Falcom is a smaller development company, and even though their games aren’t AAA blockbusters, they’ve amassed a dedicated following of classic RPG fans. Most people know them for either the action-packed Ys titles or the traditional Legend of Heroes RPGs. Falling somewhere in between is Brandish, a real-time dungeon-crawler series dating back to 1991, when it was first released for the NEC PC-9801. An SNES remake of the first game was released in North America, but the subsequent three titles have remained within Japanese borders. Nearly two decades later, that first game was remade for the PSP as Brandish: The Dark Revenant. By invoking some arcane magicks (or perhaps merely taking a leap of faith), XSEED brought that title to the North American PSN last month — a bold move, to be sure, but one that has merit. Brandish is rigid and esoteric, yet strange and compelling; it’s the kind of adventure that hearkens back to the days when surmounting a sticking point wasn’t as simple as doing a quick search on the internet.
When it comes to narrative, Brandish abandons all pretense of telling a complicated story. Instead, the game relies on atmosphere and sparse but flavorful NPC dialogue to tell its minimalist tale. Swordsman Ares Toraernos is on the run from his rival, sorceress Dela Delon. The pair is caught in a misfired magical attack that lands them both in the ruins of Vittoria, a once-powerful kingdom now populated by fell creatures and treasure hunters alike. After the opening sequence, cutscenes are few and far between; it’s possible to go hours without seeing a single line of dialogue. This isn’t a problem, necessarily, but it requires a different mindset than Ys or even Etrian Odyssey. I actually found myself fondly recalling Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, in that I relished every piece of narrative exposition precisely because it came so rarely. Adopt a similar attitude, and you too shall prosper.
Much in the way that a certain game-that-shall-not-be-named elicits feelings of joy and triumph from the player in spite of its dark atmosphere, Brandish wears its punishing nature on its sleeve. It’s actually not exceedingly difficult, but it does demand a thorough mastery of its mechanics, some of which take a little bit of trial-and-error to understand. The idea of inspecting each tile in a suspiciously spacious room may seem frivolous, for example, but correctly identifying pitfall traps can save the player a ton of time and frustration. A short tutorial helps to alleviate any initial confusion, although some things are left up to self-discovery. As Ares explores the grid-based dungeons of dilapidated Vittoria, he is assailed by monsters, traps, and the fiercest enemy of them all: limited inventory space. Believe me when I say that item management — specifically the efficient organization of identical item types — is crucial to success. At certain points throughout the game, Ares can gain access to “Otherworld Boxes,” which permit him to carry additional items, and these make a huge difference in how comfortably he advances through dungeons. The long (and I mean long), twisting corridors of the Ruins, Tower, and more are one part living puzzle and one part endurance test.
And speaking of twisting, the original Brandish famously employed a strange perspective-shifting mechanic wherein the dungeon itself rotated around the character, instead of the other way around. This headache-inducing feature has been dropped in favor of a more sensible camera that rotates around Ares in 90xc2xb0 increments. Control is intuitive, aside from the slightly uncomfortable position of the buttons for turning the camera and side-stepping, which are mapped to the shoulder buttons and left/right on the d-pad, respectively. I highly suggest inverting these controls via the configuration menu; it’ll save you a great number of headaches, I promise. Another welcome option is the inclusion of both the original “8-bit soundtrack” (which I’m fairly sure is actually higher-fidelity than 8-bit, but I digress) and the newly-arranged “Dark Revenant” soundtrack. I played mostly with the latter, but the lo-fi version creates a surprisingly different ambiance, so I advise giving it a go.
An accurate map is a critically important tool for any would-be dungeon-crawler, and Brandish has a mapping system in place, although it’s far from perfect. Whenever Ares steps on a new tile, the map will populate the adjacent squares, but it does not automatically marked locked doors or other places of import. Thus, manually updating the map is vital, but the interface for doing so is less than ideal, and I found it more cumbersome than helpful. I opted to limit my play sessions to those in which I could comfortably clear at least one floor, so that I didn’t lose track of what I was doing. With that said, Brandish affords the player the opportunity to save anywhere, at any time, as well as create retry points with commonly-found ‘Retry Bread.’ I can’t say I like the idea of eating moldy bread that has been sitting around for centuries in ancient ruins, but hey, it’s Ares’ digestive system, not mine. Dude’s got a gut made of stone.
Brandish feels curiously anachronistic at times, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a markedly old-school kind of RPG, one that treats the player like a capable problem-solver instead of hand-holding to excess. It can be a tiring experience, and it’s difficult to play for long stretches. Patience and commitment are key to making Brandish enjoyable. It eschews outright accessibility in favor of tough-but-fair dungeon-crawling that falls in a niche not often represented in RPGs by Japanese developers. Steel yourself, and you will succeed.