In early 2016, NIS America ported the first game in their seminal franchise, Disgaea, to PC. While the initial release of Disgaea PC had some technical difficulties, it stood to reason that more of NIS America’s classic properties could see new life on the PC as well. This past summer, they followed it up with a PC port of one of their lesser known, though still beloved, titles in Phantom Brave PC.
Originally released on the PlayStation 2 in 2004, Phantom Brave was ported to both the Wii, with Phantom Brave: We Meet Again (2009), and the PSP, with Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle (2011). Phantom Brave PC combines all of the enhancements of those two ports, including the extra scenario, “Another Marona,” and additional playable characters into the definitive version of the game.
The tale of Phantom Brave PC takes place on Ivoire, a world where residents live on various islands sprinkled throughout its waterlogged landscape. On one of those tiny islands lives Marona, a 13-year-old girl and her Phantom companion Ash. Ash was a friend of Marona’s parents, who were killed in battle eight years before the events of the game, and has sworn to protect her even in the Phantom form he now embodies after falling alongside them. Marona survives by working as a Chroma and taking on jobs for the inhabitants of Ivoire in return for payment. Unfortunately, Marona’s life is both blessed and cursed by the fact that she can communicate with Phantoms. While it provides her the power to work and succeed in such a dangerous profession, it also causes the residents of Ivoire to loathe her and label her “Possessed.”
This manifestation of human (and anthropomorphic) ignorance and intolerance serves as the crux of the main narrative in Phantom Brave PC. Sure, there’s an “oh no something evil has returned” story in here, but it takes a backseat to what, at times, feels like an after school special. In fact, this secondary story really only starts to gain steam about halfway through the game. The game’s approach to showing the player that people are flawed but ultimately redeemable is incredibly heavy-handed. Marona even gets hate mail for goodness’ sake. Focusing the story on a young girl’s experience in a cold world full of bigotry, betrayal, and loneliness is an interesting direction to take, and there are genuine moments of tragedy here, but the character-driven narrative seemed mostly superficial and shallow. Phantom Brave PC’s attempt to structure it’s story around character growth rather than some generic, ubiquitous evil is commendable, but it certainly could have been more complex and woven into the greater narrative in a less conspicuous way.
Don’t let the story and saccharine-sweet protagonist fool you. At the heart of Phantom Brave PC lies a deep and hardcore strategy RPG, one of the earliest in the SRPG-rich catalog for which NIS has become known that’s as fun as it is unforgiving. Battles are fought on familiar isometric maps using various classes of Phantoms that Marona can deploy by “confining” them to objects on the battlefield. A quirk to this system is that depending on the object to which it is confined, several of the Phantom’s stats are buffed or debuffed. Additionally, the Phantoms can only remain on the map for a predetermined number of turns before they disappear and become unusable for the duration of the battle. This forces the player to think about which Phantoms they want to deploy, where they want to deploy them, and when they want to set them loose. It may seem like a small matter, but it required me to survey the landscape and enemies before each battle and kept them from feeling too repetitive.
Players can interact with items on the battlefield in other ways, too. For example, items, like characters, have skills. Equipping a rock will grant a Phantom stat modifiers and the ability to use the rock’s skills. Players can even pick up characters, conscious or not, and use them to execute combo skills. Enemies can do all of this as well, by the way, meaning battles are interactive affairs that require the player to react to actions the enemies take. With some other quirks thrown in, it’s a very engaging battle system that I found extremely enjoyable.
Another distinguishing feature of the Phantom Brave PC battles is that the maps are gridless, a noted departure from the SRPG genre. This means that Phantoms can freely roam across the map within their set move range, and area of effect skills are not represented by tiles but rather more realistic 3D areas. The downside to this is that, at least with a controller, it can sometimes be tough to target the correct area or enemy without a good bit of camera manipulation.
Phantom Brave PC’s fusion system is the focal point of the game’s depth and complexity. Players can fuse characters, objects collected from battle maps, and weapons in all sorts of combinations to boost stats and gain skills. This can be quite addicting and may lead to some incredibly powerful weapons and Phantoms. It’s a deep system that players barely need to touch on to complete the main story, but it’s an absolute must to even attempt the post-game content. It’s an NIS game, so the post-game content is pretty substantial. Prepare for the grind.
The high-resolution 2D art and character portraits in Phantom Brave PC look fantastic. The backgrounds during cutscenes are particularly vibrant and the revamped UI is crisp with sharp fonts. Conversely, the sprites have not aged well and are somewhat blurry at times. This is particularly noticeable during cutscenes, where character sprites are very large and are set against the updated backgrounds. They look very out of place, jarring me out of the moment the first few times I experienced them. Still, the character models themselves retain their charm and ultimately don’t detract too severely from the overall experience.
Phantom Brave PC’s soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, from the upbeat humming vocals of the title screen to the invigorating battle themes. The woodwind, string, and vocal combinations are excellent throughout. “Strange Wind” now stands as one of my all-time favorite pieces of game music. I recommend checking out the soundtrack. The only negative I can say about the music is that I wish there was more of it. The sound score here gets knocked down a bit because of the unevenness of the voice acting, however. There is a lot of it in Phantom Brave PC, and it ranges from solid to cringeworthy. Thankfully, the worst parts of it are generally reserved for bit characters, though some minor recurring characters can be quite bad.
With Phantom Brave, NIS was still getting into its SRPG stride and took some chances with both story and gameplay elements rather than milking the success of Disgaea. The more serious, less goofy attempt at narrative falls short, but the unique gameplay elements make this a fun and addicting SRPG in its own right. The PC port of this little gem is worth checking out even if you’re not a hardcore NIS fan, particularly if you’re looking for an SRPG that offers something just a little different.