Oh! Oh, hey! I remember this game! Released for the PlayStation 2 way back in 2005, Phantom Brave is one of the few games in my collection that I never got around to beating. Of the game’s twenty chapters, eleven was my magic number, and once I hit it, I stopped. I don’t really know why, but I just stopped. And for these past four years, its 303 KB of memory have been mooching up space on my memory card and he-hawing at those who scoff at his unwelcome loitering. He usually spends his free time on Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland’s farm with that bad apple, Ephemeral Fantasia. If his mother, Jade Cocoon 2, asks, you didn’t hear it from me.
So here we are in 2009, where it’s hip as a hippo’s hiney to re-release games that quite frankly have no business being re-released at all (good day to you, Square Enix). With the Wii a bit lacking in the RPG department, Nippon Ichi has decided to port this once obscure little title to Nintendo’s next-gen console in the form of Phantom Brave: Wii Meet Again. Yes, that typo was intentional, and yes, that is what the game should have been called.
For those who looked the other way when the game first hit store shelves, Phantom Brave is a strategy RPG in a similar vein to NIS’s other tactical creations. It also happens to host completely deviant content, including a thirteen-year-old female protagonist, free-roaming/gridless battles and walking boars in business suits. Disgaea this certainly is not.
The story follows Marona, a small in stature and wholly independent little girl with an eternal upside-down frown. Branded as an outcast by society due to her ability to summon phantoms (those trapped between life and death), Marona has spent most of her life slandered and alone, associating herself with few people other than her Phantom guardian, Ash. Having died alongside Marona’s parents nearly eight years ago, Ash has since pledged his loyalty to the little one, protecting her from the harsh realities of the world she lives in.
To make ends meet, Marona works as a Chroma, a mercenary of sorts who completes dangerous jobs for those with meatless muscles like mine. Because of her status as “The Possessed One”, jobs are few and far between, and even when they do come, her employers try their damndest to loophole their way out of paying her in full. Heck, most of them don’t even pay at all. But strangely enough, it usually doesn’t bother Marona. Her mindset is one of great optimism, always telling herself that if she keeps helping others, one day, everyone will eventually like her.
At its heart, Phantom Brave is an updated tale of the ugly duckling, and for that, the story is a success. Marona is an immensely endearing character who remains sympathetic and wholesome for the entire stretch of the game. Her victories are as heartwarming as her defeats are crushing, and I found myself rooting for her time and time again. Her endless amounts of pep and optimism mold her into a JRPG cliché of sorts, but even then, her childlike nature makes it seem so much more genuine than older heroes in positions similar to hers.
Unfortunately, the story takes a bone-shattering nosedive about three-fourths of the way into the game when it replaces its ugly duckling mentality with a tried-and-fail save the world alternative. It’s a real shame it goes in that direction because Marona’s amateur adventuring that commands the initial story events really have something special going for them. Watching Marona make her first true friend is just so much more gripping than assisting her in uniting the entire nation against the most sinister of evils. I felt that her world didn’t need to be so… grandiose.
Save for some lackluster story elements, the world of Phantom Brave is brimming with some creative ideas and oftentimes beautiful locales. It’s a world where letters arrive by sea within walking glass bottles. It’s a world populated by bearded squirrel royalty and sharks wearing tropical t-shirts and sandals. It’s a world… with an undeniably outdated presentation.
As bright and colorful as everything is, Phantom Brave doesn’t sport the greatest of graphics. That might seem like a “duh” sentence to Phantom Brave veterans, but for everyone else, they’re probably going to be let down by this Wii-make. I can clearly see that some polish has been glossed over what was seen in the PS2 version, but even then, We Meet Again doesn’t offer a full-on graphical overhaul. Character sprites are stale and mostly unimpressive, and environments and spell effects feature jagged edges and sloppy textures. During story events, however, players are greeted with absolutely beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds. The entire game has this fantastic nautical, salty (the beach kind of salty, not the “I’m a sailor and I know seventeen different ways to say ****” kind), metropolistic feel to it, and nowhere does it come across better than in these image stills.
The tropical environments come paired with an equally spectacular musical score, which I consider to be the highlight of the entire game. Despite the game’s summery atmosphere, there aren’t a lot of tunes that really match up with that, though what we do get ultimately fills the bill just fine. Much of Phantom Brave’s music has an airy, churchy flare to it, meaning that players will hear a lot of melodies involving hums and chants and all other sorts of vocal accompaniments. Marona’s island which doubles as the hub of the game, for example, features a la-la tune that’s sung in this strangely angelic fashion. It’s almost as catchy as the harmonica-heavy Wild West number that plays during certain key battles throughout the story.
Sound effects are pretty awful, though. Okay, so they’re really not that bad, but I do recall laughing at their horrendousness at times. I remember this boat scene later on in the game where the waves sound like someone was just blowing through their teeth into a microphone. That’s the last thing I’d want to hear while listening to a seashell.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, there’s a lot to say. Phantom Brave has no dearth in bumpy learning curves and customizable options for players to wrap their heads around. I’m not even convinced that I was able to master all of them by the time I hit that final chapter.
