Phantom Dust is now available on Xbox One and Windows 10. The game made it onto both stores late last night, after some unexpected teething problems. I decided to jump right in and play the first half-hour or so.
 
Phantom Dust kicks off with an intro cutscene that I can only describe as ‘very Futatsugi’, reminiscent as it is of the director’s more well-known Panzer Dragoon. A voice over tells us that no one knows when or why the world changed, after the surface was poisoned by a mysterious dust that brought aggressive apparitions and erased the memories of the human population. Driven underground to survive, people abandoned their cities. But some people were affected differently. To them, the dust gifted psychic powers, and these Espers now roam the surface looking for relics of the past, and clues to the world that was lost. We see two mysterious new Espers discovered in strange stone sarcophagi, and I have to admit, my mind immediately jumped back to Azel’s discovery in Panzer Dragoon Saga.
 
After that, you’re into the game proper, and cast as one of these two new amnesiacs. After choosing a name – because no one can remember theirs, of course – you set out to help the inhabitants of the world beneath the surface, working for an organisation called Vision. I played up to the end of chapter 1, where you have a short showdown with a character that is obviously going to become very important, and so far I’m having a lot of fun. It certainly seems like there’s a lot to learn, though. For the uninitiated, Phantom Dust is a third-person arena combat game where you use a variety of skills that periodically appear near your starting position. These will later be drawn from your player-defined arsenal, taking inspiration from collectible card games, though in the early stages you’re given some beginner skills just to get your head around the various mechanics in play.

There’s a fair bit to remember with these skills – it’s not just about what they do, but how they do it. For instance, range has an effect here, with certain skills being more effective at certain distances, which is denoted by your reticle colour (red for close range, yellow for mid and green for long range). As an example, Bullet of Fire will throw a flaming attack in a straight line to your enemy, but will likely miss if you aren’t at medium distance, while laser is a long-range attack that fires out in a curve, often hitting scenery if you aren’t paying enough attention to your surroundings (and dishing out some pleasing environmental destruction as something of a consolation). You quickly start to take mental notes for each skill, but so far there’s been maybe a dozen in play, and apparently the game contains over three hundred!

Hmm. I wonder what they drink in a post-apocalyptic world covered in crazy dust.

Of course, it’s not all about offense, you’ll need to try to upset your opponents attacks too. You’ll get some defense skills for this, which, if timed well, can really save your bacon. An early favourite is About Face, which captures your enemy’s attack and sends it right back at them. Firing off your own attack immediately afterwards seems like a useful early-game combo to get used to. I mentioned earlier that skills will periodically appear at your spawn location, and this is important because you can only hold a small handful of these abilities at once, with some being single-use. You can overwrite these with new skills whenever they’re available to mix up your strategy.

I really am still at the very beginning of the learning stage in Phantom Dust – Chapter 1 is basically an extended tutorial – but I can’t wait to get back to it and try out more skills and strategies. As a lifelong Panzer Dragoon fan, it feels great to finally play what was effectively a lost Yukio Futatsugi game, and for free, too! Phantom Dust may be 13 years old now, but it’s still a very striking game; the textures clean up very well indeed, giving the image a very clean presentation despite its age, and the art direction and sense of atmosphere is excellent. The music is also very distinct, taking some recognisable classical pieces and messing with them a bit so that they’re just wrong enough to make you feel a touch uneasy, and the very first sound you hear on the title screen is so Twin Peaks it immediately gets under my skin. I’m intrigued by the story – Futatsugi has always been good with the whole lost civilization/ancient knowledge thing – and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

As I said the other day when the final release was announced, it’s a fantastic idea to give this away for free and get it into people’s hands, especially as it had such a limited release in the past. Hopefully, with more people able to try it out, it’ll strengthen calls for a new entry and get Microsoft to really think about trying again. And if they do, I really hope they get Futatsugi involved.

Keep an eye on A Game with Chums, where we’ll be playing the game in the coming weeks!


This March saw the release of NieR Automata, a pseudo-sequel to a cult favourite that I came to rather late, yet absolutely adored. An average-on-the-face-of-it game that was far more than the sum of its parts, Cavia and Yoko Taro’s action RPG immediately became one of my favourite games of its generation.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that I was incredibly excited for Automata. On paper it seemed like a dream project: here was a collaboration between Yoko Taro and Platinum Games, with Keiichi Okabe returning on soundtrack duties and Akihiko Yoshida handling the art. If I was going to assemble a team to make a new NieR game, I couldn’t hope for a better group than that. Basically, I was expecting this to be my game of the year before it was even out.

