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Armored Core: Project Phantasma (PlayStation) artwork

Armored Core: Project Phantasma (PlayStation) review

"Despite the fact that you can play it as a standalone adventure, the experience feels incomplete if you haven't first played Armored Core."

The first thing you need to understand about Armored Core: Project Phantasma is that it's not a sequel; it's an add-on pack. Despite the fact that you can play it as a standalone adventure, the experience feels incomplete if you haven't first played Armored Core. There's nothing wrong with that, especially since this game retailed for less than full price when it launched in North America in 1998. Still, everything on the jewel case indicates that Project Phantasma is a fully independent title, when in reality that's only true in a technical sense.

In Project Phantasma, your mech, your credits, and any Human Plus abilities you may have acquired carry over from the original game's save file. That actually poses a bit of a problem, since the game's missions are balanced to favor new players who are only using the starter mech and building up a base of credits. Really, it couldn't have been handled any other way, since making the game impossible from the start wouldn't be fair to anyone unfortunate enough to pick up the title in ignorance. If Project Phantasma had arrived on a later generation of consoles, it wouldn't have needed to be sold as a standalone and could have avoided this problem. Alas, since it came in 1998, there was no way for developer From Software to truly give the expansion to the first game that they are trying for here. In short: veterans will sail through the missions with ease.

A major difference in those missions is how directly they tell the main story. The questionably named Doomsday Organization is creating the eponymous project, and your character is hired by fellow mercenary Sumika (a woman in a pink mech) to find out exactly what the project is and stop it. There are fewer missions this time, and none of them are as memorable as those offered in the first game. If not viewed as a side story to the first game, the adventure offered in Project Phantasma is banal. While Armored Core relied on mystery, and perhaps even left a little too much unsaid, this game tells a familiar science fiction tale in the most straightforward manner.

Project Phantasma is notable, however, for its introduction of an arena in which the player can challenge pilots and work his way up the rankings. This mode is the game's saving grace and, unlike the missions, provides challenge to players of all experience levels. It's true that the first few lower ranked pilots are easy targets, but the battles get increasingly difficult. Some pilots have Human Plus abilities and others have hidden parts that were only available in the previous game. Even returning players will find a stiff challenge in these foes, and their inclusion alone makes the game worthwhile.

A replay mode makes it possible to watch failed battles and note exactly what changes to your mech and fighting style need to be made, and so the system of trial and error from the first game receives another layer in the arena. Mercifully, ammunition and repair costs are ignored in arena mode. As the player moves up through the rankings, he is rewarded with parts and credits. Think of it as a kinder, gentler version of the absolutely brutal trial, error, and painful (or brilliant, according to your preference) analysis process from the first game. You have nothing to lose except your time in arena mode, not your hard-earned credits.

The final part awarded in arena mode is absurdly powerful, and makes the already easy missions even easier. The Doomsday Organization's final weapon (and the final boss) will fall in a matter of seconds if directly targeted with this weapon. That may sound silly, but it shows where the priorities of Project Phantasma are: the arena is the main attraction, the missions a mere side venture. The subtitle of the next game in the series, Master of Arena, speaks to the popularity of this mode. That game came with an entire second disc filled with arena challenges, in addition to the main arena mode offered on the first disc. I wouldn't quite say you should skip this entry in the series and head right for its sequel (which, again, carries over saves from either of the previous games), but I would suggest that it is best thought of as a transitional experience between the two. Armored Core focuses on complex and varied missions, Master of Arena demands...well, mastery of arena mode. Project Phantasma is somewhere in between, offering neither the number and quality of missions found in the former, nor the sheer number of arena opponents in the latter.

Does that make it a bad game? Not quite. If you liked Armored Core, you should definitely play this game simply for the joy of putting your meticulously crafted machine through a new series of challenges. The missions are nothing you can't live without, but the arena is a massively important step forward in the series. Should you try it as a standalone experience? I don't recommend it, especially when you have the first game available as a much more viable option.

Germ's avatar
Staff review by Jeremy Davis (February 16, 2015)

Jeremy plays video games, sometimes.

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