Phantom Dust is a re-master of a game you’ve probably never heard of. I don’t say that to sound like a hipster, I say it, because it’s true. Microsoft announced at E3 back in 2014 that they were bringing a reboot to the original Xbox cult hit (first released in 2004) to the Xbox One in the near future. Said reboot was quietly cancelled, and the studio who were working on it - Darkside Game Studios - were unceremoniously laid off, but that’s a story for another time. Talk about Phantom Dust faded away, like the memories of the characters within the game, until this month, May 2017, when Microsoft announced a re-master of the game just a few days before they decided to release it.
It arrived on PC and Xbox One as a free to play title, with HD graphics, some revamped features, and cloud based online multiplayer to allow for tweaks to game balance. It popped up without much ceremony, free to download, and the general gaming world as a whole kind of shrugged. It’s hardly surprising, Phantom Dust is a Japan made mix of deck building and third person shooting set in a grim-dark future apocalypse world where ninety per cent of dialogue makes reference to how nobody can remember anything.
You play as an unnamed character, discovered inside some sort of incubation chamber. You’re one of the rare humans who have awakened strange magical powers in this world, which is covered in the titular dust. It has erased everyone’s memories of the old world, but allows for magical abilities that can be used to fight the many monsters now roaming the world.
Combat takes place in tight arenas, where you’ll face off against other humans, or weird monsters, all which use the same sorts of abilities as you have against you. The first quarter of the game ferociously holds your hand, so by the time you have the ability to pick your own abilities, you will have been starting to wonder if the game was ever going to let you.
Essentially, you build a ‘deck’ of thirty cards, assembled from purchasing in the shop, buying booster packs of junk, or earned as rewards for completing mission. Each completed mission advances the story, and earns you new abilities and money to buy them. The skills work on a mana system of sorts, similar to the likes of Magic the Gathering or Hearthstone. You need to reserve some slots for Aura Particles, white skills that boost your level, increasing your pool of regenerating Aura points. These abilities are drawn at random at your starting point, with three appearing at a time.
There’s a deep layer of strategy in there, between making sure you have enough Aura Points, defensive abilities, attack abilities, restoring spells, buffs, and debuffs. Most decks can only hold spells from two schools, meaning you’ve got to learn to balance these too. There is also long range, medium range, and short range attacks, with different attack patterns and ranges. Some abilities go in a straight line, some home in on enemies, and some are lobbed in wide arcs, or thrown sideways like a boomerang.
By the time you’re allowed to choose your skills, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your play style is, and whether you want to get up close and personal or attack from a distance. There are also various debuffs to delete enemies skills and drain their levels, forcing them to use all their cards and slowly drain their health. A pretty common deck theme from any garden variety trading card game.
What made Phantom Dust especially unique at the time, and to be honest, it still puts many other games to shame, was how these abilities play out in battle. A huge chunk of each arena is destructible, allowing for satisfying encounters, such as blasting an enemy through a railing to take an arena out fall for bonus damage.
Or you can collapse pillars and chunks of masonry onto foes for bonus damage. Telekinetic skills allow you to lob items at foes, while vending machines and cars littered around levels provide excellent cover until they are destroyed. In some instances, the ground can even be destroyed beneath your feet, causing an untimely fall if you don’t have a jump, dash, or levitate ability active.
Phantom Dust has an astounding variety to battles, and the ability to see the colour of skills your opponent is carrying and the colour of their next abilities gives an excellent element of strategy in deciding what will work against them, and what wont. Do they have an ability to block your attack? Are you better draining them with weaker skills and hitting them with your powerful ability when they’ve got no aura level to block it?
Perhaps what makes Phantom Dust so damn fun is the mix of strategy, skill, and pure shooting skill and reflexes that each battle brings. Some abilities are tough to hit with, but they’ll do major damage. Some spells travel through the ground, some are lobbed through the air, some target an area, but they all feel satisfyingly powerful in the right hands, but are avoided with skill, technique, and clever use of your aura pool.
I kept waiting for the game to throw something at me to break it all. To give me an ability that would win every encounter, to throw an enemy at me that could only be beaten in a cheap way, but it never seemed to happen. There are a few encounters in the single player mode that are unusually hard, but this seems more like an occasional difficulty spike rather than lack of any balance.
The multiplayer mode fares well in the modern gaming landscape as well. Phantom Dust seems perfectly suited for competitive play and Esports, but it’s a shame that the modes from the original release haven’t been expanded on massively. There are new abilities available through content packs, and it’s good that the free to play hooks of the game aren’t massively obnoxious - it seems entirely possible to never have to spend a penny - but it feels like there was definitely potential for ranking, character customisation, loot drops, and so on. However, it’s hardly a fair knock, Phantom Dust was a speedy re-master that still manages in many ways, to outside a range of much more recently released multiplayer titles.
The game shows it’s age in many places, from the ugly menus, to the muddy graphics (even in HD) and the poor quality cut scenes, however, it still remains one of the most startlingly unique games you’ll ever play. The fusion of action and strategy is endlessly deep and incredibly fun, the game has a strange vibe, fantastic music, and a frankly bizarre art style that is compelling and bewildering in equal measure.
Phantom Dust is a game that should never have been made, should never had been this good, and certainly should never have had a remake, but boy am I glad that it did. I can only cross my fingers that more publishers start to take these deep dives into their back catalogues, releasing the titles that were criminally under rated first time around, rather than churning out re-masters of games that are barely old enough to go to school. Pick up Phantom Dust; it’s free, after all.