Review: Phantom Brave (PS2)

Last year at this time, the entire then 411Games staff was foaming at the mouth for the game that was Disgaea. Disgaea proved to be one of Atlus’ biggest hits ever. It had an amazing and hilarious story about the prince of the Underworld, Laharl, and his attempts to reclaim Hades as his own. It was the epitome of what Tactical Strategy RPG’s should be. It blew us all away and damn near swept the 2003 Kliq Awards in every category it was in. It truly was a game deserving of worship and it received it.

Of course, me being a huge Nippon Ichi fan since Rhapsody came out, I wasn’t surprised. Disgaea created such a fuss, a company called Mastiff brought over the game between Rhapsody and Disgaea called La Pucelle. Perhaps because it wasn’t Atlus doing the translation, or because it quite frankly, just wans’t as good as Disagea, it floundered in comparison to GOTY winner. But it did well enough to convince Nippon Ichi to come to America themselves and open a branch they call NIS America. And even though the latest game in this saga bears the NIS America label, this came was still translated and distributed by Atlus USA. But is this the last collaboration by the two companies or is Nippon Ichi just going to use Atlus without giving them any credit? Hmmm.

Phantom Brave really feels like the final game in the series. It ties Rhapsody, La Pucelle, Disgaea and itself into one cohesive package at the end. And due to the completely different gameplay found in Phantom Brave, one has to wonder if Disgaea truly was the ultimate culmination of all that a Tactical Strategy RPG and that Phantom Brave is the start of an entirely new for of Tactical Role Playing. It’s unique, it’s weird, It’s complex as f*ck, and it’s Nippon Ichi’s latest stateside offering into the genre they are fast becoming the Ogre Team or Camelot of this generation of gamers. Let’s see if we’ve got back to back awards to hand out to these guys are not.

Let’s Review

1. Story

The tale of Phantom Brave is the tale of two characters. The first is Ash. The ghost of a brave warrior who died protecting the parents of the second main character, a young girl named Marona. Marona is a chroma. A chroma is a being who has the ability to see and summon ghosts. She’s a lovely optimistic adorable happy young lady, who everyone else in the world is afraid of. That whole summoning and talking to the undead, you see. Marona uses her powers to help people and make the world a better place, but sadly, most people don’t see it that way. It’s like a new twist on the Casper, the Friendly Ghost cartoon and Harvey comics from long ago.

There’s more to the tale. The creature that slew Ash and Marona’s parents 8 years ago has returned. But wasn’t it slain as well by the hero Sprout?

There is a veritable cast of hundreds in Phantom Brave, but unlike Disgaea, many of the characters feel hollow or play close to RPG stereotypes. As well the plot is very typical of the “Misunderstood and reluctant hero saves the world from certain doom by an almighty and terrible villain.” It’d be an average story with average characters if not for the unique twist Nippon Ichi puts on every thing combined with the Altus USA teams help in regards to Americanizing Japan cult games. But even then plot wise, this is the least of the four games in this series. Rhapsody, La Pucelle, and of course Disgaea all had stronger characters, more original stories to share, and were a lot more fun to read and watch the tale unfold. Phantom Brave is merely taking the typical RPG conventions and not quite standing them on their head; merely lying them on their side.

Story Rating: 6/10

2. Graphics

I’ll be honest. No impressed at all. The backgrounds were vivid colourful and reminded me of the Mana series games by Square-Enix. But the character designs both in battles and out were jaggy and well, ¦nowhere near what the PS2 is capable of. This game could easily have been done on the PS1 graphics wise from the way it looks on my screen. I know Nippon Ichi games are control and gameplay first and graphics are often an afterthought, but here? Yeah. I did a double take at the jaggies on the screen.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not an ugly game at all. Like I said the backgrounds and the like are beautiful and appear to be digital paintings. It’s the character and battle maps that look like a first gen PS2 game graphically. There’s no way this game will compete with the Final Fantasy games. But then it’s not supposed to. Nippon Ichi games are the exact opposite of Square games. One is all style and no substance, while the other may not be as pretty, but there’s a lot more to it, and more importantly, a lot more fun.

Graphics Rating: 5/10

3. Sound

Another mixed bag. The music is amazing. And thank goodness for the special edition where you can get the soundtrack with the game. It’s some of the best music I have heard this generation for not just an RPG, but any video game. The opening track to the game surprised me as it started off like the opening song to Rhapsody. But instead of being a cute little ditty about dating and boys, it became a very dramatic epic style song perfect for any Role Playing game. Every track is well laid out, a pleasure to listen to and highlights the gameplay it accompanies. There is no reason NOT to get the special edition as they are the same price. I mean, free wonderful gaming soundtrack right? Should be a no-brainer.

