Review: Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle (Sony PSP)

Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle
Developer: Nippon Ichi
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 03/08/2011

Holy crap! Is this really my FOUR HUNDREDTH Review for the site? That’s both awesome and sad at once. It’s kind of neat that this milestone is also Phantom Brave as the original PS2 version was my 48th review way back in September of 2004. That’s six and a half years ago. Jesus.

The PSP version of Phantom Brave is basically a port of the Wii version which Nate Birch covered for us back in 2009. He thought it was an above average game, and primarily enjoyed that it had budget pricing with an extra full on RPG tacked on in the form of “Another Marona.” For those of you that already have the Wii version and want to know what the differences are, it’s basically a few cameos like the Unlosing Ranger from Z.H.P. . For those that haven’t played either the PS2 or the Wii version of the game, read on and see if this third incarnation of the game is worth your $19.99.

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. However, didn’t it appear to be slain as well by the Dark Hero Sprout?

There is a veritable cast of hundreds in Phantom Brave, but unlike most of the other SRPGs NIS has made over the years, many of the characters feel hollow or play close to RPG stereotypes. It’d be an average, and almost generic story with dull characters if not for the unique twist Nippon Ichi puts on everything . Even then, the story in Phantom Brave is easily the weakest out the games from the Disgaea universe. Makai Kingdom, Rhapsody, La Pucelle, and of course the Disgaea trilogy 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; it is merely lying them on their side.

Another Morona is the bonus RPG included with the purchase of the game. It is stand alone from the original Phantom Brave and is basically a sequel of sorts. You start from level one all over again, but many of the characters carry over. I actually found this to be better written and a strong overall story, but then again, Nippon Ichi had half a decade between the PSP and Wii remake of the game that this originally appeared on, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise there. I won’t spoil it for newcomers, but Another Marona definitely starts off with a bang and keeps going from there. Unfortunately, much like with the main game, you never get that bond with Ash or Morona that you did with other main characters like Zetta, Laharl, Cornet and the like.

Story Rating: Decent

2. Graphics

Although it’s been seven years, the graphics haven’t really changed much. The game’s visuals definitely feel dated, especially when compared to other NIS SRPGs that have been re-released on the PSP. Both the Disgaea and Disgaea 2 remakes are much sharper looking than this. The graphics are both blocky and have considerable jag to them . Even worse, the visuals are hampered by the PSP screen. If you compare the visuals with the Wii version, you’ll notice you get a fuller picture than on the tiny PSP screen. Even the opening cut scene shows this. On both the PS2 and the Wii, you get the full scene on your screen. On the PSP, you gets the legs of characters cut off and the camera will have to move to show the full visuals that you would otherwise get in the console versions of the game. This really disappointed me and had I known we’d be getting weaker visuals than either console version, I wouldn’t have traded either of mine in when I knew I was getting this to review.

The pre-rendered backdrops during cutscenes look good, but the character models, the in-battle graphics and the other visual aspects of the game look pretty messy and rushed to me. I was really unhappy with the visual package here and unlike most Nippon Ichi developed titles, it really doesn’t feel like they cared about the quality of the port and just threw it together here. It’s a noticeable step down from the original seven year old PS2 game and that’s kind of a shame.

Graphics Rating: Bad

3. Sound

I’ve always loved the soundtrack to Phantom Brave in both of its previous incarnations, and this is no different. The music feels a bit more high fantasy than we’re used to with Nippon Ichi titles, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. I kind of wished this (and the Wii version) came with the special edition soundtrack that the PS2 game was bundled with. The Wii version had the really low res art disc and this has…nothing. Still, the music is wonderful and it really entices you to keep playing as it infects you with enthusiasm for the battles where the story really well, doesn’t.

The sound effects are nicely done as well. Very little has changed in the past seven years, but it doesn’t really need to. The only new sounds come with the cameo bits that I could see.

Voice acting…is a mixed bag, but hasn’t it always been? We’ve had three versions of this game and I’ve yet to like Marona’s voice in any of them. It’s pretty grating. Sadly as she’s the main character (or one of them anyway), you’re going to have to listen to her a lot. The other actors do a decent job, but there really isn’t any memorable work here. Again, that might go back to the lack of depth of the characters themselves and thus it is being reflected in the voice work, but I guess that would only be true with method acting, no?

