Phantom Dust (PC [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: Microsoft Game Studios, Code Mystics (port)
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: May 16, 2017
Back in 2004 when Phantom Dust originally released, the world was a very different place. I was finishing up high school and had just talked my mom into getting DSL internet so I could play Halo 2 online. Unlike today, the number of titles that supported Xbox Live was scarce, but most people were probably too into Halo 2 to give a shit about anything else released at the time. This fact may be why Phantom Dust went mostly unnoticed aside from a select few who played the game and raved about it for over a decade.
Thing is, Phantom Dust sucks. Critics didn’t think so, for some reason, but boy it hasn’t aged well at all. It doesn’t help that this is a bare-bones port with little added besides microtransactions, widescreen support, Xbox Play Anywhere, and the normal bells and whistles you’ll find in modern Xbox games like achievements and the like. Sure, the game loads way faster and the 30fps framerate is stable now, but that doesn’t change that the core game is just awful.
Conceptually, Phantom Dust sounds great: a deck-based third-person wizard battler in a post-apocalyptic future filled with monsters. The story centers around two anorexic men, one who looks like David Bowie and the other the lead singer of The Cure, who were found in capsules on the surface with no memory of their past. You see, people live underground now thanks to a dust on the surface that causes people to forget everything.
At least I think that is what is going on. I couldn’t be bothered to be invested in the story due to the monotonous repetition the game put me through. There are over 100 missions to complete in the single-player campaign, maybe 10 of which are unique from all the rest. You fight one or two monsters at a time in one of the handful of stages, rinse, repeat. Eventually, there are modifiers added to the battles which only serve to make them more difficult and thus less fun. The unique missions mostly feature boss battles but are too few and far between to do anything but make you upset that they aren’t the final battle and you’ve got to play more. At least that is how I felt. Phantom Dust drove me to drink, literally. I’ve been drunk at least three times this past week just to cope with playing this game.
The worst part is, between all these missions, you’re forced to wander a small overworld map that lacks a cursor to show you where you are or even where you’ve got to go next. Instead, you’ll be listening to the same annoying footsteps on repeat while you talk to a selection of around 10 characters over and over again till you find the one that gives you your next mission. If that sounds bad, imagine doing that around 100 times. Now imagine your friends and family being around you after doing this. Imagine how irritable you’ll be and how they will smell the liquor on your breath. “Jimmy, are you alright?” your dad will ask before you snap back with a “Do I look fucking alright, dad!?” Doesn’t that sound fun?
The combat is atrocious by modern-day standards. After creating a deck, and loading into the level or match, your character will start with four abilities in their hands, and three glowing balls that spawn near them. These abilities spawn in a random order, and the first three must be picked up before further abilities will spawn. Abilities each have an aura cost, and aura must be first obtained in the same way abilities are. Think of this like mana in most other games, only it regenerates in real-time instead of a turn-based system.
Abilities range from melee attacks to long-range projectiles, to defense and healing. Each ability has a recommended distance to use, and will miss most of the time if outside of that. Instead of manually aiming, which makes it nearly impossible to hit enemies, you’re forced to lock-on to them. Locking on an enemy causes the camera to follow them, which makes movements and telling where you’re going a chore, oftentimes leading to falling off the stage and taking damage. It doesn’t help that the combat itself is clunky as hell, and just not satisfying whatsoever aside from seeing some stage destruction, which was impressive for its time.
Then there is multiplayer, which supports one-on-one and two-on-two matches that take place in those same few stages from the campaign mode. In the handful of games I managed to play on Xbox Live — Phantom Dust isn’t very populated, which is surprising given that it is free — I found the balancing to be non-existent. Most matches I’d join played nothing like the campaign, in that my enemies would camp at their base till they had enough aura to use strong abilities that could kill me in a few hits, which is the opposite of fun or balanced. At least the microtransactions on offer aren’t even tempting pending you’ve played the campaign, as you’re given a ton of skills and in-game credit just for completing missions. Still, it feels wrong to offer microtransactions in a port of an aged budget title.
I honestly hated playing Phantom Dust. The combat and movement are clunky, the graphics are blocky and gray, and it feels pretty much exactly what you’d expect a 13-year-old budget title to feel like: awful.
The story threatens to be interesting, but is laughably bad, as is the dialogue in the game (such as the lady who constantly talks about being “punished”). I’ll give it this, it has a pretty cool version of Moonlight Sonata as part of its soundtrack. At least Phantom Dust dared to try something different, which is more than can be said for most AAA games these days.