I hate this game. No, wait, I love it. Actually, I think I hate it again… No, false alarm, I do love it. Er, I mean, hate it. Love it. Hate it. Love. Hate. Oh, I can't decide. On one hand, it's ugly, tedious, and has one of the least cohesive storylines ever, but on the other hand, it sounds great, is amazingly designed, and somehow manages to provide you with a very polar experience that you won't regret. Or maybe you will. I haven't decided yet. Here's my review.
In the land of Berimya, there was a kingdom guarded by a dragon. Protected from outside invaders and provided for in every way, they lived peacefully and prospered, enjoying immortality, free internet access, and other miraculous boons only found in paradise. Obviously, this joyful scenario would soon be ruined due to one idiot with political power.
The king of this land, Berebus, was a greedy and wicked man, and wishing to take over the world, he sent his army into the tower that the dragon lived in to capture and enslave it. Once they entered, the dragon became furious. It sacrificed its life to put a terrible curse on Berebus, and after a remarkably low budget lighting effect, brought the monarch's inner spirit out and turned him into a hideous, snarling beast. With its protector dead, the kingdom and the tower sunk into the dismal ground forever, dooming the inhabitants for the sins of their king to a life of solitary misery.
250 years passed, and a pair of warriors stood facing each other on a cliff that overlooked the cavernous remains of the fallen kingdom. The first was Alexis, female magician and student of a slain master. The second was Varik, a faceless knight who killed the poor girl's teacher. Alexis, fueled by her rage, hurled a searing ball of energy at Varik, missed, and wound up blasting the two into the void below. Now, it's your job to get Varik out of this place alive, despite waves of lethal monsters, dozens of ingeniously placed traps, and an angry half-dressed warrior woman who wants you dead.
Brandish is as simple a dungeon crawler as you can find. Your controls are basic enough: you can walk forward or back, sidestep, turn 90 degrees to the left and right, or jump in order to move around, and the only difference between jumping and walking is that you go twice as far and can leap over some holes. You must explore each of about 40 square floors within this sunken underworld, gathering treasure, selling it for gold to buy better gear with, and searching for the next staircase up. Like I said, very simple.
Along the way, you face various denizens of the area, ranging from slimes to bats to shadow demons, and all of them are annoyingly similar. The only real changes you'll notice between enemy types are the occasional added move. For instance, zombies reassemble themselves after you kill them, anemones can shoot fireballs at you, and ninjas move at twice the normal speed. While it isn't much, it does provide you with enough variety to keep things from getting repetitive.
The whole combat system is also pretty straightforward. There are two forms of combat: melee and magic. Melee consists of you applying any of your swords to whatever enemy happens to be in front of you, repeated as necessary. Obviously they strike back from time to time, but as long as you're facing an enemy without pressing any buttons, you'll put up your shield, effectively blocking most attacks. Of course, most of the swords you find can only take so much usage before they break and you're left with a hilt, but some infinite weapons do exist. There usually isn't much strategy besides slugging it out, but it's an enjoyable enough system nonetheless.
Magic is rather similar, to be honest. Basically, you can equip a magical item in your Item slot, and by pressing the Item button you'll activate the spell, be it a blazing long range fireball or a convenient teleporter. Of course, like physical combat, your mystic relics break. If you use a ring of ice one too many times, it'll go up in a puff of smoke. If you're willing to shell out big bucks at the occasional magic shop, you can obtain an actual copy of the spell which lasts forever, providing unlimited magic until you run out of MP. Of course, MP regenerates over time, so what's the harm?
Leveling up takes on a unique form. Every time you hit an enemy, your Arm Strength rating goes up by a fraction. Every time you cast a spell, you gain a bit more mystical skill. Every time you take a death ray and live to tell the tale, your Magic Resistance gets boosted. In short, almost all of your stats can increase through endless foe pounding, and training against the proper enemies can make your trip much easier. Chopping slimes to death is far less rewarding than killing rock golems, so finding the strongest enemies to fight can speed up your training by hours.