Overall, the auditory qualities of Phantom Brave are enjoyable. The soundtrack is a lot of fun and the voice acting is a mixed bag, but you should be pretty happy listening to the game even if the style of play isn’t necessarily your thing.

Sound Rating: Enjoyable

4. Control and Gameplay

Let’s get this out of the way right now – if you were expected the usual grid based SRPG, you’re kind of out of luck here. Phantom Brave was famous (or infamous) for eschewing the most reused trapping of SRPGs and going with a gridless battle map. I personally loved it back in 2004 and even more so with Makai Kingdom, but I seemed to be in the minority as with Disgaea 2 things returned to the land of glowing squares.

Instead of grids, you have a large circle of movement. One 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 had never been experienced before this game. Of course it only lasted for a whopping two games, but hey – at least Nippon Ichi tried, right? If you’re used to Tactics Ogre or Shining Force, and prefer your SPRGs to all mostly play in the same manner, this probably won’t be your game of choice. 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 is made up of ghosts and phantoms. The undead, if you will. As such, they have no bodies and thus need a way to fight/physically harm things. 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. This means we are talking about a time limit for a specific character to be on the battlefield. Now there have never really been time limits for characters in a SRPG outside of this game, so it’s something you’ll have to wrap your head around. Sure, there have been bonuses and special items if you can complete levels in a certain amount of time, or even battles that you have to complete in a certain number of turns, but that’s it. With Phantom Brave, characters that you summon will have only for three turns and then…BAM! After that, they are gone and the item is back to just being a dead tree or barrel or what have you. You can also have fifteen characters on your side at a time. This means if you have some bad ass warriors that can kill things right away, these maps will go by in an instant. It can also mean you have multiple waves of troops to do battle. You can have up to fifty characters, monsters, etc on your roster that Marona can have ready to summon in each battle and there are times when you just may need that many. This was a great new aspect to strategy RPG’s that completely changed the way one looked at the genre back in 2004 and I still really enjoy the style of gameplay, if not the story it is attached to.

Now the only problem with the gameplay that I’ve found is that the PSP screen and its dimensions really make things harder to read/see/experience than in either console version. The in battle graphics are a step down even from the seven year old PSP version and the more you play this, the more you really feel this particular game is done a disservice by being on the PSP. Grid based SRPGs? Those have transferred just fine in the past. Phantom Brave however feels and looks a little messy and it does hamper combat somewhat. The overall gameplay is still quite good – it’s just a step down from previous versions and again had me wishing I had kept my Wii copy.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

Phantom Brave has always been considered the weakest of Nippon Ichi’s SRPGs, and this is especially true with the replay value of the game. Unlike say, the Disgaea titles which hav multiple endings, secrets and all sorts of insane crap to play with, Phantom Brave is really a bare bones production. You get approximately a dozen bonus battles to play on, along with the full Another Morona episode, but there’s no real reason to play through the game a second time. The characters are uninteresting, there’s not as much variety or spin-off activities to do, and really all you have is to do some annoying jumping bits around Phantom Isle or trying to find better titles for items to give your characters better stats when they possess an object. Sure it’s kind of a “one and done” game, but at least it’s a long one and the new bonus content and cameos help. So does the $19.99 budget price tag.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

6. Balance

Phantom Brave never really poses a strong challenge in terms of enemy A.I. or their tactics. Instead, the challenge comes from micromanaging your troops to ensure your best characters are available when you need them most. Last thing you want is for your best character to be taken out or use up all its turns right before it gets to attack the boss, right? So the whole game becomes about deciding who to send out when and what object to attach them to. Who goes where can dramatically affect a battle, as does the title of an object, so you’ll spend a lot of time scouring the field before you even begin the battle.

Post game with those optional battles do require a lot of grinding – which is true of any Nippon Ichi title. These battles will really test your mettle as a micromanager, but it will also involve making sure your characters have been min/maxed out properly over the course of their existence. Much like the actual gridless gameplay of Phantom Brave, the game is balanced so difficulty rests on the player’s skill as an organizer rather than the true challenge being on the enemies you need to slay. It’s a nice outside the box experience.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

Back in 2004, I was pretty high on the game’s originality. In 2011 though? Not as much. Sure the game’s gridless combat is still pretty unique, but it was done better in Makai Kingdom. As well, this is the third remake of the game in seven years, with this remake only adding extremely minor changes from a Wii version. Honestly these almost forgettable changes pale in comparison to the graphical changes and the gameplay annoyances the PSP version have gained as well. You’re better off with the Wii version as your Phantom Brave title of choice.

