Phantom Dust is the kind of game that comes along once in a blue moon. It's a sleeper that will probably be overlooked by most gamers because it's a budget title and won't be promoted anywhere near as heavy as something like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It's best described as an adult version of YU-GI-OH as it uses a card-based battle system - but in real-time. It blends strategy, action and luck and is a lot of fun to play but it really needs the support of online gamers to make it irresistible.

Before you even attempt to go online you're going to have to deal with the single-player story mode. The story is convoluted and almost ruins the experience but you have to make your way through it to acquire your cards, which are referred to here as skills. There are 340 skills in all. You can win them by completing mission, purchase them from shops or trade them online. There are 40 rare skills which can only be acquired by accomplishing some rather difficult missions.

Duels are what you live for in the game. You'll have to talk to an awful lot of dud characters to find a good fight. All too often these characters will have plenty to say about nothing but you keep listening in case they leave you a clue. Do they give valuable clues? I'm not going to spoil anything for you, you should suffer as I did.

Duels take place in real time. Once you have collected a number of skills you put them into your arsenal which is essentially your deck. You are only allowed four skills for any one battle. The CPU picks them for you randomly and also chooses another three which are locked inside spheres. You can use these skills by replacing them with the ones that the CPU has chosen. All of the skills have to be activated by aura particles. The higher the level of your skill the more aura particles will be required. They are also stored with your skills, in your arsenal, which has 30 slots.

Skills differ in strengths and uses. Some can be used to attack as in launching a fireball while others can be used as shields for defense purposes. These skills are kind of like magical powers but they have to be used with a good degree of skill on the player's behalf since they require timing and coordination. You can block or even counter attacks if you have the right skill available and are able to put it into play at the precise moment your opponent releases his attack. Some skills will give you the ability to fly, others allow you take away some of your opponent's skills. Stacking your deck with the appropriate skills is where the strategy comes in. You also have to learn to adapt quickly to best use the skills which are randomly selected for you so you'll want to make sure you have a only the best skills in your deck.

You can also move around in real-time to dodge attacks or take cover behind the various obstacles in the arena. The environments are totally destructible, allowing you to take advantage of the situation by destroying support beams and walls in an effort to crush your opponent with falling debris.

Some skills can only be used once while others can be reused. If you run out of skills before the dual is over you will rapidly deplete your life points and ultimately lose the match. The only way to win a match is to deplete your opponent's life points by having him run out of skills and hitting him with various attacks.

Online you can purchase more skills or trade them with other players. New skills have, and will, be made available for downloading in the future which will keep things fresh for as long as there are players to use them. Quick Match and Opti Match modes are available online as well as a Skill Store, trading lobby and a worldwide ranking. Up to four players can be accommodated online.

Graphically the game is surprising rich in detail and quality. The environments are well animated with plenty of activity going on in the background. There are a lot of onscreen meters and gauges to keep track of which can be distracting at times. The music is well balanced and features a symphonic score which is almost unheard of for a budget title.

It seems to me that Phantom Dust was never intended to be released as a budget title. The production values are just too high. Don't hesitate to take advantage of this game; some company's loss is your gain.

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System: XBOX
Dev: MicroSoft Japan
Pub: Majesco
Released: March 2005
Players: 1 - 4
Review by Shelby