Monday, October 20, 2008
Phantom Dust (2004)
The world is unfair: good guys never win, birds congregate above your car and Soulja Boy has a career. Keeping pace with these mockeries of justice is the fact that Phantom Dust for the original Xbox is not a million-selling household name.
Describing Phantom Dust to the uninitiated can be a daunting task, and the most curious aspect of the title is the original style of gameplay: what if Magic: The Gathering, arena-style deathmatches and action RPGs were all featured on a single episode of Will it Blend? The answer to the show's titular question is a "yes" as definite as it seems unlikely, and quite well at that. The meat of the game is matches between 2 to 4 participants in a number of post-apocalyptic urban arenas. Your only weapons are "Skills", cards essentially, drawn from your Arsenal (deck) in static spawn points placed around the levels. Phantom Dust's range of 300+ skills is ocean wide and deep, spanning everything from the expected simple fireball to reflective shields to skills that change the the dynamics of the rules themselves. The variety and well-balanced nature of the Skill sets demand that your Arsenal's strategic design and application are the highest priority; only death awaits the reckless. This is I suppose a blessing and a curse, the fact that everyone is playing Halo 3 on Xbox Live instead of this is a fucking tragedy.
The graphics are fantastic for an Xbox game and hold up well even today as 2008 wanes. The character design is not for everyone but is certainly unique, the environments are universally well-realized and gloriously destructible, bringing further tactical possibilities to the table. Cinematics are well-done and the (admittedly rare) voice acting is no worse than average.
But in spite of Phantom Dust's general excellence in gameplay and design, it is the story that burns the game into this mind. You are one of two men, found and raised from slumber in iron coffins by strangers in a strange land. The protagonist and his counterpart, a man called Edgar, awake after your recovery in a makeshift medical bay in an underground sanctuary, the only collection of life anyone knows of. You are greeted by a man you don't remember, but you realize you don't even remember who you are.
The world is over, the surface irrevocably blanketed by a mysterious dust for which the game is named. The dust steals the memories from anyone exposed to it for longer than fifteen minutes or so, and the only refuge from infinite amnesia lies underground. To some, this anti-mnemonic miasma grants a gift in return for what it takes away: the ability to physically manifest their will. This is the source of Skills, psychic evocations explained as being contained within the spheres of dust to be found around the surface, and the player and Edgar are of course two of the... "lucky" ones, if such a thing exists in such a bleak world. The only thing that anyone really remembers are the thing everyone remembers: the vision of some unknown ruins haunting every survivor for as far back as their memories reach. No one knows anything about them but the survivors have made it their mission to find these ruins, compelled to find some meaning on a derelict earth. The story continues on from there on to an ending that must be experienced firsthand.
The music is worthy of special note; rarely is a score, video game or otherwise, so piercingly apropos. The violin, dischordant and alone but for a faint echo serves as metaphor for existence for Phantom Dust's sparse populace, a desperate wavering warmth in a tundra of solitude. Even the upbeat, static-filtered combat themes rarely involve more than a couple of instruments, again a metaphor for loneliness: the bitterness of combat is aggrandized by the knowledge that your brief respite from isolation ends only with your victory or death, and all that awaits the survivor is the familiar oppressive loneliness intensified.
The absolute saddest thing of all is that all but no one has played this game. Debuting at only $19.99 retail, this game should have been in every house with an Xbox, but Phantom Dust rewards thoughtful analysis instead of headshots so nobody gave it the chance it deserved. Considering this, the game's lonely atmosphere becomes dramatically ironic.
Verdict: Epic Win