After the franchise’s reboot was put on indefinite hiatus, Microsoft announced last year that it was putting out a remaster of classic Xbox title Phantom Dust. This past week, with very little fanfare, Microsoft made good on its word, releasing the remaster on Xbox One and Windows 10. Oh, and it’s free. Often described as ahead of its time, Phantom Dust lives up to its reputation in many areas, but it feels understandably dated in others.
So, what is Phantom Dust? At first glance, it looks like a third-person shooter or Japanese role-playing game, but at its core, Phantom Dust is a card game, more akin to Magic the Gathering or Hearthstone than anything else. You control your character in real time and navigate the map like in any other third-person shooter, but the meat of the combat comes from the deck of abilities that you choose to take into battle with you.
Each round of Phantom Dust takes place in a small arena-style map. Players battle it out using several card types including attack, defense, healing, buff, and debuff skills. Instead of drawing cards like a typical card game, each player has a home base of sorts where three abilities nodes will spawn at regular intervals. Running over these nodes and hitting one of the face buttons will assign that power to that button. In addition to these skills, your deck contains aura particles, which serves as the equivalent of mana. Each aura particle collected increases your level and therefore your mana pool by one. Abilities have varying aura costs and your available aura will always recharge back to up to your level. If you’ve ever played Magic the Gathering, then you may recognize aura particles as essentially equivalent to land cards.
Phantom Dust’s first couple of story chapters constitute its tutorial, about 30 missions in all. While it’s true that the game’s combat needs a lot of explanation, this tutorial section drags on way past its welcome, sometimes taking an entire mission or two to explain a single nuance of the battle system. The hand-holding subsides as you progress, but new cards and enemies are constantly trickled out over the course of the campaign, all of it serving as a kind of extended tutorial for the multiplayer.
The story itself is engrossing, even if the plot does revolve around one of storytelling’s favorite clichés, amnesia. An unknown catastrophe has devastated the Earth, leaving behind a mysterious dust which causes those exposed to it to lose their memory. To avoid the amnesiac effects of the dust, surviving humans now shelter underground in a settlement reminiscent of The Matrix‘s Zion. Awakening from cryogenic pods in the game’s opening, our nameless protagonist and his friend Edgar discover they are Espers, a rare breed of human that can control the dust as a weapon. After training, both head out on missions to gather memory fragments, slowly unlocking their pasts. It’s an intriguing and effective premise for driving the player to complete each successive mission, as the protagonist and Edgar try to find out how the world became the dust-covered hellhole that it is.
Phantom Dust’s story mode is also where the vast majority of my complaints about the game come into play. While the core mechanics are fantastic, there are several minor issues within the campaign which undermine the experience. Missions are doled out by various NPCs in the hub world, but there are no quest markers to let you know who currently has a mission available. As a result, you’re forced to walk up to every NPC and talk to them, hoping they have a job for you. By the end of the fourth chapter I’d snapped, resorting to using a guide to tell me who had the next mission. There are also missions that require you to use a specific ability to pass them, but they will happily let you enter the combat arena without said skill equipped. Truth be told, these really are minor grievances, easily overcome by following a mission order guide, but their presence interrupts the flow of gameplay far too often. Apart from these, the only other complaint I can field at Phantom Dust is one that applies to almost all card games: drawing a bad hand can leave you royally screwed. Mercifully, you can mulligan your starting hand before the round begins if you’re not happy with your initial draw.
These minor issues that I’ve listed are worth tolerating, though, because the core mechanics of Phantom Dust are phenomenal. There is a staggering level of depth to the combat system thanks to the customizable ability decks. The aim of the game is to bring your opponent’s life points to zero, but how you go about it is up to you. You have 30 slots in your deck to fill with a mixture of offensive, defensive, and support skills, along with a decent amount of aura particles, but the sheer variety of viable strategies is impressive. Focusing on cheap, weaker attacks will serve you well if you can finish the match off quickly, but the longer it goes the more outmatched you’ll become. On the flipside, loading up your deck with expensive, world-ending attacks is all well and good, so long as you can survive long enough to build up your aura pool. There are cards which stun your opponent, cards to immobilize, defensive cards which reflect their attacks back at their sender – you can even run a mill deck if you want, specializing in stripping your opponent’s cards away until they empty their deck, at which point their health starts to drain away.
It’s this combination of traditional card game mechanics with real-time combat which sets Phantom Dust apart from other titles, providing a level of depth and strategy both before and during the match. To offer up an example, several attack cards have a parabola attack arc, meaning they’re lobbed up and drop down on your foes from above. If you opponent is spamming these attacks and you don’t have the right defensive cards to counter, you can hide under a bridge for a temporary refuge. I mean temporary though, because a lot of the terrain in Phantom Dust’s maps is destructible, another factor you can take advantage of. Who needs the right cards when you can drop a bridge on someone’s head?
I’m gushing a bit here so I’ll take a step back. Phantom Dust is filled with minor annoyances and the immense amount of depth is a double-edged sword – plenty of players will bounce off such an overwhelming system. There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to visuals either; Phantom Dust came out in 2005, when things were still a bit on the blocky side, and no amount of spit and polish is ever going to hide this. The environments look serviceable, but the character models look a little freaky, especially the main character whose mouth occasionally opens wide enough to swallow another man whole. Like a great man once said though, “she may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
Underneath all the minor irritations, the Where’s Waldo approach to finding your next mission and the dated graphics, Phantom Dust is a truly fantastic game. The combination of real-time combat with deck-building mechanics means that Phantom Dust is a one-of-a-kind experience. Microsoft have said that the future of the franchise depends on how well this remaster is received, so I urge you to give it a try. It’s free, so what have you got to lose? Nothing, and Phantom Dust deserves a second chance. The original box art for Phantom Dust held a quote from OXM, who said it was “Unlike anything else on Xbox.” Thirteen years later, that statement still holds true.