Let’s face it, videogaming is an expensive hobby, and with triple A and first run titles steadily edging up in price, it almost takes a second job to stay current. Certainly it’s much easier on the pocketbook to wait a few months for the price to drop, but usually by then the average gamer is entranced by the vistas of electric bliss that the latest releases promise.

When a little 20-dollar game by the name of Katamari Damacy hit US shores last fall, nobody expected the depth of gameplay, fun, and quality production value that it delivered for such a low price. Here was a game that proved that you don’t have to spend $50-55 for a new release that wasn’t a hunting simulator or children’s edutainment title. In fact, it was so successful that some dared to hope that other publishers would start offering more high quality quirky titles, creating a trend.

Majesco, it seems, has taken this ball and ran with it, having secured the publishing rights to Phantom Dust(designed by Panzer Dragoon Saga creator Yukio Futatsugi) and setting the price at a paltry $19.99. Developed and released in Japan by Microsoft Studios, who apparently lacked the confidence to release it stateside, Phantom Dust certainly feels like a Japanese title, something you’d more likely see in one of those other platforms rather than the Xbox. It’s a rather interesting hybrid of RPG and Action elements, with a nicely realized ‘card-based’ combat system. The back-story is a variant of your standard post-apocalyptic setting- the surface world has been consumed by the ‘phantom dust’, rendering the world’s population amnesiac and forcing them to live underground. An interesting side effect grants a select few the ability to use the dust to fuel a variety of psionic skills. Your character (whose name you get to choose upon awakening) and another dust user by the name of Edgar are found side by side in a pair of mysterious sarcophagi as the game begins, with the only hint of your past a locket around Edgar’s neck with a picture of a mysterious and beautiful woman…

Interestingly enough, I found the graphics to be the weakest part of this game, and they are actually pretty good. The environments are very nice, with the whole world just brimming over with clutter, giving a very effective post-apocalyptic feel to it. The battle areas are almost fully destructible, which I’ll talk more about in the gameplay section, but this level of interactivity doesn’t carry over into the ‘base’ areas, where movement can be hampered by a few bits of trash on the floor. Skill effects are great, and varied enough to be able to differentiate from the 300+ available. The one thing that made me go “hunh?” was the odd character design, which are predominantly reminiscent of the Aeon Flux cartoons. Actually, I rather liked most of the highly stylized and flavorful NPC designs, even the jiggly blimp people wearing space mumus with disco collars (you buy your skills from this rather colorful individual). No, it’s the main character design that had me scratching my head, looking something like a cross between David Bowie and a chimpanzee. Luckily, you aren’t subjected to a front-on view of yourself very often, so don’t let that deter you from an otherwise great experience.

I was fully expecting some kind of blah techno mish-mash due to the post-apocalyptic genre, especially in this American release, but I was pretty impressed when I heard riffs of several classical tunes, most notably Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. After a little research I discovered that notable Sega composer Takahiro Yagi was responsible for the wonderfully moody soundtrack, which, apparently, is selling quite well in Japan. Of course if for you the genre just isn’t the same without the potential to bust out into a rave scene ala’ Matrix Revolutions, there is always the option to listen to your own custom soundtrack.

Sound effects are quite adequate- the lasers sound like lasers and the explosions like explosions, nothing earth shattering, though. Voice-over is pretty sparse and seems to have suffered a bit in the localization. Most of the story plays out in text balloons, however, so it’s not that big a deal.

I love simplicity in controls, it just makes the fun (if its there) arrive that much sooner. That said, the controls in Phantom Dust are definitely simple, and I got used to them relatively quickly. Movement is handled by the main joystick, while the second one controls direction, the standard for most FPS and action games. The A, B, X, and Y buttons correspond to the skills you pick up – The UI has four slots, each one corresponding to the buttons on the gamepad, and using a button puts the skill in that slot on the axis, while pushing additional times activates that skill. Additionally, pressing the corresponding direction on the d-pad can bring up skill details. The only time things get a little wonky is in the camera controls, handled by the triggers. The right trigger selects or deselects an enemy, popping up a reticule that changes color according to distance, while the left trigger selects another enemy if there are any other present. This scheme takes a little getting used to and they key is to know when to deselect. On some of the maps with tight quarters and multiple floors keeping that reticule on your enemy will result in a nauseating spin.

The old phrase “Simple to learn, hard to master” definitely applies here, and Phantom Dust is nice mix of RPG, Strategy and Action that somehow never seems too derivative of anything before it.

