Review: Needs Swiffering.
Okay, let me state right up front that I really wanted to like Phantom Dust. I have several friends who swear it is the best thing since sliced bread cut with a Covenant plasma sword. And for the most part, my friends are right: it is definitely a fun multiplayer game that is refreshingly different from anything else on the Xbox. Unfortunately, it is burdened with several gameplay flaws and a clunky single player campaign that you are forced to endure if you want to get the best out of multiplayer.
Phantom Dust was originally developed by Microsoft exclusively for the Japanese market with no intention of bringing it over to our side of the Pacific. However, Japanese publisher Majesco obviously saw opportunities in the game that Microsoft didn't, and so picked up the title and the North American distribution rights. Majesco is known for publishing some quirky titles, and you can't get much quirkier than this.
Basically, Phantom Dust is a card game similar to Magic: The Gathering wrapped up in a third-person action shooter package. You use skills (or ?cards?) to attack, defend or use special abilities like levitating, healing, erasing your opponent's skills, and so on. You build your arsenal (your ?deck?) by choosing from over 300 skills split between five schools, Faith, Ki, Nature, Optical and Psycho. Your arsenal is limited to only 30 skills and is restricted to the number of schools you can choose from. You only have a few dozen weak skills at first, but can unlock or buy more powerful skills as you progress through the game.
At your spawn point, three glowing skill capsules will appear for you to pick up or ?capture?; these are the top cards in your deck and are drawn at random. To capture a skill, you walk up to it and press one of the four face buttons on your controller, which assigns that skill to that button; to use the skill you simply press that button again. Once you capture a skill, a new capsule will reappear in its place after a few moments, letting you replace skills as required.
Each skill requires a certain amount of aura to use. Since you start each round with no aura, you have to put aura capsules in your arsenal so you can level up and use your skills; in fact, the game recommends that at least half of your arsenal slots contain aura capsules. As you use skills, your aura level will drop temporarily but will recharge back up again after a few seconds.
It takes some getting used to but once you get the hang of it, you'll appreciate the simplicity of the system. And since you only have a limited number of slots in your arsenal, you will have to plan carefully and choose your skills wisely. Fiddling with your arsenal is perhaps the most fun part of the game; do you go with a heavy offensive approach? Or maybe something more defensive? Perhaps you want to be nasty and pick skills to teleport to your enemies' spawn, destroy their skill capsules, and double the aura cost of everyone's skills. It can sometimes be agonizing as you are forced to choose between several skills you really like, but fortunately you can buy new arsenals and customize them for different situations. However, since the skills are drawn at random, you have no idea what you're going to get at any given moment; I've been the victim of some painfully bad shuffles, but have also had many devastatingly good shuffles that allowed me to obliterate enemies in no time. The randomness of the draw adds a unique element to the game that can give a player with a weak arsenal a fighting chance against an opponent with a more powerful arsenal.
The special effects as you use your skills are very pretty; fireballs fly from your hands, laser beams arc through the air, lightning bolts sparkle as they crash down to the ground, and watching big chunks of the environment crumble on top of your opponent is always a joy. Pretty much everything you see in the map is destructible, from fences and walls to catwalks and roads. And it's not just cosmetic; like in MechAssault, falling debris can cause a lot of damage and can be used as a strategic weapon. You have to be careful, though; on several occasions I got caught in my own debris avalanche and took heavy damage. Ouch!
The whole concept sounds cool and for the most part, it is. However, it's a shame that Microsoft had to burden the game with an awkward targeting camera system and a bloated single player campaign.