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Bleach: The 3rd Phantom (DS) artwork

Bleach: The 3rd Phantom (DS) review

"The 3rd Phantom generates its joy by including a wide range of characters, showing them in positions you've never seen, and ultimately letting you focus solely on your favorites. In that regard, this otherwise mediocre game is a resounding success."

Tite Kubo loves to create characters. Each new plot development in Bleach, his ongoing shonen masterwork, comes bundled with armies of new entities: soul reapers, hollows, arrancars, visoreds, espadas... the cast of hundreds will only grow as the series continues. Given this apparent compulsion, it's no surprise that he introduces two fresh faces to star in the story penned exclusively for Bleach: The 3rd Phantom. This turn-based strategy RPG doesn't break any ground concerning tactical gameplay, but the inclusion of original characters allows us to view the world of Bleach from different perspectives, including a glimpse into the past. For that alone, it's an enjoyable ride for fans of the show.

The newcomers' names are Fujimaru and Matsuri Kudo, fraternal twins whose tale begins hundreds of years in the past. Like most ordinary residents of the Soul Society, the brother and sister are just trying to survive the afterlife. That is, until they're rescued by another original character, the generous Captain Suzunami, and invited to live in his noble house. Eventually the pair become Soul Reapers under the command of their adoptive father, and this leads to encounters with more familiar faces. They'll take to the battlefield alongside his faithful Lieutenant Aizen and the legendary Kaien Shiba. Other missions lead to contact with Captains Uruhara and Yoruichi, who have not yet become outcasts from the 13 Court Guard Squads. And there are plenty of runts running around who will eventually end up in reaper robes: Rukia and Renji, Momo and Hitsugaya, and Rangiku and Gin.

Of course, these halcyon days can't last forever. Arturo Plateado, a villain created specifically for Bleach: Shattered Blade, returns to wreak havoc on the universe at large. He seems like the ultimate bad guy – there's talk of how he almost crushed the Soul Society before – but you meet him in battle about a third of the way through the game. Just when you think the tide turns your way, something strange happens...

Before the game's introduction even starts, you're prompted to pick one of the twins as a main character. The reason why becomes apparent after that fateful battle. Your choice materializes in the contemporary human world, alone. A few playable campaigns with Ichigo and company set the exact time at the beginning of Season 4 of the anime, after The Rescue of Rukia from execution in the Soul Society. The focus, though, quickly shifts back to your preferred Kudo twin, and the ultimate mission becomes clear. You need to find the whereabouts of everyone who participated in that fight, including your sibling, Captain Suzunami, and Arturo himself.

The scenario is the strongest component of the game, simply because it lets you customize the experience. By stepping outside of the canon events of the series, you're able to fill the supporting roles with all your favorite characters. Almost everyone who's ever lifted a sword can be drafted to the cause; there are over fifty people to fill the eight slots in the battle party. If you want to park the usual star on the end of the bench, there's an army of other strong fighters who can easily shoulder the load in Ichigo's place.

The game takes its fanservice a step further. Each of the twenty-plus chapters contains a longer episode called 'Free Time.' This mode dispenses a limited number of points to spend conversing with the cast. It's ostensibly a tool to strengthen your forces. Talk to a person enough, and they will join up or bestow you with a useful item. However, it's more notable for humorous interaction. If you didn't know about the usually stoic Byakuya Kuchiki's miserable efforts as an amateur artiste, then you can find out here. Some conversations will even change depending on which sibling you chose. Playing as the male Fujimaru may complicate catching a glimpse of all the busty soul reapers bathing in the hot springs. Now that's real fanservice!

All of these important plot points, supplemented by special events, lead to a mountain of dialogue. It overshadows the straightforward fighting; there's even a chapter where no battle occurs. Combat follows traditional SRPG basics established in games like Fire Emblem. Cute little versions of the characters – their recognizable traits are spot on – move around a grid-based landscape. The usual weapon hierarchy is translated to power, speed, and technical skill. These affect favorable matchups on the field, where you meet the enemy head-on and exchange blows by watching unskippable cutscenes.

Apart from managing opponents, the main strategic elements come from spiritual pressure, supports, and kido. Spending a turn soaking in the spiritual pressure surrounding a character will increase their attacks in battle, plus it allows special fighters to release their super-powerful bankai forms. Bonds you set between characters permit them to help out when placed next to each other; these can even evolve into team attacks which deal double damage to the target. Then there's the magic of kido, incantations that inflict serious pain with elemental spells. The enemy can also use kido, but somehow it's never up to your level. It's easy to keep the odds in your favor wielding such powerful tools, especially when your only tasks are to fight and survive. It barely seems to matter if you're facing a common hollow, a massive Menos Grande, or a powerful Espada like Grimmjow Jeagerjaques.

That ease in combat doesn't make for a compelling strategic experience. Of course, we know these games are made first and foremost for Bleach fans. The 3rd Phantom generates its joy by including a wide range of characters, showing them in positions you've never seen, and ultimately letting you focus solely on your favorites. In that regard, this otherwise mediocre game is a resounding success.


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Staff review by Benjamin Woodhouse (December 01, 2009)

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