If you've been following the release lists for a while, Microsoft's Xbox has been looking like the place to be for fans of big robots. There were an amazing amount of laser-firing ironclad games announced early on, and for gamers like me that was great news. However, I'm starting to wonder how many of these titles will actually deliver high quality action thanks to the subpar releases seen so far. The string of metallic letdowns got an early start with the lackluster Gun Metal, and was followed up by the completely wretched Robotech: Battlecry. I'm quite disappointed to report that Genki's Phantom Crash has joined the ranks of these underpowered units and continues the streak. There are still a number of promising robot games coming like Murakumo, Mech Assault, Battle Engine Aquila and the now infamous Steel Battalion (known for its massive controller peripheral), but I'd be lying if I said this trend didn't have me a little concerned.
In any event, Phantom Crash is an urban-flavored combat game set amidst a polluted and abandoned version of a future Japan. "Rumbling" is the newest sport to sweep the populace, and you're there to take part in it. Basically, the gist of Rumbling is that a swarm of robots lock, load, and go at each other in small arenas. Without exaggerating, there's really not much else to the story or the game except you're there to learn the ropes and become the best. (Naturally.)
After getting the disc running, you're given some money and then left to wade through the stylized introductory sequence, fat front end and confusing menu screens. It eventually becomes clear with a bit of trial and error, but the way the game starts off is akin to being dropped in the middle of the busiest street in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. The instruction manual is little help.
After fumbling around for a while and skipping through the decades of voluminous prattle from characters that look like Jet Set Radio refugees, you'll eventually spend your loot and come away with one of these fighting mechs, called Scoobees (short for Scoot Vehicle). The controls use practically every button on the Xbox's controller. Movement is handled by the left stick, looking and turning are mapped to the right. Each shoulder button fires the corresponding left or right arm weapon, B and Y launch shoulder weapons, A is jump, X is a cool Predator-style camouflage effect, and the Black and White buttons trigger side-dashes which can also be performed with a double-tap of the left stick.
The way the controller is laid out is pretty close to being comfortable, but a nagging problem was that when you use your right hand to fire a shoulder weapon, you can't simultaneously use the right stick to turn or aim unless you're some kind of spider/primate hybrid. Forward, backward and lateral movement is still possible with the left stick, but it feels clunky and impractical to let your crosshairs go limp during a firefight.
Once you get past the controls and yet more aggressively frivolous dialogue, you'll find the real meat of Phantom Crash is contained in the plentiful mech customization options. There are a large number of parts such as weapons, legs and bodies to choose from, and after making a few purchases its possible to fine-tune any of the items you have. By tweaking this equipment, you can alter not only the physical form of your Scoobee, but also the properties of its components. For example, you can increase the "heaviness" of a gun and ratchet up the attack power, but by doing so you'll increase its weight. If you want a nimbler and more maneuverable unit, you'll want to "lighten" the gun, but that reduces its potency. There are a number of other things to fiddle with including the onboard A.I. units (which are represented by icons of animals), the paint schemes or one of several decorative decals. There's little doubt that most aficionados of mech games will find this aspect of the disc to be satisfying, and in truth it's an excellent system.
Sadly, in spite of the substantial and engrossing customization options, the overall experience offered by Phantom Crash completely falls apart when you realize that the actual gameplay consists of nothing more than grubbing money for more upgrades through unbearably repetitive and identical melees.
The game's one-note single-player action is nothing but an endless string of deathmatches versus the computer with only a measly three arenas in which to fight (not counting the practice area). The quality of combat is fine, but besides the Rumbling there is literally nothing to do except "visit" five different item shops and fiddle with your Scoobee. Such an extremely limited main mode might have been passable with the strength of the customization if the story was able to keep interest high, but the writers have achieved something about as interesting as listening to a roomful of kindergartners arguing the merits of Barney and the Teletubbies. These non-interactive encounters amount to little more than digital flatulence with no sense of development or depth to be seen.
With such a ridiculously miniscule amount of peripheral and supporting content to promote immersion, the game loses most of its entertainment value and instead emanates an aura of myopia and pointlessness.
Insultingly, after being let down by the horribly unbalanced game design, there was actually an obscenely large amount of music to listen to and purchase. There are dozens of tracks here running the aural gamut with everything from driving techno to sticky, saccharine J-Pop. Such a fleshy soundtrack is impressive, but I can't help but think that the overall product might have been better had they put less effort into filling up the jukebox and more into beefing up the play, modes and story!
Phantom Crash is a disappointing game made even more so by the sheer amount of untapped potential. Despite the great ideas so clearly evident in the customization, its mind-boggling that Genki assumes the feature would be satisfying enough to ignore developing the rest of the game. Hardcore item-management fetishists might find some joy here, there's simply not enough balance or content for Phantom Crash to stand on its own, much less measure up to the competition (I'm looking at you, Armored Core 3). While not without a small measure of charm, it ends up as being an inexplicably quirky, underdeveloped and limited title that could have been quite respectable if there had just been more to it.