Why is it that the survivors of most world-ending catastrophes seem to wind up with weird supernatural powers? Majesco's upcoming action title Phantom Dust doesn't attempt to answer this question. Instead, it takes a functional approach to the postapocalypse with ruined cityscapes and lanky combatants with spiky hair ripped right out of the nearest anime. We've taken a prerelease English version of the game for a spin and found it to be one of the strangest and most unique action games we've played in quite some time.
It's the future, and the world has been covered by the mysterious dust that gives the game its name. Nobody seems to know where it came from, but it has sundered the Earth's cities, spread demons across the land, and driven the beleaguered remnants of humanity underground. In occasionally venturing back to the surface, the strongest men and women have discovered that while the dust is a threat, it also somehow grants them special attack and defense powers that they can use to combat the strange enemies that roam the planet.
During a routine surface mission, a group encounters a man locked away in some sort of sleep chamber, and upon bringing him back to their base, they find that he excels at using the dust's abilities. He also happens to have an unexplained connection to a woman named Freia, who is at odds with the group. Naturally, you'll play as this mysterious man (who you get to name) as you fight the dust and try to figure out what's going on with Freia while attempting to save mankind.
The gameplay in Phantom Dust proceeds in two parts. You'll spend half of your time underground, interacting with the other survivors of the apocalypse as they search for clues about the dust and their past, research new skills and abilities, and generally try to get by. During the other half, you'll go on missions to the surface of the world to conduct research, retrieve important items, rescue people that have been stranded, and so on. This might sound like a lot of different things to do, but the missions usually boil down to you killing all of the enemies before they kill you. Even so, most of the levels have different enough parameters so that they stay fairly interesting as you go along.
Phantom Dust's combat is, in a word, weird. Each level is fairly small and takes place in a ruined building, courtyard, or network of highways. The human survivors only have use of their powers when they're on the surface, so when you first start the game, you'll have to pick up your powers once you arrive at the mission site. The powers are represented by colored orbs that you'll have to physically retrieve in order to use them. You can have up to four powers equipped at a time, one assigned to each face button. The powers fall into a number of different categories (or "schools"), such as basic attack and defense skills, as well as more advanced powers that let you buff your stats, steal enemies' powers from them, and so on. Later on in the game, your comrades will develop the "arsenal" system, which allows you to purchase skills and customize your loadout before you head into battle. Different arsenals can only hold skills from a set number of schools, so mixing and matching attack and defense powers becomes half of the fun.
There's a surprising amount of strategy involved in the game's combat. You can lock onto an enemy, which more or less takes the guesswork out of aiming at them, but most of the powers take a second to activate, so you still have to take your timing into account in order to hit a moving target. More importantly, you've got a finite amount of health, so you have to be very careful to avoid or block enemy attacks. Finally, each attack consumes a set number of aura points, which function essentially like mana and replenish slowly after you use them. You'll generally only be able to fire off a couple of skills in succession before you run out of aura points, so you have to be judicious about which ones to use, and when, in order to claim victory. The action has a snappy, back-and-forth feel when you're trading attacks and using defense powers one-on-one with an enemy, which is pretty satisfying.
Phantom Dust's presentation is nothing if not striking. The character designs are rather odd, and we found them to be an acquired taste. For example, your own lanky character looks like the cyberpunk love child of David Bowie and Billy Idol. The backgrounds in the underground portion of the game are exceptionally detailed. There is a ton of geometry used in the backgrounds, and great use of lighting and coloration bring it all to life. The action backgrounds are no slouch either. While they don't look quite as visually interesting as the between-mission areas, they do feature an awful lot of destructible geometry that will get blown apart as a matter of course while you're fighting. Just hitting the ground after a hard fall will leave a crater in the asphalt, and your fireballs can literally blow walls apart if you're careless. What we found to be most impressive was when we hit a freeway support column while trying to fight an enemy and literally brought the whole section of highway down. The effect is quite impressive in motion and adds a nice frenetic sense to the combat. In fact, the action is a lot like a playable anime, with characters leaping a dozen feet off the ground to hurl psychic bolts and other such craziness.
Phantom Dust was created by Microsoft's internal Japanese development studio, but the mega-publisher opted not to bring it out in the US. Enter Majesco, who is delivering the game for a value-oriented price of 20 dollars, which we think would make the game worthwhile even in a single-player-only configuration. Add in Xbox Live support, which lets you engage in the game's unique brand of combat against other players in one-on-one or team matches, and you've got a game that really packs in the value. Phantom Dust is just off the wall enough that it probably won't appeal to everyone, but for those who do get into it, the game will provide a unique experience. Look for more on Phantom Dust before it ships in March.