Unfortunately, I’ve been really struggling to get into it, and that genuinely makes me sad.

It’s important to note that so far I’ve only played through Route A and maybe about two-thirds of Route B, so I’ve by no means seen everything the game has to offer. Like the first, this is a game that needs to be played through a handful of times to really understand what’s going on, so it’s entirely possible that by the time I’m done I’ll adore it like I do the first. So far though, I’m not really feeling it. I’ll explain why, and while I’ll do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, bear in mind some mild plot and character discussion (for both games!) follows.

The first time you play through NieR Automata, you’ll experience the story from the perspective of 2B, the wonderfully designed gothic Lolita android warrior. It’s a good thing that she looks so fantastic (thanks Yoshida!), because she comes across as a little dull in her own campaign, as does boyish sidekick 9S (I’M NEVER GOING TO CALL YOU NINES, GET OVER IT); there’s just no one here that has the impact of Kaine or Weiss, two characters that quickly became two of my favourite jRPG party members. That would be fairly forgivable if the story grabbed me but, the first time through, NieR Automata just feels like a disconnected series of events: you’ll go to a new region, something seemingly quite important will happen, and you’ll have no opportunity to process the event or what it might mean for the world and its characters. You’re simply told to go somewhere else where another apparently-important thing happens. Without any proper reflection on these events I felt like there was no cohesive thread pulling me through the story, almost as if I was playing through a succession of side-quests that didn’t feed back into the core narrative. Why should I care about all this if I’m not given a reason to?

If he’s Nines, does that make her Toobz?

Ok, fair enough, as I said above we’re supposed to play these games a handful of times to get the full picture. The first game was the same, right? Well, yes and no. In NieR‘s Route A, we had no idea what had happened to the world, or why people from 1,300 years ago were seemingly alive in the present with no memory of the past. We had no idea what our enemies, the Shades, were, we knew nothing of the Black Scrawl or the grimoires or the Shadowlord. What we did know, however, was that the protagonist’s daughter was sick and he’d do anything in the world to save her. The mysteries of the world worked because we had that personal bond to focus on, that quest to save Yonah that pulled us through the story. There is no such thing in Automata‘s Route A. There’s just stuff happening. And it’s happening to people you don’t really care about.

So I forced myself through Route A, reminding myself of how transformative the original game’s second playthrough was, and hoping – expecting – for something equally as revelatory here. So far I’ve been disappointed. The second time through, you play as 9S, who has a few extra tricks up his impeccably-tailored sleeves, like the ability to hack enemies to weaken or outright destroy them. Interestingly, this can also be used outside of combat to quite literally peak into the minds of others and find out what makes them tick. Unfortunately, this seems to be used mainly in side-quests while the story of Route B is mostly a re-tread of Route A. This is unsurprising given how much of the game 9S and 2B spend together, and I am looking forward to a later part of the story where they become separated for a time. But, while there are little insights peppered throughout such as learning the motivations of a couple of bosses (think Beepy and Kalil, but nowhere near as awesome/harrowing), it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact that Route B in the first game did, where your entire understanding of the world, your enemies and even your allies was completely turned on its head.

So far, Automata has displayed precious little of what made the original game so special; there’s none of the heart and emotion that made the first game and its characters so magnetic. That’s probably to be expected in a world inhabited solely by androids and machines of course, but it does make it a little difficult to care about. Don’t get me wrong though, I do enjoy the act of playing the game – basic combat is far more enjoyable here, thanks to Platinum’s involvement, and it’s wonderfully animated. I love the balletic movements of the characters in battle, and the perfect dodge is a thing of absolute beauty, reminiscent of Bayonetta at her acrobatic best. And then there’s the bullet hell sections, which manage to feel more distinct than they did in the original thanks to the introduction of flight units that transform the game into an actual, honest-to-god shmup for a few minutes at a time.

However, these segments also drive home how comparatively lacking Automata is in gameplay variety. Whereas the first game delighted in switching things up constantly, feeling like a Zelda clone one moment, taking inspiration from classic Resident Evil the next, and even heading into text adventure territory in a couple of places, NieR Automata is an action RPG with occasional shooter segments. It’s all good stuff, but it does leave the game feeling a touch less inventive than its predecessor. Then there’s the bosses, which are almost all impressively-screen-filling monstrosities, yet end up feeling a bit less imaginative than the original’s bizarre, otherworldy beasts like Hook or Wendy, and the pod program special attacks that just aren’t as cool as Weiss’ sealed verses.

