Now that I have overthrown the final boss, I think it is fairly safe to say that Phantom Brave (PB) is the most complicated RPG I have had the pleasure, and occasional displeasure, to play. Nippon Ichi’s (NI) newest (at least on this side of the world) strategy RPG is chock full of what makes a great strategy RPG with a heaping helping of incredible freedom and customization. Truly a culmination of NI’s wacky brand of turn-based strategy (preceded by several great games including Disgaea and La Pucelle), PB takes the series in its ultimate direction, melding all of the aspects that made their first games great into one hodgepodge of delicious gameplay. Sadly, though the system is largely innovative, it is almost too complicated for anyone but the most intrepid arm-chair adventurer.
The first thing one needs to understand about PB is that while you do indeed deploy your warriors of the dead (yes, they are dead, hence the “Phantom” moniker), how long they stay in the field as viable warriors is no longer limited to how many hit points they have left. In order to bring a warrior into play, you must “confine” him/her/it to a confine point. A good majority of every map is made up of objects a phantom can be confined to, ranging from zany object such as fish and pumpkins to mundane, everyday items such as trees or rocks.
Each confine object has its own statistics. Some objects are stronger in some areas than others and hence provide a boost in certain stats to the confined phantom. Similarly, some objects confer status penalties to the phantoms confined within them. In reality, most items provide a boost in one area and fault your warrior of the dead in another. For example, if you were to confine a phantom to a rock, your defense stat would be greatly boosted, but you would lose out on large amounts of speed. It is, therefore, highly important to strategically choose the item that will most benefit the phantom you choose to enlist for the battle.
The interesting part of confining comes from the fact that you can use almost any item (items on the map, your character’s weaponry, etc.) to either confine a demon, or use as a weapon. Not only can you whip out a rock and start beating on your hapless opponents with it, you can even pick up his dead body and use it to beat on his teammates! Add in the fact that a phantom will only stay confined to an object for a set number of turns (based on their character class) and that they will sometimes take the item they were confined to with them permanently, and you have in place a system so strategic that your mind will, at times, boggle.
Once you have figured out how to confine your minions correctly, it is now time to begin battling. Gone are the grid-like maps of old, and welcome are the free-roaming dioramas contained within PB. The levels are ingeniously designed and lavishly detailed. Moving around is very slick, and the targeting features work well. One main problem with this system, however, is that since pretty much anything can free roam and stack on each other, battles often devolve into big mosh-pits of confusion. You will constantly accidentally hit your own teammates until you painfully learn how to battle while standing on top of other objects. It is all rather jumbled, and at times left me longing for the grids of old.
Where in previous Nippon Ichi games you would either simply level up or “transmigrate” (start back at level 1 with enhanced stats), in PB, powering up is done in a myriad of ways. First off, there is an incredibly deep fusion system in place whereby you can “fuse” certain objects with each other, completely destroying the object being fused but (hopefully) powering up the object that is the target of said fusion. The system is incredibly intricate and detailed, using a “mana” source (earned from defeating enemies) to transfer over abilities, statistics and equip percentages (how much of its stats it passes on to its user). By using and abusing the fusion system, you can create incredibly powerful weapons of destruction and in fact, if you truly wish to master the game, fusion will be your best friend.
Sadly, fusing is almost too complicated. It took me almost 35 hours to really figure out all of the in-depth details, and I have no doubt that I don’t even know the half of it. That is really one of the downsides of PB: it is simply too complicated. Keeping track of how everything works, what kind of statistics each item can bestow upon the item it is being fused to, and how that will transfer over to your characters (you can transfer skills too!) is incredibly complicated and not very intuitive.
To top off an already way-too-complicated system, PB throws all sorts of methods to power up your warriors at you. Each item in the game is equipped with a “title” which basically handles the way it will evolve. Statistics, equip percentages, bonuses, even color are affected by the item or warrior’s title. It is a crucial aspect to the game and easily overlooked. I went about 15 hours through the game without ever having any idea what to do with a title. Sadly this made my initial experience excruciating, creating a very unnecessary difficulty curve.
One could truly go on for hours about all of the customization and complicated, in-depth systems involved with playing through PB. Weapons and skills can be leveled and powered up. Random dungeons can be created that can both help you level and help you obtain insane items of destruction and salvation. Characters can be interacted with, lifted, thrown, etc. All in all, the incredible learning curve involved with the legion of insane gameplay tweaks available to you is enough that you could write a book about it. It all boils down a very frustrating, yet ultimately sophisticated and rewarding system.
PB’s storyline is much more serious and bittersweet than most of NI’s previous workings. You begin as a phantom named Ash who is charged with defending his best friend’s child, Marona, after her parents are destroyed by the same evil being who put Ash into his transparent state. The game skirts some interesting issues such as prejudice, revenge, and even alcoholism. The story is told through well-animated cut-scenes that are fully voice-acted and as interesting as could possibly be with a story like this. While the basic concept behind the plot is rather interesting, it sadly falls back into the same old “defeat age-old being of pure evil that is threatening the world” theology.
Character interaction is, thankfully, up to NI’s usual standards. The interaction between Ash and Marona is both touching and even humorous at times. You will actually feel something for Marona as she goes from being hated and alienated by everyone around her and eventually makes her way into the world and into the hearts of those around her.
Graphically, PB contains some very slick sprite-based artwork. The graphics are nowhere near realistic, and those of you weaned on the polygonal wonders found in games such as Final Fantasy X and Xenosaga may not appreciate them. Those of us that grew up with sprite based games such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III (on the Super NES), however, will be in awe of how cleanly the characters animate and how colorful and robust the environments are. The scenarios are slightly darker than those found in La Pucelle and slightly lighter than those found in Disgaea, providing a very nice medium between the two. The environments found in Marona’s world are both diverse and well-detailed, providing for a wonderful experience as one explores the many islands contained within.
Sonically, PB falls a little flat. The musical pieces themselves are actually quite catchy and fit the mood quite well, but they suffer from one fatal flaw: There simply are not enough of them. You will have heard three quarters of the soundtrack by the time you are ten hours into the game, and after that it tends to get a bit repetitive. I am a big believer that the music found within a game can truly make the experience, and while it certainly did for a while, by the end I was starting to get a little bored of the same tracks over and over again, thus lessening the emotional appeal of certain plot points. Add in the fact that some battles can go on and on for a good amount of time, with the same track playing over and over again, and you have a soundtrack that is beautiful, yet limited.
PB is something of an anomaly. On one hand the game is lovingly crafted with a superb amount of customization and options available. On the other hand, the insurmountable quantity of tasks that can be performed are so incredibly daunting that the number of people who would actually enjoy the game is very limited. I would say that I didn’t truly start to enjoy it until about my twentieth hour in (when I finally figured out titles and fusion), which is a very substantial time investment, far more so than most would perhaps allow. Basically, if you know what you are getting in to, PB can be a wonderful game if you are into heavily strategic RPGs. The amount of replay possible is immense, and I found myself wanting to play the game much more at the end than I ever did at the beginning, which is truly a first for me. PB definitely contains some heavy bang for your buck, but keep in mind that you will be investing a good amount of time to compensate.