon to see Sony's aging PS1 out selling, out performing, and generally out doing the Xbox at every turn. And that is how they say in Japanese, "berri berri sado". But how did this happen? Who is to blame? And above all else, what on earth went wrong? As is often the case, the answer is unbelievably simple... Microsoft didn't understand the Japanese gamer. For as similar as they are to their Western counterparts, their tastes are about as difficult to predict as their language is to read. Yugioh/Pokemon (Popular), first person shooters (Not Popular). RPGs (Unbelievably Popular), third person shooters (Popular... meh, so long as they've been developed by a fellow countryman). See how this works? In theory then, all it would take to rule the Japanese market and make a bit of extra cash on the side would be to mix these genres in such a way as to represent everyone's personal taste. Which, as luck would have it, is exactly what Microsoft Japan up and did. Enter Phantom Dust, a third person action adventure that's about to make the online death match experience a whole lot more exciting.
From the opening cinema...
Nobody remembers anything, not when the world changed... nor why. A mysterious dust poisoned the surface, affecting the brains of humans and stealing their memories. Strange apparitions began to appear, and humans fled their devastated cities... only underground could they escape their demons and the dust. The dust took from us, but to some it gave something new... the ability to transfer their will into energy. This new breed, the espers, now risk their lives searching the surface world for clues that might let us recover the memories we once lost.
Dark stuff indeed, but where the Japanese are concerned, nothing says adventure quite like a good Apocalypse. So much so that their cultural fascination with the subject has long passed casual status and is fast taking on almost fetish-like qualities! To put this in perspective then, Armageddon is to Japanese fandom as panties are to their salary men. In other words, they're completely inseparable. With this wonderful theme in mind, ex Sega staffer Yukio Futatsugi (Panzer Dragoon Orta) has set about crafting one of the most compelling stories action gaming has seen in recent years. That he's also fashioned a whole new style of death match in the process is simply icing on the cake. While the basic mystery of what happened on the surface is sure to draw you in, the journey won't be complete until the story itself has evolved any number of times, eventually leaving players blown away by the sheer intelligence of it all. So deep and unpredictable is it, there are times when players will want to stop what it is they're doing in order to truly absorb the latest mind bending revelation. And as impressive as that may be, Microsoft Japan have further sweetened matters by presenting Phantom Dust's Asia Only release in a 100% pleasing, Gaijin friendly manner. That's right importers, credit cards at the ready: it's English audio/text all the way!
The thing is however, Phantom Dust is one of those games that's incredibly hard to pigeon hole. Perhaps it's equal portions RPG-lite and insane death match experience... or perhaps such generic labelling doesn't even come close to doing the game justice... whatever! Rather than attempting to fit its square peg into a round, genre defining hole, potential combatants would do well to forgo such trivialities and instead get on with the job at hand. Beginning their quest deep underground, players will find themselves thrown to the wolves as an incredibly sturdy AI walks them through virtually every facet of the complex yet intuitive, arcade-like combat. And though you're certainly given a lot to take in, believe me when I say that it's in your own best interests to see the tutorials through to their very end! For unlike many of its contemporaries, Phantom Dust's psionic combat rewards players with a heavily endowed, life changing sense of machismo. Look at me now ladies! I am a fireball throwing, high jump flying, hard as all Hell mother lover. Yehaaww! It's as if Microsoft Japan had distilled and coded the very essence of some of Japan's most popular animated psychic battles in the creation of this great game. Part X: 1999, part Dragon Ball Z with just a hint of Witch Hunter Robin tossed in for good measure, this is the very stuff childhood fantasies are made of...
More than anything else, it's these psionic powers that give Yukio-san's masterpiece its own unique sense of self. Whereby every other death match variant is content to simply offer players a range of impressively gung-ho munitions, Phantom Dust walks a very different path thanks to its huge range of 300+ skills and super human abilities. Can you imagine that? 300 different ways to kick someone's arse... damn, that's a lot of hurt! Those among us brought up on a strict diet of Cheetos stained Collectible Card Games however are sure to feel right at home as players are expected to customize their own "deck" of special attacks before wandering out onto the battlefield. A task that's not only quite involving, but heavily time consuming as well. As battle commences, players will draw a randomly selected power from their arsenal of 30 preselected skills, then look to update and discard their powers in order to match the flow of the round. It's random and it's crazy, but therein lies much of Phantom Dust's overall appeal. From low level telekinesis and rock showers, all the way up to the earth shattering delights of a heaven sent meteor strike, players are guaranteed hours of fun as they work their way through the incredible range of skills, hopefully planning their own fully customizable arsenal in the process.
