Genre : RPG
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Developer: Nippon Ichi
Release Date: August 31, 2004
Pre-order 'PHANTOM BRAVE': PlayStation 2
The third recent Strategy RPG offering from Nippon Ichi builds on their foundation of past success with technical innovation while maintaining stylistic continuity in their efforts to catch the leaders in RPG gaming. Now it is your turn to be a little orphan girl and take on all the bullies and evil spirits the rest of the world is afraid of….
The background story for Phantom Brave is fairly simple, although the opening is to the game is not quite so clear yet. Three warriors are ambushed and vanquished by an evil foe. Two were a couple with a child back home, and the third we’ll call Uncle Ash. In the midst of our heroes’ demise, we hear only from Uncle Ash, who vows to forever protect the couple’s child, Marona. Fast forward eight years – we find Ash is making good on his promise as protector – Marona lives on a private island, and Ash has been helping her make a living as a mercenary. Ash, our fallen hero now exists as a phantom trapped between life and death, helping sweet innocent Marona kill bullies and evil spirits all over the world for those who are too afraid to do it themselves.
Visually and audibly, this game is very much the same as its predecessors, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness and La Pucelle: Tactics. The game is built in a 2D, anime-inspired environment, with detailed sprites for characters. Attacks have animations with flashes, hit point counter, and character movement, but nothing over-the top. Spell animations are a bit flashier and sometimes surprising in size compared to physical attacks, but all appear on the battlefield to avoid independent cut-scenes for special attacks. Character battle operations include an easy to understand targeting and movement system, and menu-driven combat allows ample time to strategize the proper attack.
The game is broken up into typical RPG elements: cinematic scenes to progress the story between the 20 episodes, interaction with NPCs to define missions and maintain a compelling storyline, management of a potentially huge party of allies, and plenty of evenly-matched combat sequences encouraging frequent saves.
An original soundtrack was created for the game and average quality character voices follow the text displayed clearly on the screen. If you’ve seen Nippon Ichi’s other two recent RPGs, this one will feel very much the same. Nippon has learned a valuable lesson from another wildly popular RPG series; create a new game with the same basic appearance, style, and operation as the last so the player can jump right in to a completely new story.
Although Social Services would take a dim view of Ash’s actions, it appears to be the best option, as rent needs to be paid and Marona is an outcast labeled as possessed because of her association with a Phantom. To top it all off, Marona is the sweetest, most innocent and selfless girl in the galaxy, with a vision that unending kindness will eventually sway public opinion in her favor. This apparent travesty against Marona really evokes the player to set the story straight and keep moving through the episodes.
Marona’s adventures create the storyline, as she takes on oppressors around the world in twenty episodes that can take well over one hundred hours to complete, but this is surely not a task Marona and Ash can take on alone. Thankfully, Marona can also communicate with the rest of the phantom world, and there is a ready supply of phantoms determined to help Marona fight oppression at all costs. Each type has special skills, and when just the first episode is complete, the types of phantoms at her disposal exceeds ten.
The game strategy has essentially two ways to progress through Phantom Brave; either take a lot of time to level up your characters before meeting formidable opponents, or take a lot of time to learn how characters, weapons and the combat interface work together to make success possible. Learning the system can almost seem an insane task at first, but after the second episode Phantom Brave is far more enjoyable if combat and upgrade skills are well understood.
Even with all the options and development duties necessary to be a success, battle is still the primary function, and here is where Nippon Ichi has made considerable progress. The battlefield is gridless, making it look much like a normal playable landscape, and allowing characters to move in any direction desired. Truly, this creates the flexibility and efficiency to maximize every inch of character movement, which is a necessity as Marona begins each battle alone.
Let the insanity begin ... can you figure out all of these options?
In order for each of Merona’s phantom friends to enter the battle, she must “confine” them to an object on the battlefield. These objects - plants, trees, rocks, bones, driftwood, and many other items including swords and books – all have dual attributes. Each item is either a weapon or a portal to bring the phantom into the game, depending on how Marona chooses to use the item. The simplest example is the rock, which increases defense and decreases speed when a phantom is confined to it, but both attack and defense increase when a phantom uses it as a weapon. With use, items level up attack strength and hit points to deflect injury from the possessor, but this also allows them to be destroyed for the remainder of the round.
Now that we know how players get on the field, it is important to note that phantoms are not going to stay for the entire battle. Each phantom will remain for a certain number of turns and then vaporize until the end of the battle. Thankfully, this number is predetermined, and Ash is the average example at five turns. This is where the strategy starts to take shape, as mobilizing a four-turn character at the beginning of the battle would be a huge mistake if they were needed later in the sequence. Turn order is also fixed, so the order in which you confine will also become an important consideration as the episodes become more difficult.
Integrate confining with the toss ability, and the more complex tactics of the game start to appear. Characters can use any other character as a weapon, permanently toss enemies off the battlefield, toss weapons between each other, and toss players across the board to speed them into battle. The battles are pretty straight forward, but each battle can be so close that one incorrect move by any ally can doom the group, making efficient play a necessity.
If the complexities of battle weren’t enough, administration of the team is just as mind boggling. Up to 50 phantoms and weapons can be active at one time, but a small, well-rounded team is crucial to gaining the experience necessary to continue through the episodes. With all the interacting effects of battle and administration combined with the need for careful execution of the battle itself, Phantom Brave has created a battle interface that will require careful thought many hours into the game. If all this tactical work gives you a headache like you had from math class, a team may also level up on side missions to handily win the new battles, although it is not near as challenging.
Overall, Phantom Brave looks to be a progressive step forward for Nippon Ichi, by increasing the variability of game play while maintaining the familiar feel of prior offerings. Everything indicates Phantom Brave will be Nippon’s best offering yet, and while they are promoting over 100 hours of play, it seems they are shooting for 100 hours of entertainment, instead of some RPG’s 10 hours of excitement and 90 hours of repetition. With a compelling story, good visuals, and tactics that could challenge the skills of a Brigadier General, it looks like Nippon might hit their mark.
**NOTE: Phantom Brave: Special Edition hits the streets August 31, 2004, but if you pre-order through some stores like EBGames, Gamestop, Babbages, Amazon, and GameCrazy you will get the original soundtrack composed for the game on CD as a bonus!