So the fact we just had this exact game released two years ago along with better graphics and an art disc for the same price doesn’t help Phantom Brave 3.0, but the game is still above average in terms of standing amount. I mean how many other games make you say, “Oooh! A classy weed! I need that more than this old sword.”

Originality Rating: Above Average

8. Addictiveness

I just couldn’t get into the PSP version of Phantom Brave. Maybe it’s because I just played the same game on my Wii two years ago. Maybe it’s because Makai Kingdom has come out since the original release of the game and it did everything Phantom Brave wanted to do and better to boot. Maybe it was the fact the game just didn’t look or play as well on the PSP. Regardless, I just couldn’t get into the game like I had on prior occasions. The game wasn’t bad by any means – it just wasn’t as much fun on the PSP. I look at screenshots from our prior PS2 and Wii reviews and then look as my PSP 2000’s screen and I’m just saddened a bit by what I see. It shouldn’t be a problem to anyone new to the game, but veterans and fans of Phantom Brave should be disappointed by the overall package in this latest port – especially in regards to presentation.

Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre

9. Appeal Factor

As I mentioned earlier, Phantom Brave is generally considered the weakest of Nippon Ichi’s SRPGs. I hear clamor for some more Marl’s Kingdom titles to make it stateside. I see people wanting La Pucelle: Ragnarok. I know people that want an updated Makai Kingdom. So on and so forth, but I’ve never read, seen or heard anyone say, “Boy, I sure want a PSP version of Phantom Brave.” I’m kind of surprised the game was ported again, especially since the Wii version didn’t appear to sell very well.

Still, Nippon Ichi fans like myself will play it again because they generally love the localization, stories and characters. Unfortunately, this is the weakest Nippon Ichi has performed in all those areas. As well, even though I love the gridless battle field as a breath of fresh air, I know a lot of people really don’t care for it. All those things combine to cut Nippon Ichi’s already niche audience down to a sliver of what even that usually is. People new to SRPGs might actually enjoy the combat more than veterans of the genre and the budget pricing of only $19.99 will no doubt get a few people to buy it sight unseen simply because of the reputation Nippon Ichi has more making quality tactical RPGs. At the end of the day, I think it’s just too soon for a port of this. It can easily be found for the PS2 and the Wii, both of those versions are better anyway, and there’s not really a large fan base for Phantom Brave in the first place.

Appeal Factor Rating: Poor

10. Miscellaneous

As a budget game, I think Phantom Brave has found its place in the scheme of things. It’s weak in terms of story and characterization, but the price balances it out. It is quite outside the box in terms of gameplay, but again, the price will coax those afraid of change into at least giving it a chance, while exciting those who have grid based burnout. Old fans of the game might come back if they missed the Wii version, while newcomers to Nippon Ichi, RPGs and SRPGs in specific will all find something to enjoy, with the bonus knowledge of knowing their tactical role playing games only getter better from here. At $19.99, Phantom Brave for the PSP might be weaker than the Wii and original PS2 versions, but it still makes for a nice budget game for Sony’s portable system, especially since it is flooded with thirty and forty dollar RPGs. The price point will make it more appealing to casual RPG fans and here’s hoping Phantom Brave finally finds an audience. It’s a long game, has a second bonus RPG and it’s still innovative seven years later.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Bad
Sound: Enjoyable
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Good
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Poor
Miscellaneous: Good

Short Attention Span Summary
Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle is the third version of the game in seven years. It’s also the worst version due to the shoe-horning of the game’s visuals to fit the PSP screen, but at $19.99, it is a nice little budget RPG for the price conscious. The gridless combat will be a turn off for gamers who want all their tactical games to have cookie cutter gameplay, but it will be a nice change of pace for those that are a bit burned out one every game in the sub-genre playing alike. The characters and story are the weakest out of any Nippon Ichi developed title, but you’re getting a second bonus RPG in the quasi-sequel known as “Another Morona.” No matter how you look at it, two decent RPGs for twenty bucks is a pretty good deal indeed.



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