These are all relatively minor issues, to be fair – the main source of my disappointment is with the story, world and characters, and I want to reiterate that I am genuinely saddened by this. I really don’t want to come across as if I’m trying to convince people not to like NieR Automata – I’m absolutely thrilled that more people are discovering Yoko Taro’s work, and I hope this gets him more exposure and the chance to make more weird, heartrending games that crawl under your skin and refuse to leave. Automata has been very well received, so I’m more than prepared to admit that I’m the odd one out here, and I really just want to love it as much as everyone else does.

There seems to be a general consensus that Route C is where it really starts to make an impact, and I’ve been advised by some to just rush through to that. That feels like it’s missing the point somewhat though – I’m disappointed that I’ve spent, so far, around 25 hours with the game and found none of what I loved about the first NieR. But hey, I’m still plugging away, and I’m hopeful that, once I’ve got that far, I’ll love Automata as much as I do the original. I’ll be sure to revisit this and write up some more thoughts once I properly finish the game, at which point I hope NieR Automata sits comfortably alongside the original as one of the most memorable games I’ve ever experienced.

Less than two weeks ago, we saw our first footage of the HD re-release of Yukio Futatsugi’s cult Xbox classic, Phantom Dust. At the time, I wondered how Microsoft might go about making the game available to players, as Creative Director Adam Isgreen hinted that fans would be very happy about the price. ‘Perhaps we might see it launch on Games with Gold in June,’ I thought.

Well, now we know, thanks to Xbox marketing head Aaron Greenberg, who dropped this little nugget of news on Twitter just minutes ago.

Well that came out of nowhere, huh!? It’s great that Microsoft is getting it out into everyone’s hands, and a good month before E3 too, so that it doesn’t get drowned out by all the news from the Expo. As this will be the first time the game will be released in Europe, I’m excited to finally get to play it, and I really hope it catches on and gives Microsoft a good reason to get the reboot back into production.

Here’s your weekly look at what’s new on A Game with Chums!

Monday saw the latest instalment of our continuing let’s play of Life is Strange, in which Max raided everybody’s dorm rooms, got her best friend headbutted, and then ran into her old chum Chloe. Or rather, Chloe almost ran into Max. Also, Chloe has a Twin Peaks license plate, so she’s pretty cool with me.

Part 4 of the series, which finishes up Episode 1, will be up tomorrow!

On Thursday, our newest quick look was P.T., Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s ill-fated playable teaser for the sadly-cancelled Silent Hills. We’re all still pretty cut up about that, as P.T. was an absolute masterclass in nerve-shredding tension. Dan and I had played the game at launch but Paul, not being a PS4 owner, had missed out and so he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. We made him play it, and he didn’t make it very far. This one’s best watched with headphones on.

I hope you enjoy the latest videos, and please do give us a like and subscribe if you do!

Oops! This was supposed to be posted over the weekend and called ‘This week on A Game with Chums’, but alas, time got away from me. Anyway, let’s take a look at what was new in the world of AGwC over the last week.

Monday saw a new episode in our new Let’s Play series for DONTNOD/Square Enix’s adventure game Life is Strange. As a reminder, these go up once a week (so there’s a new one up right now!). In this episode, Max explores her university campus, and we get to see a skater kid stack it and take a deck in the nads. Top stuff, not to be missed.

Next up is another pick-ups video, filmed once again in a pub. So we decided to call them piss-up pick-ups. Because we’re a classy lot.
Recorded on May Day, Paul and I decided to head out on a grey, rainy bank holiday to scour the local game stores and see what we could find. It’s not just games though, as we managed to pick up a bit of nerdy swag too. Check it out to see what we grabbed.

(I can only apologise for the thumbnail. Dan was absent that day, so we had to include him in some way. Yes, those are chess pawns in his eyes).

Finally, on Thursday we published a Quick Look video of Rare Replay, where we decided to play some of the compilation’s Snapshots – think mini-challenges not unlike Nintendo’s NES Remix. Watch in awe at our heroic attempts at the endless, infamous Turbo Tunnel from Battletoads, and be prepared to wear out the edge of your seat as we attempt to build a rocket and blast off in Jetpac!

Also, as a cool little aside, Rare replied to our tweet ❤

That's all for this week! I'll be back with another round-up later this week, but as stated above our latest episode – part 3 – of Life is Strange is now live on our channel. Be sure to give it a watch and leave us a comment if you enjoyed it!

One of the original Xbox’s cult favourites is coming to Xbox One and Windows 10 soon, and, courtesy of Polygon, we now have our first look at gameplay.

