"Phantom Brave follows the Nippon Ichi tradition for strategy RPGs with a twist - or a dozen twists, as it happens. The basics of the genre are recognizable - characters walking across a map, turn based, to kill their enemies with a variety of regular attacks and special skills - but that's about where all the usual expectations go out the window. This formula worked out great for Disgaea and to an extent, it still does; but at a couple of points, the game comes off as too experimental for its ow..."
Phantom Brave follows the Nippon Ichi tradition for strategy RPGs with a twist - or a dozen twists, as it happens. The basics of the genre are recognizable - characters walking across a map, turn based, to kill their enemies with a variety of regular attacks and special skills - but that's about where all the usual expectations go out the window. This formula worked out great for Disgaea and to an extent, it still does; but at a couple of points, the game comes off as too experimental for its own good.
The story centers around a young girl named Marona who has the unique and misunderstood power of summoning phantoms, and Ash, one of these phantoms who has sworn to be her protector after the premature and violent death of her parents. Marona and her phantoms (apart from Ash, all generic creatable characters without a story purpose) travel the world helping people out in need, but people's unease with her ability to control phantoms usually results in her being less than welcome wherever she goes, at least once she's done her job. Marona's selflessness and the world's ingratitude are central themes in the story, and the inevitable "rise of evil" that RPG fans have seen in a hundred incarnations takes a bit of a backseat to this. It does happen, and Marona does become the one to save the day, but at times it feels almost like an afterthought. There is plenty of room in the storyline for weird characters and humorous moments, but the tale isn't as obviously an anime parody as Disgaea is, and the transition from serious to humorous not quite as smooth. There are times when the story appears to take itself seriously but falls flat in the execution, and other times when it tries but fails to draw a laugh. Fortunately, this is offset by plenty of genuinely touching moments (including the ending).
The game itself is spread out over 20 episodes, each consisting of a handful of battles. Phantom Brave's most obvious and important departure from the usual conventions (not to mention from its predecessor Disgaea) is that grid based maps have been discarded in favour of free roaming. Characters can basically move in any direction, and their maximum distance is determined by their speed stat. Characters act individually by order of speed, rather than one side getting to move all characters and then the other; in fact, a high speed stat can allow a character to act more often than others. Terrain has an important effect on movement: climbing hills is obviously slower than walking across flat ground, but on slippery ground like ice, characters can actually slide far beyond their normal movement range.
An important consideration in battle is that, with the exception of Marona herself, all your characters are in fact phantoms who normally do not have a physical form. Marona can provide them one by confining them to an item on the battlefield - basically summoning them in place of a tree, a rock or a stray weapon. What item is chosen will affect their statistics; for instance, a phantom confined to a rock will have a higher defense than normal, but a lower speed. More importantly, confinement is only stable for so long, and characters will only be able to exist on the battlefield for a few turns, depending on their character class (typically 3-5). Once these turns are over, the phantom disappears off the battlefield, leaving the item they were confined to and unable to return for the duration of the battle. This introduces a major strategic dilemma in when to summon who, as bringing all your powerhouses out early can leave you understaffed before the battle is won. It also discourages overpowering a single character (such as Ash), because no matter how strong you make him, he still won't be able to attack more than five times. I considered this an improvement over Disgaea where it was very tempting to just build up one character and forget about the rest, but the notion of characters disappearing on you has put more than one player off Phantom Brave.
Equipment is limited to a single weapon per character - no armor exists, but weapons take many forms (from the usual selection of swords, spears and axes to rocks, trees, bushes and wooden boxes) and can affect all of a character's stats, sometimes drastically. Equipped items provide skills as well; the usual variety of special sword slashes and elemental magic, and a couple of pretty bizarre moves besides. Characters can learn innate skills as well, but for the most part, equipment makes or breaks the character, and managing your items is as important as levelling up your characters. At other times, items in the field provide special effects to each other, and you might see such things as items that improve your defense or heal you every turn if you confine an item to them, or a rock that, until it is destroyed, provides invincibility to your enemies. If you're particularly lucky, you might be able to confine a phantom to an item that allows him to remain in the battle permanently, and enjoy a rare respite from having to act quickly before your warriors simply vanish.
