(The rest of this post is going to be copy pasted from a blog post I wrote about Phantom Dust once, the re-release of which is slated for sometime before E3 on Windows 10 PCs and Xbox One.)
Phantom Dust, how you haunt me even now.
I remember when I first acquired you: an unassuming game I’d gotten excited about exclusively because the preview screenshots looked cool. It had been a rainy night as I wandered out of EB games, clutching you, Mega Man Collection, and Unreal Championship 2 to my chest. I’d gotten you because you were twenty dollars brand new, though my mom wondered if it said something about your quality. I said I didn’t care, the cover art was awesome, and I couldn’t wait to play you–after an extended session of Unreal Championship 2 (which, as an aside, was one of the greatest games on XBL and may be deserving of its own retrospective) and one particularly frustrating go at Mega Man 3.
I remember playing you the next day and becoming utterly entranced in your delightfully weird little world in which a strange dust had relieved everyone on Earth of their memories, driving the population underground and leaving the abandoned civilization above to ruin. The same dust had also apparently installed a fetish for strange fashion among the survivors: everyone wore long leather coats of various colors and collar-heights, or odd cloaks and biker gloves, and lots of glasses. I remember how you managed to pull off the old “wake up and don’t remember who you are” with enough aplomb to make it interesting again–how my avatar is discovered in a capsule aboveground along with an odd fellow named Edgar, and how the two are put to work as part of the Espers, retrieving technology and supplies from the surface at the risk of their memories.
To this day your plot swings from acceptable framework for your otherwise repetitive game flow to genuinely surprising, engaging and delightfully off-beat story with a single, expertly communicated twist, despite some awkward translation and muddled dialogue. But you know what? It was never your writing that’s kept me wrapped up in you so many years.
Nor was it the excellent atmosphere and visuals you splashed across my TV screen all those late nights, though I still remember the smoky, oppressive corridors of the Esper base and the ruined beauty of the various maps. I still think of how well your simple environments communicated a lonely little shard of civilization on the brink of collapsing into itself, and how the character designs were all so interesting, ranging from playful to demented (the main character in particular possesses a lime green jacket and apparent anorexia.) I even remember how satisfying your sounds were, from the haunting music to the brutal crunch of your combat.
See, there it is–your combat. Your combat is what makes me eye the disc in my CD book, the one original Xbox game left in my physical collection, and ponder popping it in and starting up a new game, despite the fact that I’ve beaten you countless times before. On the surface, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, either–in a world where, on my newly begotten PC, I can hop into a Battlefield game with 63 other people, or join thousands of other players in any given MMO, a maximum of 4 players in a relatively small arena seems rote. But what if those players moved around the arena much like a 3D beat-’em-up? you asked me.
And then what if you gave them Magic: The Gathering style “decks,” called “arsenals,” from which they randomly drew their abilities? you continued, and from that point on the situation was reversed: I didn’t come to you for a break from other games, I played other games to take a breather from you. You garnered an addiction in me that few games have managed since–between collecting and experimenting with new powers, I spent night after night battling against the small community on Xbox Live, alternately cursing and exulting because I was engaged in a way that just didn’t happen much with any kind of fiction, game, book, or otherwise.
And the idea seems so strange, from a distance: take a player, and have him or her build an Arsenal through the single player game similar to the way one builds a MtG deck–by gathering “Skills” from five “schools” that randomly spawn on the player’s side of the battlefield. By standing next to one of the particles and whacking a face button, the player maps it for later use, the same as drawing a card; these Skills range from sweeping sword attacks to fireballs to shields and speed boosts. You limit the overuse of powers in a number of ways–there’s even a mechanic similar to lands in MtG or energy in the Pokemon TCG called “Aura,” which provides you the fuel for your Skills, which may in turn have limited uses. Each Aura particle (collected the same way you would any other Skill) adds to an overall, regenerating pool, ensuring that players constantly have something to play with. Even the default life total–20–reflects a real-time MtG.
As strange as the idea is, stranger still that it works: the intricately crafted system of lunging melee skills, long-range spells, a variety of barriers and oddball movement modifiers creates a constantly changing, tense battle every time. The revelation of it is incredible–you are playing a real time trading card game wrapped in post-apocalyptic fiction, and you are enjoying yourself.
I remember having this revelation with you, Phantom Dust, in a way that nearly floored me.
I remember doing battle with your array of skills amid crumbling buildings, a ruined mall court, huge skyscrapers, and even an abandoned highway. I remember every time I was thrown from a mid-air laser barrage by a lucky fireball, only to crash violently against the pavement, which cracked with the loud impact. I remember how you let me set specific tracks from my Xbox hard drive as background music for each stage (thank you, Chevelle.) I remember the exciting, pitched exchanges in close combat once someone managed to close in: throwing up a shield to intercept their sword before responding with a hand-to-hand attack, and watching it all flow together in a bevy of brilliant particle effects and heavy audio.
You still haunt me, Phantom Dust, because your online battlefields are abandoned, and despite decent sales you haven’t shown your face in the light since that initial release–there’s been no talk of a successor. You’ve been relegated to the back shelf in Vintage Stock, and while I am as in love with video gaming as I’ve ever been, I’ve yet to have that experience I had with you replicated–a strange idea in a strange world that coalesces its aesthetic and design into one of my favorite games of all time.
It’s just strange to me that a game about the loss of memory seems to have fulfilled its own prophecy: I feel sometimes like I’m the only person who still owns one of these discs, who still occasionally visits Alpha (main character) and Edgar and plays through the excellent campaign.
Hopefully, someone else will go out and find you and even if we can’t battle directly, I can have the kind of discussions I used to have–who’s using what in their Arsenal, the best way to approach this boss or that.
Even if that’s not the case, I’m thinking another playthrough is in order.