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Phantom Dust

Score: 88%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Majesco
Developer: Microsoft Game Studios
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 4
Genre: Card Games/ Action/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Sometimes I even amaze myself. A few months ago I mentioned that Collectable Card Game (CCG)-based mechanics would soon find their way into games. Some thought it was an interesting idea while others just laughed or gave me those faces that clearly say “whatever.” Flash forward to the present and an increasing number of games are working aspects of CCGs into their design, resulting in some interesting hybrids, such as the recently released Metal Gear: Acid. Phantom Dust is the latest in this line of hybrids and combines the quick-thinking strategies of CCGs with the quick-reflex strategies of an action game.

The phrase “budget title” usually doesn’t call to mind visions of great looking games, but Phantom Dust proves it can be done. Character designs and environments fit in with the game’s post-apocalyptic setting. There are the requisite barren wastelands aboveground, and the dark, cramped corridors full of patchwork technology below. Colorful special effects and other pyrotechnics during combat light up otherwise dark presentation. The look is also complimented by a soundtrack comprised of classical music that gives some areas an unsettling feel.


Gameplay:

Gameplay is unlike anything currently on the Xbox, or anything found on any console for that matter, making comparisons hard. Basically, it’s a combination of the deck-building elements found in a CCG, like Magic: The Gathering, combined with those found in an action game.

The main goal is simple: wear you opponent’s life points down to zero before they can do the same to you. However, instead of using action game staples like guns, fists, or other melee weapons, you instead duel using skills. Each of these skills is assigned to the face buttons on the controller. These four skills are drawn for a deck of 30, which makes up your arsenal (or deck). In addition, three of your skills are also found scattered in the arena, which you can equip by standing over and pressing the button you want to assign it to. Picking up skills in the arena replaces another skill in your “hand” and disappears from the field, only to be replaced by another skill from your deck.

Currently, the game features 340 skills to construct your deck. New skills can be acquired either by winning them in single-player missions, by purchasing them from the in-game store, or by trading with others on Xbox Live. In addition, 40 powerful cards are also available and can only be accessed after completing certain goals online, such as winning a set number of duels.

Skills fall into five schools: Faith, Nature, Ki, Optical, and Psycho. Decks can only contain one or two of the five schools, which is where deck-building comes into play. Early on you have to decide what type of skills appeal most to your play style and build your deck around that. Each school is broken down into skill types; these include standard types like attack and defense, as well as non-traditional abilities like erasing a skill from your opponent’s hand or manipulating the battlefield in some way. Some skills can be used multiple times, while others can only be used once.

Skills use Aura points when activated (think mana). Your initial number is influenced by your character’s level. Aura Particles, which are the other class of card in the game, can be picked up from the ground like new skills and added to your total. If you’re familiar with either Magic: The Gathering or the Pokémon CCG, think of Aura Particles as being something like Land or Energy cards. Aura points replenish as the duel rages on, adding to the game’s strategy. Carelessly flinging spells quickly runs down your Aura points, while miserly casting can mean death.

Phantom Dust offers two main play modes: Single and Multiplayer. The single-player game is long, grueling, and one of the game’s weakest points. Other than learning to play the game and collecting new cards, there isn’t much of a reason to play though the 20+ hours that encompass the game’s weak narrative. Mutliplayer, on the other hand, is where the game really shines. As is the case with all CCGs, dueling against other players online is loads of fun, especially once you start to see the numerous deck types and strategies people have come up with.


Difficulty:

All this talk of decks, strategies, and combos may seem like a lot for players who’ve never touched a CCG, but the underlying mechanics are rather easy to get acquainted with. Also, the first third of the game is dedicated strictly to showing players all of the different strategies involved in the game, beginning with basic movement and casting to more complex strategies and deck-building schemes.

Even the best-built decks require a little luck, which can be influenced through careful, and smart, deck building. The tutorial does a good job of giving you the basic tools needed to build a good deck, leaving the rest up to creativity and raw experience. I also found a few players online who were willing to give some deck-building advice.


Game Mechanics:

So we have all the CCG elements, but what about the action? As in the shootout I described earlier, cover is a major strategic element in Phantom Dust. The catch to being able to dodge behind anything on the battlefield is that everything is destructible. With enough firepower, you can take out anything on the battlefield. And, the effect isn’t just to look cool. With the right timing you can even trap opponents under rubble or pour on a little extra damage. This adds yet another level to strategy. Even with the best deck, you can still lose if you don’t know how to use it in conjunction with the battlefield.

With the addition of action elements, duels play out similar to shootouts seen in old westerns, where the two cowboys are on opposite sides of the street shooting at each other and dodging behind whatever protection they can find. When one shooter runs out of bullets, he stays behind cover until he reloads – then the duel continues. This, of course, gives the other shooter an advantage since the other guy is at his mercy until he loads his gun.

Unlike other CCG-based games, Phantom Dust is the first to really capture what makes CCG’s so captivating to players. The card selection is so diverse, that you’ll find yourself dreaming up different combos and deck types at the oddest of times. Given a chance, Phantom Dust can become one of the most addicting games you’ll ever play, and at the enabling price of $20, it’s hard to not give it a shot.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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