A quirky mix of Arena battler and Collectible Card Game, Phantom Dust was a Japanese exclusive for Microsoft’s original big black box, made by Sega alumnus Yukio Futatsugi, creator of the excellent Panzer Dragoon series. Sadly, the game never saw release in Europe, and was not made widely available in the States either, causing many to miss out on it. Thankfully, it’s now getting a second chance.

Co-developed by retro specialists Code Mystics, Phantom Dust HD brings the game to Xbox One in full, native 1080p (with support for arbitrary resolutions on the PC side), expands the screen ratio from its original 4:3 to 16:9, and brings back multiplayer functionality over Xbox Live. Adam Isgreen, Creative Director at Microsoft Studios Publishing, is careful not to label the game a remaster, instead choosing to call it a re-release, and he notes that, with the source code for the game lost, there was a limit to what the team at Code Mystics could do to bring the game up to date. Having said that, it sounds like the new HD version is using higher resolution development assets rather than the compressed textures and FMV files found on the original retail disc, and it’s clear to see that Phantom Dust now looks better than it ever has, sporting a much cleaner presentation.

Some changes have also been made to the way players build a card deck, with some free DLC aimed at getting players straight into multiplayer without having to cut their teeth in the campaign first. To facilitate this, players will now have separate saves for both modes; while single-player unlocks will feed into your multiplayer arsenal, multiplayer-earned cards won’t be available in your campaign run. While it may be disappointing to some that Phantom Dust HD isn’t a full-on remaster, with these and some other quality of life changes in place, it’s safe to say that it’s also more than a mere port of the original.

One point of contention will surely be that the game still runs at 30 frames per second, but Isgreen notes that the original was hard-coded to that refresh rate and that the team were unable to change it. “The entire engine was built around the game running at 30 FPS,” Isgreen told fans on Neogaf. “Everything in the code and data is either frames @ 30, assumes 30, or hard-coded to expect 30 FPS.” On the plus side, Phantom Dust HD will be a Play Anywhere title, so players that have access to both Xbox One and Windows 10 will be able to buy it once and have it available on both platforms.

The route Phantom Dust has taken on its way to Xbox One has been rather circuitous. At E3 2014, Microsoft announced a reboot with a flashy CGI trailer – a CGI trailer that it later transpired developer Darkside Games had never seen. The game was put on hold in 2015, resulting in the small developer closing its doors – Kotaku covered the story from the developer’s perspective. Microsoft insisted that they still had intentions to develop the title, but nothing has been heard since.

At E3 last year, in a post-conference stream with Geoff Keighley, General Manager of Microsoft Studios Publishing Shannon Loftis announced a port of the original game, to the surprise of many. It seemed to some that this was a sop to those disappointed by the cancellation of the reboot, but it was later revealed that Loftis had funded the port with some leftover budget from another project, and had kept Head of Xbox Phil Spencer out of the loop until she had something to show him. Spencer is a big proponent of the game himself, so it seems Phantom Dust‘s XBO outing is something of a passion project for many on the Xbox team.

Quite when Phantom Dust will release is yet to be confirmed, but Spencer has previously stated the idea was to have it out before E3. Isgreen also told Polygon that fans will be happy about the price; many will already be expecting a low price point, given its mid-2000’s looks, but the Microsoft exec also suggested that the idea is to get as many people playing the game as possible, suggesting a low barrier to entry. Perhaps we’ll actually see it launch on Games with Gold in the near future?

Many will also be wondering what this means for the future of the franchise, if it indeed has one. Could this be testing the waters for another crack at a reboot, should players respond positively to it? Time will tell. But with E3 on the horizon, and an interview with Phil Spencer, where he spoke of investing in first party, still fresh in their minds, fans will surely be hoping for some good news this June. For my part, I hope that Phantom Dust and the recent Voodoo Vince re-release are the start of a renewed focus on some of Microsoft’s older IPs.

A few days ago, I posted about a YouTube channel I’d started with a couple of friends, called A Game with Chums. Up until now, we’ve focused on random one-off Quick Looks, but as of yesterday we’ve embarked upon our first ever full Let’s Play. I’d like to invite you to join us as we play through DONTNOD’s critical hit Life is Strange.

I mentioned before that we upload videos every Monday and Thursday, so we’ve decided to make Monday our Let’s Play day. This Thursday, we’ll have something else for you in our Quick Look series, and then we’ll be getting back to Life is Strange again next Monday.

Also, I know we’re a bit quiet in this first part. Sorry about that, it took us a while to set up and then settle into it. We’ll be back in full force for Part 2! I hope you’ll enjoy the video and join us for the rest of the adventure, and if you do, please consider throwing us a like and hitting that sub button. Thanks!