Battles themselves frequently turn into messy affairs. Due to the ability of characters to walk wherever they want, without grids to limit their positioning, often characters of both sides clump together in an effort to gang up on each other, and it becomes difficult to see what's going on or select the target you want. Even if you *do* select your targets correctly, too often the game mysteriously has you target something else. The first few times you might think you didn't pay enough attention and misclicked, but then you notice the AI having the same problem when too many characters are too close to each other, and starts hitting its own allies. It doesn't help that when you tell a character to move, whether or not they'll actually end up where you indicated is a gamble. Terrain or obstacles (like other characters) can cause your move to end up in a completely different spot. Fortunately, moves can be taken back and tried again limitlessly, but it does waste quite a bit of time when you just can't seem to convince a character to go where you tell them to. Some of the clutter can be taken care of by picking enemies up and throwing them off the map, which is a viable tactic to get rid of bothersome foes. But it won't work on bosses or the final enemy on a map, earns you no experience, and remaining enemies will get bonus levels every time you do it to compensate. Annoyingly, enemies sometimes decide to pull the same trick on your characters, and there's no bonus levels in it for you.
On most maps, enemy AI is fairly weak and predictable, which is a significant issue in a strategy RPG. Almost always, enemies will march straight toward your weakest character, even if they're out of reach, and ignore everyone else. A little experimenting will soon teach you which characters can be viably used as bait while Ash and other powerhouses do all the damage and meet no resistance. Only on a few specific maps does the enemy make proper use of the oddities of the battle system, and do such things as destroy or throw away the items you want to confine phantoms to, steal your weapons and toss them off the map, or thin your ranks by throwing your phantoms around. It's interesting to note that the few maps where this happens frequently are by far the most difficult in the game. It's as if the challenge doesn't really take off until the AI decides to stop pulling punches, but then when you finally do manage to clear it, things quieten down again for the next few episodes. The final boss is a perfect example of an enemy that isn't even that powerful, but just hard to beat because he actually takes stopping you seriously.
Between battles, your characters return to Phantom Isle, which is Marona's home and a sort of hub area where you can create new characters, have your items upgraded, create and enter random dungeons for extra levelling (a necessity), or just mess around talking to and rearranging your characters. Important things to do here include assigning titles to characters and items (a stat boosting mechanic that, I suppose, takes the place of equipping armor and accessories like you might in other games), and fusing characters and items to each other. Fusing basically turns two characters or items into one, and is used to combine the strengths of different item types, or to transfer skills. For instance, a witch may be able to cast Fire spells due to the spellbook she's using as a weapon, but without it she won't be able to use her magic; yet if you fuse the spell book to her (permanently destroying the book), she can learn the Fire magic for herself and then switch to a new item that'll teach her a different element. Through random dungeons and correct use of the fusion mechanic (which is actually pretty deep and complicated if you take the time to master it), the same kind of ridiculous powerlevelling is possible that made Disgaea so notorious. There is still a theoretic maximum of lvl 9999 for your characters, although reaching it requires far more deliberate effort than it did in Disgaea, and is completely unnecessary for story purposes. There are, however, bonus maps to be played after clearing the game that *will* require a hardcore player to explore the depths of this system.
Clearing the story will take somewhere in the 30-40 hour range, which allows for some necessary out-of-story levelling and a basic exploration of titles and item fusion. Finding every secret the game has to offer, clearing every bonus map and generally turning your characters into unbelievable powerhouses can add many more hours to that, for those who are into that sort of thing (and that tends to be exactly the audience that Nippon Ichi games appeal to). There is plenty of depth in Phantom Brave, and plenty of innovation. Yet taking it all together, there are too many shaky aspects to be ignored. Where in Disgaea everything fit together like a neat and complicated puzzle, in Phantom Brave many of the features feel a little tacked on, and others just do not really *work* in practice. Fusion is an excellent and interesting system, and random dungeons can provide a lot of extra gameplay. Yet titles are unnecessarily confusing when they're basically just a way to boost stats, and in the battles themselves, targeting and movement issues are so frequent that I couldn't help but wonder if Nippon Ichi shouldn't just have stuck with the tried and true grid. Time limits on your characters is hit and miss - I found it added a nice layer of strategy, but it's by far the most criticized aspect of the game. In the end, Phantom Brave is an interesting package, and I enjoyed playing it. There is a whole lot to do long after the storyline has been completed, and you certainly can't accuse the game of just copying everything that's been done before. If anything, the battle between innovation and proven ground may have been won a little *too* often by innovation. When it comes down to it, I'd recommend Phantom Brave only to experienced strategy RPG fans who specifically want to try something different, and even then I'd recommend to try Disgaea first. But there is an audience for this kind of game, one that can look past some awkward mechanics and appreciate the good bits, and for them, it's a title well worth playing.
Community review by sashanan (September 30, 2006)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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