The Scenario mode is where the RPG elements come into play, thrusting you into a path to regain your memory and try to figure how the world got so darn screwed up in the first place. You spend the game alternately going to the surface to complete missions, and building up your arsenals (think decks) and talking to your comrades in the underground base (which often helps you find new missions). The weakest aspect of the game lies in the base segments in between the matches; You sometimes have to spend an obnoxious amount of time running around through the same areas, talking to NPCs over and over again in the hopes that they will unlock the next mission, with very little clue as to who it is you are supposed to go to in order to progress the game. It feels like more could have been done here to make this part of the game more compelling, but it doesn’t really detract from the fun all that much.

The first full level, consisting of several missions, is intended to be a training in the different types of skills, dropping these skills in a predetermined fashion on the map rather than letting select from a pool. The thing is, after the third mission, I thought that the training portion of the game was over, which led to several missions that had me growing exponentially more worried that this was all the game had to offer. Thankfully, this was not the case, and once the first level was complete, I was learning the ins and outs of arsenal management.

This game has one of the best systems for match-based combat that I have ever seen, utilizing the ‘collectible card game’ mechanic so popular in Japan to great effect. Think ‘Magic the Gathering’ and you’ll have combat halfway figured out already. Your main focus lies in collecting skills, which fall into the types attack, defense, erase, status, environmental, and special. These skills are of varying degrees of rarity and power level and are governed by different ‘schools’ (Psycho- telekinetic based, Optical- light based, Nature- environment based, Ki- psychological stamina based, and Faith- will based), additionally being categorized by a type, such as shell and arc type describing projectile attacks, and barrier and reflection type describing defensive skills. These skills can be assembled into Arsenals with 30 slots, adhering to a maximum of two or three schools depending on the kind of arsenal used. Arsenals can’t be composed entirely of skills, however, because skills are for the most part powered by aura particles (think mana), and it’s generally a good idea to keep around half of your arsenal as aura. Something else to consider is that some skills can be used over and over while others are used once and then disappear. It may seem convoluted, but it’s actually rather simple to grasp, and once you do a nice range of complexity and customization emerges as you learn to tweak and fine-tune your arsenals. During each mission you are thrust into a field of battle with a ‘hand’ of four skills and three to choose from on the field. As you pick them up, more appear to replace them, until your arsenal is exhausted. Once you pick up all 30 skills from your arsenal, you very quickly start losing health and die. Be careful, as you don’t want to stray too far from your starting point/ skill drop-zone, and you also don’t want to overwrite you good skills with new ones trying to attack or defend there.

Environments are destructible and you can actually use them in your strategy, either by hiding behind a wall or throwing a chunk of rubble at your enemy, or even collapse part of the roof on them! All this plays out in real time, adding a nice visceral edge to the experience that just can’t be had with turn based play so common with other games using the CCG mechanic. With 300 skills to choose from, the depth of play here is staggering. There’s even a way to replay every mission you have passed in a practice area if you’d like to test out new strategies. Also, each mission lasts an average of about seven minutes, encapsulating the game into bite-size morsels, great for the casual gamer and diehard alike. I found myself squeezing in a match or two on my lunch break several times.

One final thing I must mention is that at no point during scenario mode did I have to consciously save the game unless I was changing my arsenal, it was all automatic. I have to admit, it was refreshing to just let the game do it for me, and at no point did I feel like it hampered gameplay.

No bones about it, this game was made to shine in multiplayer. My score for this section literally shot up ten points once I started playing real people on Live and in split-screen (system link is supported, too). Guaranteed to cause full-blown addiction among die-hard gamers, Phantom Dust takes full advantage of the Xbox Live experience, giving online players the opportunity to test their arsenals against living, breathing opponents. Content downloads have already been made available, including skills that are only awarded according to strict criteria met by online play, such as one that you can get only after winning 30 online matches. Here’s hoping we’ll see some new maps in the near future.

With no story to bog it down, the multiplayer experience allows you to conduct your business through a series of menus rather than making your way though the underground base, a nicely stripped down process that lets you get to the meat of the game that much quicker. Needless to say, the game’s AI can’t compare to the variety of strategies employed by real people, and as more people start playing and more content becomes available, I just expect the game to get better and better.

Of course, there’s also that fact that there are over 300 skills to collect, lending an obvious ‘gotta catch ’em all’ to the mix. The amount of arsenals that you can create and manage is a whopping 30, allowing for a strategy for every occasion and opponent.