The problem is the voice acting. It’s just not very good. However, I could be biased and making this game live in the shadow of its older brother, Disgaea, but I really was disappointed by the voice acting. Sprout sounds perfect, but everyone else just grates on my ears. Marona especially has a terrible voice. It’s like a cross between Bubbles from the Powerpuff girls going through puberty and fingernails on a blackboard. Nope. Not a fan of the voice acting at all.

Thankfully though, the music and the delight of being able to take it with me if I ever need to, outweighs the fact the voice acting is subpar. But hey, that’s a common complaint about video gaming, isn’t it? They just rarely ever get the best actors for the parts. Just ignore a lot of the vocals and crank up the music for battle time.

Sound Rating: 6/10

4. Control

And here we go. Forget everything you have ever learned about Strategy RPG’s. Those old rules no longer exist or apply here. This is an entirely new beast. The Grandia series is the closest you can come to having played anything like Phantom Brave. It’s a bold new completely original step to be taking gameplay wise. And it pays off big time.

Gone are the grid like maps. Instead you have a large circle of movement and you can keep moving until the decimeters have run out. You still get one attack per turn, and who goes first is determined mainly by speed. But the circle pattern is something very unique and created a level of tactical gaming that’s never been experience before. If you’re used to Ogre Tactics or Shining Force, this is not your 16 bit Tactical RPG. The new system is quite easy to run through, but as the battles get harder and longer, you’ll find the old strategies no longer work.

There’s also two other important aspects you’re going to need to look at. The first is confinement. You see, Marona’s entire army are ghosts and phantoms. The undead. And they have no bodies and thus need a way to fight. Marona, as a chroma can confine a soul into an object like a weapon or tree or rock or weed. The phantom in question gets the base stat bonuses or negatives added to their main aspects. A weed gives you speed. A boulder gives you strength and defense but cuts your speed and intelligence down. Things like that. It adds a whole new twist to gameplay and you find yourself scouring the maps to see what all you can put a soul into.

The catch is the second aspect I mentioned a little earlier. Each spirit can only stay in the mortal realm for a brief period of time. Which means you are talking a time limit. Now there’s never really been time limits in rpg’s before. Sure there have been bonuses and special items if you can complete levels in a certain amount of time. But that’s it. Some character you will have only for three turns and then, ¦BAM! They are gone and the item is back to just being a dead tree or barrel or what have you. You can also only have 15 characters on your side at a time. This means wither you have some bad ass warriors that can kill things right away and these maps will go by in an instant. Or it means you have multiple waves of troops to do battle. You can have up to 50 characters, monsters, etc on your team that Marona can have ready to summon and there are times when you just may need that many. It’s a great new aspect to strategy RPG’s that again, complete change the way you look at the genre.

What else is important to note, is that even as wonderful as this game is to play with its originality, as it is the first of its kind, this new for of gameplay can ONLY GET BETTER. And I am personally salivating at that thought.

Phantom Brave: You need to experience it.

Control Rating: 10/10

5. Replayability

Okay. Here’s the thing. This game can take you over 100 hours to beat easily. Or, it can take you as little as ten. That’s the beauty of it. Phantom Brave can be a simple run through game once you know all the aspects of it. Or it can almost overwhelm you with options. What characters to make? What random dungeon to create. What items to bring with you. What monsters to fuse. Etc etc.

This game has even more options that Disgaea in terms of battles and potential characters. And hey, Etna, Laharl, and even the prinnies make an appearance! How can you not love that???

Thanks to the random dungeons, the various characters you can make, and so much more, Phantom Brave is a game that will never play the same way twice. You really can have whatever you want in this game. No matter when you pick it up, it will always feel new.

The only down side is of course the fact the game can be so long and complex, that one time you play it for well over 100 hours may burn you out on the game for weeks, months, or maybe forever. It all depends on your gaming style. Me? I crave games with this level of intensity and options to the point where I try and figure out what characters and weapons are the best to bring to this board and who should be confined where. But then, it may just be me.

If this is your sort of gaming preference, you can play this forever. Otherwise you will play it a lot, but maybe only once or twice. Especially if you have a lot of other games you wish to play.

Replayability Rating: 8/10

6. Balance

Phantom Brave is laid out so that anyone can deal with the difficulty. If you’re having trouble with the main game, make a random dungeon and level up there or fuse some characters together. You can beat the game as ‘low’ at level 60. But there are some battles where you’re going to need to be level 9,999.