Along with waves of easily toppled enemies, you also face traps of every shape and size. From bottomless pits to pits with bottoms (still painful) to Indiana Jones-brand rolling boulders, you'll have to spend more time leaping around like someone who wasn't wearing half a ton of armor than you do fighting enemies. The variety of traps is nice, but the real treat is the positioning. After getting through the first few training floors, you'll notice that getting around the pits gets harder and harder, and anyone who made it to the last few floors knows just how creative they were in their home décor.
An interesting note I should add now is that the control system has both good and bad elements. I don't know how long it took me to get comfortable with playing my way through the first floor, and I didn't even want to try out the sidestep maneuver until I absolutely had to. I thought that these controls would kill the game when I first started it up, but eventually I got the hang of it and found that some of the later tests of skill (triple giant lobster strike!!!) made up most of the game's fun. Still, it's an awkward setup.
Aside from combat and puzzle solving, Brandish is pretty bare. There aren't any side quests or anything, and if a mini-game can be found somewhere, I haven't seen it. Despite this lack of extras, I noticed a primitive, insecure charm about the game. While the more civilized section of my brain told me that it was a pitiful and wretched title, not worth the sticker on the front of the cartridge, a more primal section growled that this was right and good, and that nothing more was needed to make a classic. Not being one to listen to the voices inside my head, I'd have to say that you can't really love or hate this game without changing your mind a few seconds later.
Sadly, the graphics follow through with the simplistic feel set up so far, and are hardly better than 1st generation SNES games. All characters are poorly animated sprites, and while there isn't any palette swapping, too many enemies can be described as "that red guy with the brown thing" or "the pink lumpy thing that shoots fireballs" for its own good. Your own character is better animated than anything else in the game, but the fact that you never get to see him from the front ever just bothers me. The backgrounds are a bit better, but the variety is lacking and there just isn't anything that creative.
The only other point worth mentioning would be the artwork accompanying the opening, ending, and shop visits. While they are a nice touch, and the cast of shopkeepers includes some creative characters (who doesn't like bunny costumes?), there isn't any animation worth mentioning. Of course, it's not much worse than the in-game level of animation. Just look at those spell effects! Considering that it was released in '95, we've got an ugly little game here.
Fortunately, the music aged much more gracefully. It really consists of nothing more than the usual fairy tale fare, but it's made just right. Not only is there a different theme for each of the five areas you visit, but each boss also has its own hectic battle music. The only real problem I can come up with would be that it has absolutely no ability to set the mood for the game, instead providing a nice atmospheric feel to it all. While it does clash a little with the whole escape-from-a-cursed-underworld setup, it really helps you to notice the music.
The sounds are nothing to shout about though. There are a few blips for attacking and some vague swishing noises that accompany your sword, but that's pretty much it. If you'll care for anything audio about Brandish at all, it will be the music. The sound is just there because they had to plug something in.
Finally, we have the plot. Now, if you'd like a quick summary of its entirety, read the introduction I wrote at the top. In all honesty, it doesn't progress beyond there. You do have to deal with Alexis at a few points in the game, but all she does is threaten to kill you and then get humorously caught in some trap. There's also a bunch of shopkeepers you can talk to, but most of them simply tell you that you're not going to make it much further on your own or give you some bit of advice.
What REALLY doesn't make sense, though, is that you never find out what's going on with the people living in this dungeon. It's like they forgot all about it and focused more on the gripping tale of you wanting to go outside. Oh, and somehow they managed to include two separate endings, though how they pulled that off with this story is beyond me.
I'm not sure quite what to make of this. I suppose the best description for it is an NES game all grown up, bearing the same simple gameplay with a few more bells and whistles to tide you over. In retrospect, I think that no true score can be given to it, and I only hope that if you give it a try, you'll find it just as confusing as I did. There's something about Brandish; just don't ask me what it is.