Why Phantom Dust is so important to Xbox

For those of you not familiar, Phantom Dust was a Microsoft-developed game that only saw release inside Japan until Majesco opted to bring the title westward near the end of the original Xbox’s lifespan as a budget $20 title. I couldn’t tell you why Microsoft never published the game themselves in America, but it was different; wildly different from anything else on consoles at the time. A hybrid of arena shooters and collectible card games, Phantom Dust proved that the Xbox wasn’t just about bro-shooters. A shame that it only shipped 70-80 thousand units worldwide.

Phantom Dust has a simple enough premise: Make a deck (the game calls it an “arsenal”), selecting 30 spells from 2 of the game’s 5 schools of magic: Ki, Faith, Psycho, Nature, and Optical. Each has a variety of spells in offense and defense, as well as the ability to afflict or cleanse status effects. Your entire arsenal can’t be spells, as you’ll need to devote some of your arsenal to Aura Particles, the resource needed to cast spells. Think of it like mana from Magic: The Gathering. Spells can target opponents from all kinds of directions. Some travel in straight lines or even underground towards the foe. Some follow parabolic arcs. Some even curve, too. Fun fact about Phantom Dust: All horizontal curving spells curved to the right, which made getting cover to your left important when going head to head with an opponent. Spells had a limited number of uses, at which point you had to go back to your spawn point to pick up another spell. You could have 4 spells mapped at any one time, one for each face button. The objective is simple: deplete your opponent’s life points.

There were some balance issues, sure, and although there was free DLC released that added some spells, it wasn’t quite 100% there. Nevertheless, this unique gameplay hybrid enthralled those who knew where to spend a really good $20. On top of that, there was a single player mode that had a fairly decent story with a nice twist near the end. In a sea of shooters, this thoughtful deckbuilding multiplayer arena game shone brightly.

Onstage at E3 2014, Ken Lobb stood and said that he wanted to revive IPs based on what he termed as good design. I watched as a familiar melody, the theme of the Underground started to play. I would have never believed it if I hadn’t heard it, but seeing Freia come out of a portal with the symbols of magic schools and battle a nameless character who has a striking resemblance to Edgar blew my mind. Something deep in the recesses of my mind recognized these characters before I could put names to them. The tagline, “The Battle for Reality Begins” implies that this may be a retelling of the original story. Here’s the trailer I was talking about:

Did you notice how the world transitioned from a living, normal environment to a ruined one? If you’ve played the first Phantom Dust there could be a clue here. But then again, why is Freia fighting Edgar? That shouldn’t be possible. Just the fact that they might be twisting some things around for the old-school fans has me excited.

While Phantom Dust is being remade by an American team at Microsoft the original producer, Yukio Futatsugi, is being brought on to the team. You may have played another game by that producer: it’s called Panzer Dragoon.

So enough about me gushing about the game. Why is it important to Xbox now?

The PlayStation 4 is winning the console war so far. The PlayStation brand also has more exclusives than the Xbox brand. It’s also important to diversify and give all ranges of players more reasons to buy an Xbox One. Killer Instinct came out of nowhere, and went from getting booed and ignored at EVO 2K13 to being arguably one of the top 3 of fighting games today.* Fighting game fans had a refreshed IP and a great design in Killer Instinct and I know that that sold some systems. Phantom Dust will sell systems to people who like that niche-ish deck-building gameplay.

Finally, it seems like Microsoft is interested in using a pricing model similar to Killer Instinct, which you can look at as free-to-play with a ceiling. For example, you can enjoy KI without ever spending a dime, or pay $5 to unlock a character. Unlocking all characters costs $20, and if you want everything the game has to offer, it’s $40. Phantom Dust would benefit from a pricing model like that because it will simply bring in more people to try the game.

I won’t make any apologies; Phantom Dust was my favorite announcement of the show. Phantom Dust is the kind of game Microsoft needs. Perhaps not a marquee game, but another game in the ecosystem to help convince you to buy into the platform. And honestly, if I didn’t have an Xbox One already, I would be getting one for Phantom Dust.

*If you must know, I say the top three, as far as awareness and tournament interest go, are Ultra Street Fighter 4, Smash Brothers, and Killer Instinct in that order. 

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