As intimidating as all that may sound, players shouldn't be fooled into thinking that Phantom Dust is a game that doesn't know how to get it on. For as deep and thoughtful as the gameplay is, its cutting edge action is in many ways reminiscent of some of the best online death matches available. It's fast as all hell, furious like nothing else, and quite literally as addictive as crack. You'll run and you'll jump, strafe and you'll dodge. Meanwhile explosions will knock you to the ground and entire chunks of the environment will shatter and collapse. Too late for prayers my friend, here comes a bolt of chain lightning with your name on it. Other than being designed with fickle Japanese tastes in mind, the hyper kinetic action should appeal to anyone who's ever dreamt of throwing a fireball and looking insanely cool in the process. A sight made even the more enjoyable thanks to Phantom Dust's tight and responsive controls. Draw a new psionic ability and players will be able to map it to the controller while still finding time to dodge their opponent's next strike. And as intense as all that may sound, not once do the controls ever feel complicated or difficult to use. In fact, they stand as a shinning example of how to keep things simple in the face of such overwhelming complexity. Nice work Yukio-san!
When you're not up on the surface battling the apparitions for control of your memories, players will find themselves deep underground partaking in a splash of RPG-esque fun: so long as you don't mind the feel of a little retro gaming that is. For it's here between rounds that Phantom Dust takes its biggest knocks, mostly due to a little something called "lack of genre development". Initially at least, the concept of forwarding the story via the use of some simple character interactions seems like a damn good idea. Explore an underground area, chat with its citizens, and if you get the chance, duck out to Mack's Skill Emporium and spend up big. Yeah we can dig that! Except, well... in the face of the otherwise blistering action, all this simple character stuff seems so damn archaic. Where are the branching conversation paths? What evidence is there of cause and effect style consequences? And where on earth did all the voice acting go?! I understand Phantom Dust's main draw card is and always will be its fiery action. But please, take a moment to imagine how much better the overall package could have seemed had this aspect of the game been brought up to scratch... it could have been... well, beautiful. Give me a sequel that addresses these issues and I'll gladly offer up my first born child in exchange. For now however, could someone please pass me the last few years of RPG genre development? I'd like to go over it all just one more time...
It's this apparent laziness in designing Phantom Dust's outer coating that detracts from its otherwise overall sense of glossy excellence. Even with that in mind however, don't panic. Luck is on our side! Of the 30+ hours of challenge that lays before you, little more than 20% of it involves the above mentioned RPG elements. Thankfully then for the rest of the time you'll be bathing in nothing but the most pure of 21st century loving. The high resolution textures are indeed a thing to be admired while the sublime character models have Terry Gilliam's "the 12 Monkeys" written all over them. Quirky, endearing and quite, quite memorable, their bizarre costumes and interesting personalities really hammer home the amount of love and care put into Phantom Dust's lavish development. The stages are large and perfectly balanced while the fully destructible background elements are simply a joy to behold. From the photo realistic skyline to the way walls explode when impacted against, the quality visuals are sure to make even the most jaded of fanboys wet themselves with glee. Now if only there were a few more of those wondrous stages to go around, we could of perhaps called it a day with a big fat jolly smile on our faces and a gleam in our eyes. Too bad for reality huh? Online or off, Phantom Dust recycles its stages at an almost alarming rate, often to the detriment of a little word known as "variety". It's sad and unfortunate, but that's also the way it is... come on Microsoft, get your act together. We want moorrreeee...!
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...
Phantom Dust is a compelling game on many levels, the least of which is that it's given my sadly neglected Japanese Xbox a new lease on life. So why then has it been refused a Western release? Stupidity? Short sightedness perhaps? Whatever the reason may be, what we have here is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions as Phantom Dust is a culture spanning genre bending classic that deserves its time in the lime light. While the story has been evenly placed on the intellectual side of smart, the white hot graphics and destructible backgrounds are certainly worthy of the gushing praise that such masterpieces demand. And though the RPG elements are certainly lacking in the modern necessitates, this is a criticism that can only be leveled at Phantom Dust's single player experience. Online such disappointments are nowhere to be found as players are left to their own devices, free to kick arse in ways they've never even imagined before. It's you versus the world, death match style, winner take all. Are you man enough to leave you mark on the Apocalypse? If you know what's good for you then the answer of course would be a resounding HELL YEAH! Hopefully followed up with a dash for the credit card and an email of protest to the relevant authorities. 2004's most deserving Sleeper Hit has arrived... don't miss out!
* Hugely enjoyable death match action
* The story is far more intelligent than usual
* There's some 300+ skills and special abilities to explore
* Phantom Dust's strategy elements are highly reminiscent of CCG style gaming
* There's anything upwards of 30+ hours of gameplay for single players to enjoy
* Fully destructible backgrounds make fighting a blast
* High resolution textures lend the game an intense feeling of class
* Full Xbox Live support gives you someone to beat up even when the single player game is over
* It's just a whole lot of cool!
* There are too few maps
* Some RPG elements seem overly simple
* More play modes would have been appreciated
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/15/04, Updated 11/22/04
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