Bleach: The Third Phantom wasn't at all what I was expecting on the DS. As a fan of the original Treasure-developed title and its follow-up, Dark Souls, I fully expected to find a straight-up fighter with online components. I also expected that the developers would expand upon the last two roster lineups with a story line that would bring everyone up to speed. Imagine my surprise when I popped in the cartridge to find out that Bleach: The Third Phantom is an SRPG that eschews all of the combat and fighting aspects of the previous games in favor of a brand-new plot by the series creator. It also tosses out everything with which I was familiar in order to provide a watered-down role-playing experience.
The title puts you in the role of one of two playable characters: Matsuri Kudo and her twin brother Fujimaru. These little tykes were saved by existing Soul Society members nearly a century prior to the events in the anime and manga, and the story featured here is unique to the game, but still penned by Tite Kubo. It seems to be an alternate or side story to the events that we're already familiar with, but it's difficult to tell if this will become canon or an alternate universe tale. Most fan favorite characters show up in some form or other. I'd compare it to one of the film off-shoots of the series, which stand alone and don't interfere with the main story too much. There is some interesting stuff about the more mysterious characters in that universe, so it'll be interesting to see some of this referenced in future plots.
The covered timeline goes from past to present day over a 20-hour campaign. As you advance in the game, you'll increase your roster, which consists of about 180 possible characters. You can only take a small set with you into battle, but you can switch out characters in between and change up the roster depending on who you like. Leveling is easy enough; for every person that someone kills, he'll get a boost, and there are a lot of aspects that are comparable to Fire Emblem, right down to the "rock- paper- scissors" style of combat.
The combat is grid-based, using little chibi-like renditions of Bleach characters on the battlefield, where you'll take turns moving them around and placing them adjacent (or diagonally) across from enemies before initiating attacks. There are a few interesting things that the combat has, like the ability to assign teammates prior to a battle, so two characters can work together to perform more devastating attacks. For the most part, though, you'll find that combat is pretty straightforward. One other thing that's unique to this title is the placement of certain points on the battlefield where players can charge up characters, either to increase their attributes and power, or to possibly unleash their super powerful Bankai forms, which fans of the anime will be a little familiar with.
Unfortunately, while the combat is decent enough for an SRPG title, it's bogged down in unintuitive menu designs and baffling walls of text prior to the fights. Bleach is a straight-up action series, so the manga and anime are pretty much filled with fights and events, but this game in particular really slows down the overall pace to a crawl, which is disappointing. I'm not surprised to see an RPG take a slower approach than an action game, but in my opinion, it doesn't seem like a very good fit for the world or the license. There's not enough interesting stuff going on outside of the battles to keep your attention for long, and unless you're a die-hard fan, I can see people's patience fizzling out quickly with this one.
Visually, the battlegrounds of the game are plain and uninspired, and there's not much to look at except for the faces that do the talking in between battles. Some super-stylized sprites are shown off in battle when two characters clash, but there isn't too much animation going on, and any existing animation is repeated quite a bit. It's odd to see the sprites, since they're really reminiscent of the fighting game style from the previous titles; all the sprites do is remind me of what this title isn't. The design is pretty bland, and it doesn't do much to excite you both on and off the battlefield. Likewise, the sound design is OK but seems awfully generic for the series. Additionally, the voice work is only present with limited use during the fights. None of the dialogue is spoken during cut scenes, which seems like a misstep here.
Also, there's no online component available to the title or any real multiplayer to speak of. I suppose it's a slightly moot point to expect this, considering the huge change in the design, but it's a real shame that pretty much anything of interest has been stripped out of this game. There is some end game content that's a little interesting, provided you can make it that far. The tower you're checking out will offer some higher-level content to give you a reason to continue the grind, but I don't think the final stuff is worth making your way through the entire story line. Even the revelations given in the story are slightly less exciting, even for a fan.
I was less than enthused with Bleach: The Third Phantom, I think it was a poor design choice to move the series away from a robust fighting title into a bland, run-of-the-mill strategy RPG. Hopefully, the series kicks back into high gear for a fourth installment. I'm not sure that I could make my way through more menus — or the slow pace of another title like this one — anytime soon. Even as a fan of RPGs in general, I don't think that anything about Bleach: The Third Phantom will appeal to most people. Unless you're really dying for some new-related items, I'd avoid this title completely.
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