Who would have thought that a year ago when Atlus released Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
that it would have created such a stir for the dormant strategy/RPG market here in America? Quickly ascending as one of the hottest new cult genres for the PlayStation 2, the tactical sub-category is at its highest level of acceptance since the days of Final Fantasy Tactics
and the Ogre Battle
remakes -- with plenty of different companies legitimately researching similar types of games for stateside release.
This windfall has particularly benefited Disgaea's developer Nippon Ichi; which has now seen all three of its favorite PS2 children published in the United States over a 12 month period. And while Hour of Darkness is still considered to be the stronger product when compared to its older brother La Pucelle, there is still an army of hopefuls out there that are bent on the notion that it can make something even better. That optimism now lies at the doorstep of the company's latest incarnation of the series, Phantom Brave; a uniquely different, yet strangely familiar interpretation of a franchise that has captured the hearts and minds of an underground fan base for quite some time.
With such a large amount of product hitting the stores in such a small amount of time, however, there's certainly the danger of wearing out its welcome. Because as massive, involving, and strategic as the previous two titles have been, it seems like overkill to give the third installment a chance so soon. But Nippon Ichi has so much confidence in Phantom Brave that it has started an all-new American office specifically so that it can publish the game here in the United States (Atlus and Mastiff published the previous two). Definitely considered the flagship title for what NIS America hopes will be a long and productive future, Phantom Brave's success in the marketplace has a lot riding on it. Luckily, it appears as though Nippon Ichi's gamble is going to pay off.
We'll get into the specifics as to why that gamble will pay off a little bit later. First we have to point out the fact that veterans of previous titles may be in for a bit of a surprise -- as Phantom Brave is a lot more serious than its predecessors. And though it does possess some of the same humor and light-hearted situations that La Pucelle and Disgaea had, the characters and plot pacing in this game have much heavier stakes. So while the opening narrative may seem like an innocent fluff piece involving a 13-year old girl who can talk to ghosts, the progression of the story eventually brings much darker issues to the table. Friends die, dreams are crushed, and more often than not, hope is all but lost. And for fans of previous titles and their quirky brand of humor, this more solemn approach could be a little off-putting.
But Phantom Brave still successfully maintains a lot of the same elements that made Nippon Ichi's previous two titles as strong as they were to begin with. First and foremost, the enhanced and stylized 16-bit graphical look is back once again. And unlike Disgaea or La Pucelle, Phantom Brave offers stronger attention to detail, better special effects, and slightly more animations compared to its predecessors. No doubt about it, it's definitely the best looking game in the series so far, with character and environmental designs standing out in particular. Besides, looking a bit dated is part of the franchise's charm anyway.
Musically the game isn't quite as catchy but it does sport a solid collection of battle tunes, dramatic violin solos, and various other staples of the Nippon Ichi pedigree. Unfortunately there aren't too many standout tracks here when compared to La Pucelle and Disgaea -- and the music just doesn't have as much of an emotional impact. The voice acting fares much better, however, with some strong American and Japanese vocals (in fact, the U.S. track could be better than the Japanese one), and audio effects that are probably the most varied that the has had to date.
But honestly, the audio and visual quality of Nippon Ichi games has never been what's made them so great in the first place. It's always been the solid gameplay and strong tactical value that's pushed the franchise instead. Phantom Brave is no different in this regard, with an incredibly large number of strategy-oriented missions and scenarios that should challenge newbies and veterans alike. In all, players can expect more than 20 different episodes to experience (including a good deal of hidden ones), with each one of those episodes further packed with various sub-missions to extend the playtime even longer. Enemies can become complete bastards in Phantom Brave too; with some of the most difficult battles we've experienced in any game this year (that's a good thing).
As for the battles themselves, they play out in a similar method to the way that La Pucelle and Disgaea did -- with a turn-based army vs. army mentality and plenty of elevation, directional, and elemental variables to account for. But where those games felt like carbon copies of each other with a few gimmicky alterations, Phantom Brave has added several new twists to the gameplay for some truly radical differences. Whether or not those differences mean 100% improvement is up to personal interpretation, but after spending a great deal of time with the game over the last couple of weeks, we're not so sure that it is. In fact, some of them make Phantom Brave more complicated than it should be.
The new aspect that sticks out as problematic in our minds the most is the removal of the grid map system that's been a staple of Nippon Ichi strategy titles up until now. The fact that this removal was bothersome actually surprised us too; as the lack of a grid certainly makes the stages and environments look a lot more natural and less cluttered than they did before. Unfortunately, it also makes placing your characters in the appropriate places for ranged attacks a lot more difficult; and could leave players canceling and resetting their positions over and over again until they get it right. This lack of a grid makes hitting the appropriate target in crowded areas even more difficult -- so expect to spend a lot of time double-checking and triple-checking your decisions before you execute.
Another annoying addition for this version is the fact that characters can now fall off maps entirely if they're bumped by enemies when too close to a stage's edge. So while there's a definite strategy in this technique for players looking to find an equalizer when outmatched by higher-level opponents, the remaining enemies receive a level-up bonus to compensate for it -- but your characters do not. Obviously, the fact that the game is actually made harder by eliminating more enemies completely negates the reason you'd want to use that kind of feature in the first place -- making us wonder why this odd balancing decision was implemented.
Of course, the biggest issue that most detractors have always seemed to have is the fact that La Pucelle and Disgaea have been heavily dependant on players leveling up their characters. If that particular aspect has bothered you, then it will bother you here too; because Phantom Brave is every bit as dependant on creating strong and unstoppable killing machines as it was in those games. Personally, this little fact has never bothered us -- as the majority of the RPG players in the office prefer to take our time with the genre rather than blow through it. But for less patient story-oriented gamers, we can see how needing to repeat the same dungeons over and over again could grow tedious.
That's not to say that Phantom Brave isn't as addicting as Nippon Ichi's other PlayStation 2 titles, however, because it is. Problematic as some of the issues highlighted above may become, the game still has a lot going for it. It's innovative 'Confine' system, for example, is an absolute lot of fun and serves as the driving force behind Phantom Brave's flexible combat engine. In many ways, it could be the smartest and most innovative battle mechanic in the series so far.
Now in the off chance you missed our previews and are unsure what the Confine system entails, it's actually pretty simple: it's a command that's only available to lead character Marona, and allows her to summon phantoms to insert them into physical objects like starfish, flowers, trees, rocks, etc. Once these phantoms have taken over an object, it grants them unique abilities and will temporarily transform them into a specialized character class. It's from this simple setup that most of the game's strategy truly comes into play: What items will your characters inhabit and which phantoms will they choose to do so with? It's up to you. Or what kinds of classes will they pursue once they're on the battlefield and how will they use what's available to them to successfully defeat their opponents? Once again, that's your call. But regardless of what actions you take, these small but important questions could turn a seemingly straightforward combat situation into something far more challenging and fun.
But there are other interesting mechanics at play here as well. Should they need to, for example, players can pick up objects and turn them into weapons that can be used for special maneuvers and magical attacks. Keeping things even more interesting, however, players can even pick up every single inanimate object on the battlefield -- including enemies, obstacles, and more. Additionally, players will also be able to use more advanced techniques to refine and strengthen their existing items for more powerful results; or partake in randomly generated dungeons in search of treasure, ingredients, and experience. Furthermore, there are a ton of hidden secrets and bonuses to be found in here too: with items, weapons, recipes, and even more important goodies like characters, stages, and spells entirely available. Who knows? You might even spot a few familiar faces from previous Nippon Ichi games while you're at it.
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