Majesco is gaining a reputation for publishing offbeat titles that have been unceremoniously dumped by Microsoft. One eccentric castoff, Double Fine's Psychonauts, arrives in a few weeks. First up, however, is Phantom Dust, an action/strategy hybrid developed by Microsoft Game Studios in Japan, published by Microsoft in Asia, and then abandoned by Microsoft for North American release. Though Microsoft must have had its reasons for dropping it, it's hard to imagine what those reasons could have been. Designed by Panzer Dragoon Saga creator Yukio Futatsugi, Phantom Dust is a unique and terrifically successful blend of strategy, tactics, and fast action. And it's only $20!
This guy's not kidding--expect to wade through a lot of babbling.
Essentially, gameplay is a cross between the deck-building and card-collecting elements of Magic: The Gathering and the controls, speed, and environmental tactics of a shooter. The duels are the meat of the game, where the object is to reduce your opponents' life points to zero before they do the same to you. Movement controls are typical for a third-person action game (left stick moves, right stick adjusts the view), and the duels take place in real time across various shooter-esque 3D environments.
Instead of a traditional complement of weapons, however, you're armed with "skills." You can carry four skills at a time, each one mapped to one of the X, Y, B, and A buttons. You begin a round with four skills that are randomly selected from your "arsenal" (Phantom Dust's term for "deck"), which may include up to 30 skills in total. Three other randomly selected skills from your arsenal also appear as glowing orbs at your starting spot. This is effectively the top of your "draw pile."
By standing on top of an orb and pressing X, Y, B, or A, you replace the skill currently mapped to that button with whatever skill is contained in the orb. The orbs disappear when picked up. After a few seconds, a new skill is randomly pulled from your arsenal, crammed into an orb, and placed back at your starting spot so that you'll generally have three new skills available at any given moment. If you burn through your entire arsenal before the duel ends, your life points begin to drain until you eventually die.
Each skill costs a certain amount of "aura" to activate (think "mana"). The amount of aura you have is determined by your level. A significant part of your arsenal's 30 slots must be devoted to aura particles, which appear out of your arsenal just like skills and are sort of analogous to "land" in Magic. You begin a duel at level 0, but each aura particle that you pick up and use raises your level by one. Your aura depletes as you fire off skills, and it replenishes automatically over time until it reaches your current level.
There are currently 340 skills to collect, and you can do this by either completing missions in the single-player game, buying them with game currency from the in-game store (randomly in booster packs of five or, more expensively, singly by name), or trading with other players on Xbox Live. There are 40 ultrarare skills that can only be claimed by completing various goals (such as winning 30 duels) in multiplayer. Each skill falls into one of five schools. An arsenal can contain skills from only one or two schools (three if you're willing to have your aura-regeneration rate decreased).
The skills--some of which can be used just once and some that can be used over and over again--represent a wide range of offensive and defensive abilities, plus other oddball stuff, such as being able to temporarily fly, erase an opponent's equipped skills, and destroy all of the aura particles in play. One, appropriately called mind reading, even lets you listen in on the opposing team's voice chat. It's an example of how the developers have done a terrific job of making the skills complement a video game rather than simply re-creating a tabletop card game.
In a good collectible card game, you spend as much time thinking about deck design as you do actually playing. With its variety of cleverly designed skill effects, Phantom Dust really nails this deck (sorry, arsenal) design mechanic. When not actively dueling, you'll find yourself daydreaming about possible combos, counters, and potential theme arsenals. It's a game that definitely inspires obsession.
You can use your winnings to buy booster packs (called 'junk'), each containing five randomly selected skills.