Yes, 9,999. That massive crazy leveling from Disgaea is back! Thankfully battles like that are optional. You can enjoy the game on whatever level you want. As just a straight out RPG tactics fest. Or as a social life consuming epic. It’s your call.

All the battles provide an adequate level of challenge with boss battles being well, hard is a nice way of putting it. This is what games used to be back in the days of 8 and 16 bit goodness. A decent challenge that would spike big time when a pivitol battle was happening. Since RPG’s went mainstream they have seriously lost difficulty. Really the only games you can find any sort of challenge nowadays is in 2D shooters. But Nippon Ichi is damned determined to bring back a sense of accomplishment to RPG’s. Good for them.

Balance Rating: 8/10

7. Originality

Typical RPG story with a few twists and turn. If you’re looking for something new in this department, go for Disgaea. Phantom Brave is nothing special in this respect. It’s the gameplay that you’ve come here for anyways. And my god is it original. There is no other game like it and the new style of playing will separate out the people who can get all three endings to the original Ogre Tactics game from those that beat Final fantasy games thanks to random battles every five steps.

If you ever doubted there was fresh air still in tactical RPG’s, then Phantom Brave is your salvation. Sure the story and graphics are weak, but as important as they are this is a GAME after all.

Originality Rating: 7/10

8. Addictiveness

You know, I really didn’t get that into the game. I enjoyed it. But it didn’t grab me. I think the biggest problem is that Disgaea was lightning in a bottle and as original and clever and good as Phantom Brave is, it will always be living in the shadow of Laharl, Etna, Mid-Boss, the Prinnies and the rest of the Disgaea crew we all fell in love with so much.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy this game. I beat it and then started playing it again. But it doesn’t make me feel the passion or love I had for a lot of other games like Shining Force or Persona or the rest. Much like Doom, it’s got an amazing engine that is only using a fraction of its potential. And I can’t wait to see what Nippon Ichi will do as a follow up. They’ve already perfected grid based tactical strategy RPG’s. Let’s see if they can do it again with this new more of RPG they have concocted.

Addictiveness Rating: 6/10

9. Appeal Factor

Nippon Ichi is the “IT” company for RPG gamers right now. Store clerks are told to talk up their games. Snobby elitist gamers praise the games even though most probably haven’t beaten any of their games and love them only because they are rare. Casual gamers know it’s “That sequel to Disgaea” and so on. This game went on back order on release day. So you know it’s the DOOM 3 or Madden 2k4 of RPG’s. And no company deserves it better. Sorry Square-Enix. Your cover is blown and people are demanding games of quality. Not just pretty shit.

Again, only downside is this is NOT a game for casual RPG fans. This is for people that pretty much ONLY play RPG’s if you want to get the full enjoyment out of the game. But even casual fans can play through the main storyline. They may just find the new system too complex and weird for them.

Appeal Factor: 8/10

10. Miscellaneous

It ties all four of Nippon Ichi’s biggest games together. You will meet characters from Rhapsody, from La Pucelle, the entire Disgaea gang is back, and of course all the characters from Phantom Brave. It is a Nippon Ichi nocturnal emission for their fanatical devotees.

More importantly, Nippon Ichi proves with Phantom brave they are all about innovation and originality. They aren’t afraid to take chances or try something new or even to risk their fan base who probably would have made them zillionaires if they had made a direct sequel to Disgaea. No, NIS wants to give gamers something new and wonderful each time. They’re trying to remind gamers of a day where we weren’t programmed like Pavlovian dogs salivating for the next game with a big roman numeral after the title and little to no innovation to anything.

If all companies were like Nippon Ichi and Atlus, then we would be in the Golden Age of gaming. Instead we have 50$ sports games that are 99% the same as the year before and games with pretty graphics but pretty much the same engine they had back when their respective franchises started on the venerable NES or a 16 bit system.

Yay for Phantom Brave. Boo for pretty much everything else.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

Short Attention Span Summary
The Inside Pulse: Sorry to say, but Nippon Ichi is not taking GOTY honours two years in a row. There are better RPG’s out there right now (Pokemon Coliseum, Dark Alliance 2) and even better tactical RPG’s (Shining Force GBA). Phantom Brave will always be in the shadow of Disgaea which is a shame because it is a very good game with a highly original engine and system of gameplay. Phantom Brave is worth owning and experiencing for a taste of how creative a game can still be. But if you’re looking for the next Disgaea, you won’t find it here. But then, it was never meant to be as such. Love Phantom Brave as the start of a new genre, not as a sequel to one in another.



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