Phantom Brave has to be one of the strangest ideas in gaming history. A little girl, her ghost friends and an evil army of phantoms from the wrong side of the tracks all fighting it out in the latest US release by Nippon Ichi. Phantom Brave is the third in their line of interesting strategy tactics games that are as bizarre as they are addictive. The first in the series to be released in the States was Disgaea, which was a huge underground success, followed by its prequel, La Pucelle: Tactics. The third game in the series, Phantom Brave has kept up the tradition of being farther and farther out there in terms of plot and game mechanics.
The story behind Phantom Brave is that you play a little girl named Marona whose parents were killed while fighting evil phantoms. A friend of her parents, Ash, was with them and in her father’s dying breathe, he called upon the powers that be to spare Ash from death so that he could watch over Marona. This left Ash in a state of not-quite death but not-quite life, trapped between the two worlds forever. So, since he swore an oath and he really has nothing better to do, Ash spends all of his time looking after Marona and making sure she doesn’t get into too much trouble. How’s that for a concept? That’s just the beginning, however.
Once the game is started, Marona has her own little island that she pays for by using her Chroma powers. Chromas are demon hunters of sorts that specialize in getting rid of unwanted phantoms. Unfortunately for Marona, most people believe that all phantoms are bad and don’t understand her friendship with Ash, calling her “The Possessed” and generally trying to cheat her out of her hard-earned money. On top of all that, she has to compete with other Chromas who are constantly cheating her, tarnishing her name, as well as really nasty phantoms that only desire to see her dead. It’s hard being a young girl who kills for a living.
The game itself is really unique and interesting. The battles in Phantom Brave are definitely different. Instead of deploying your units on the edge of the screen in a deployment zone sort of area, you actually have them possess different items on the field. On top of just possessing different battlefield items, they all have statistic bonuses and minuses that they can add to each character. This plays a large role in what you’ll want your characters to be put into. Some battlefield items even give bonuses to other battlefield items, such as a tree may give a healing bonus to a rock or some other item.
We’re not really sure WHY, but it just happens. Sometimes the different monsters receive a bonus from items on the field that may require you to destroy the item or throw it out of bounds. In this game, there’s the option of throwing most anything out of bounds including monsters, items, your own teammates and so forth. Throwing an enemy out of bounds is definitely a quick way to get rid of them but it also levels up several other enemies on the battlefield, so it has its disadvantages as well.
Once on the battlefield and you have certain items possessed by your best phantoms, you’d better work quickly or have a certain game plan because your phantoms don’t stay on the field forever. In fact, once summoned, phantoms have a limited lifespan that once it’s played out, they disappear and can’t be re-summoned until the next battle. This adds a lot of challenge to certain scenarios that would be otherwise very easy. Other than the little quirks, the game plays much like most other tactics games. The last thing that needs to be mentioned about the on-field mechanics is that there isn’t a grid to move on anymore. That’s right, the grid is gone, replaced with a freeform movement scheme that gives you a certain radius in which a character can go and lets you do the rest from there. Overall it’s a very good change, though it can definitely add some challenge to blocking off enemies to defend your weaker characters, but then again you can also just wait and summon the weaker ones when they’re needed instead of having them hang out on the field the entire battle.
The rest of the game, the not on the battlefield portion, is played out with you controlling Ash and moving to and fro on different islands using your home as a base of operations. Even though the main idea of the game is tactical battles, quite a bit of the charm of Phantom Brave is all the different oddball characters you can create and use outside of the battlefield. There are a lot of different options for creating new phantoms to employ, which is played out by Marona looking for lost souls around the area to enlist in the service of fighting evil. After each chapter, or encountering them in other ways, Marona has the option of recruiting more and more spirits that have varying abilities. There are quite a few odd choices but, what has to be the king of all strange characters, the Dungeon Monk takes the cake.
The Dungeon Monk is a character that creates random dungeons for your characters to explore, level up and get new items in. His sole purpose in life, or near life, is to create random places for you to beat without mercy for monitory and experience gain. One of the other odd characters, the Titlist, works well with the Dungeon Monk. The Titlist is a character who can remove or assign a title to a character, item or dungeon. Depending on the title assigned, the item, character or dungeon will receive bonuses and minuses to its overall physical being. On top of the Titlist and Dungeon Monk, there’s an assortment of other interesting phantoms to recruit, all of which have their own little special powers. There are so many different ways to manipulate the different facets of the game that it boggles the mind.
The perceived downside to Phantom Brave would be the graphics; that is if you’re a graphics aficionado. Phantom Brave isn’t going to win any eye-candy awards, seeing as it looks like it was made in early 1998, but there’s so much game here that it doesn’t really matter. Other than the fact that the graphics are simplistic, they hold a certain charm. And other than the graphics being dated, you’ll be hard pressed to find a real problem with the game other than possibly not being a fan of the genre. While Phantom Brave may be really great, it’s not the type of game that would make someone fall in love with tactics-style play. In fact, Phantom Brave is such a complicated game that it may scare people away that aren’t already a fan of the genre.
When all is said and done, Phantom Brave is one of the deepest, most entertaining strategy games to come out in quite some time. Nippon Ichi keeps besting themselves with each new installment, which is definitely a good thing for us. While the graphics and overall complexity of this game may keep some people, if you’re a fan of strategy/tactics games, you’d be doing yourself a great injustice to skip this one.