Before the battles actually happen, players get to run around Phantom Island, Marona’s home and base of operations. Here is where all your party management takes place, from character creation and the equipment they’ll hold to weapon synthesis and skill enhancement. The best part about the island, though? Anything in your possession, whether a character or item, can be thrown around like a ragdoll and strewn wherever you’d like it to go. Parcels can be stacked on top of each other to create staircases that ascend scarily high into the air, with hidden unlockables awarded to those committed enough to create the most towering pile of crap they can.
Once you’re done with the island’s little diversions, story events and the battles that come alongside them can be found on the world map. While it can be said that Disgaea is a mindless, level-dependant game, Phantom Brave tries desperately to be the opposite. Strategy is most certainly a key player here. With Marona being a little girl, she’s not exactly physically equipped to defend herself, requiring her to place her army of recruited phantoms on the front lines. At any given time during Marona’s turn, the tike can call forth her ghostly disciples by Confining them to the scattered items surrounding her (rocks, trees, weapons, dolly-carts, bombs, fish, you name it). Each item grants various bonuses or penalties depending on its inherent properties. So if you’ve got a mage on the backburner, a magic-boosting shrub would be ideal, while a tough and sturdy rock would brutalize her proficiencies. A pillar might increase your axe-wielder’s attack by 50%, but will the 70% speed reduction make him too slow to swing that steel at all?
What’s more is that Phantoms can only remain on the field for a set number of turns before they vanish completely. If a map is sprawling and multi-tiered, for example, you might want to, you know, actually think about it before busting out your strongest teammates right at the get-go. That is unless you enjoy being stuck at the tail end of a lengthy battle with the cute, but oh so worthless Marona with no one to back her up.
In addition to the summoning mechanics, some items might be boasting a Protection spell to even further shake up battling conventions. Say there’s a vase on the other side of the battle field. That vase might be sending a Protection spell to three other items near Marona, such as +20% defense or unlimited turns in battle. By Confining to those items, your characters receive those additional effects, so long as the item sending them doesn’t get destroyed. Enemies can benefit from this as well. The game loves giving bosses invincibility Protection, forcing you to get rid of the item (or God help you, items) before being able to damage the boss at all.
Other than that, the battle system is fairly normal. Players take turns moving around a gridless field (each character can move within a certain circular radius as opposed to individual squares) and cutting each other to pieces. There aren’t any external missions or conditions for Marona to complete, making battles nothing more than a kill or be killed sort of thing. Thanks to the Protection system, however, there are a ton of different effects to be wary of, which brings some much-needed diversity to the otherwise vanilla process.
The thing that prevents the game’s score from going any higher is balance. It seemed as though I was never really sure what sort of damage output my characters and those attacking them were going to actually have. It wasn’t necessarily random, but it certainly wasn’t consistent. I found myself astounded at how powerful enemies were despite their shown stats, and how puny my own characters were, even when I knew their capabilities. In games like these, being able to predict results based on what you’ve encountered previously is what leads to strategic thinking. But with Phantom Brave, things constantly seemed out of whack and haphazard, leaving me with few options other than level grinding to get out of a tough bind.
From a control standpoint, Phantom Brave is more or less the same game that it was four years ago, but tinkering has been done to make it play much nicer. The controls and menu interface have received a much-needed boost in the way everything handles. Navigation and button inputs are still clunky and strangely complicated at times, but I’d say what we’re given here is a significant improvement over what we saw in the PS2 version. Players are also given multiple control options utilizing the Wii-mote, nunchuck, and GameCube controller, and while I personally found anything other than the GC controls hideous, the options are there, and it’s a nice touch on NIS’s end.
It’s also worth mentioning that due to the gridless character mobility, movement controls in battle can be quite odd. At times, you might be trying to simply jump onto a ledge, but instead of executing that seamlessly, your character jumps onto it, back down, then up again, over and over until its movement limit has been reached. Even moving in a straight line might prove troublesome, as there were times when my characters decided to veer off at counterproductive angles and end up in places I hadn’t originally envisioned. Thankfully, players can reset their turn at any time, though it’s still a minor quibble.
To wrap things up, let’s take a look at the extra goodies that give purpose to this remake! Aside from the aforementioned control buffs and interface tweaking, We Meet Again comes packed with Another Marona, an entirely new scenario designed for players already familiar with the primary adventure. This separate campaign features brand new characters (both NPC and playable), new Confining objects and weapons (my favorites being the Breezy Watermelon and Stupid Bonfire), and of course, a new storyline to follow. The “what if”/alternate dimension plot really didn’t do anything for me, and I found myself completely underwhelmed with the unoriginality of it all, but just like the main tale, Another Marona isn’t without its tender moments. The content isn’t worthy of an applause, but I will give it a few claps for the effort.
Recommending Phantom Brave: We Meet Again is a bit troublesome. For those who have already held Marona’s hand when the game first made its appearance? I don’t know; I think your fifty bucks can be better spent elsewhere. Another Marona is nothing more than a duct-taped arm on a body that didn’t really need it in the first place. Sure, it’s nice to have, but it’s also pointless and limp, and you can’t cook pancakes with it. But hey, if you missed the party back in 2005, it’s definitely a worthy pick up. Ash and Marona’s adventures through the tropics and beyond could very well be one of the Wii’s best role-playing offerings yet.