Much like Nippon Ichi’s other Strategy RPGs, Phantom Brave is not for the faint at heart. Underneath a charming exterior, complete with anthropomorphized objects, lies a deep tactical experience. This is NIS’s third release of this title. First appearing on Playstation 2 in 2004, and then again on Wii in 2009, SRPG fans can now take the ghostly adventure on the road. PSPGo owners can get in on the fun, also, as this latest re-release will be making a PSN appearance.
The game opens on the “Island of Evil” with a group of adventures under attack by particularly gruesome monsters. Tragedy strikes the party, leaving Haze and Jasmine dead, their daughter Marona orphaned, and Ash trapped in between life and death. Fast-forward 8 years to the home of Marona, an orphaned 13 year old girl. Haze’s dying act, which accidentally trapped Ash as a Phantom rather than resurrecting him entirely, provided his daughter with a guardian angel.
Marona is a Chroma (a bounty hunter) that has inherited her father’s ability to summon Phantoms to her side. We quickly find out that Marona, while sought after for her skills as a Chroma, is a social pariah. Villagers fear her ability to command the dead, even while enlisting her aid as a protector and fixer. As the story progresses, Marona and Ash encounter the same evil force that triggered events at the start of the game, ultimately finding justice for Marona’s parents.
The young girl brings together a party of ghosts to round out the fighting force, each of which fit standard SRPG archetypes (fighters, wizards, soldiers, etc). Most also serve a non-battle function: healers can restore health and resurrect the fallen, merchants sell equippable items, the monk can generate random dungeons for experience grinding, etc.
In between battles, Phantoms can serve out their secondary functions at Marona’s island home, which serves as a rest stop and save point throughout the game. Members of each different class can be willed into existence (for a nominal fee). With an additional investment, though, the summoning gets a little extra “oomph.” Additional money spent translates into assignable stat points, increasing the value of the new warrior.
Phantom Brave is fairly typical SRPG fare when it comes to combat. Movement, though, is handled absent of a grid. On one hand, this makes combat feel more organic. There are no rigid lines preventing otherwise logical movement to get next to an enemy for a close-quarters attack. On the other, getting exactly to the place you want to be can be an exercise in trial and error. I also, more than once, ended up attacking an already-fallen enemy, wasting a valuable turn. Movement commands can be done and undone as many times as you wish but once an attack is carried out, there is no going back.
Phantom Brave’s unique mechanics come into play before the first sword is swung, though. Marona is involved in every battle but needs protection as she is extremely vulnerable. In order to triumph over the beasts and demons she encounters, Phantoms must be summoned and bound to inanimate objects that dot the battlefield. Each object has an effect on a Phantom’s base stats. For example, rocks increase attack and decrease speed. Flowers increase intelligence. It is critical to confine the correct Phantom to each object.
Additionally, some objects receive protection from others. These are evidenced by a blue balloon with a number over the objects in a protection relationship. A black and white dotted arrow also appears to indicate which direction the status benefit flows in. This comes into play when confining, creating another layer of strategy decisions when planning your attack. Enemies can benefit from protections, also. In order to take down these shields, the generating object must be destroyed.
To add additional complexity, weapons can appear on the battlefield. These can be taken up with the “Lift” command. Once in-hand, these items bestow access to powerful abilities that tap into stat-based consumable points. By passing these from character to character, the special attacks can be used multiple times during a battle. Additionally, enemies can be picked up, bestowing their own sets of unique attacks. For instance, slimes bestow the ability to punch. If the enemy still has some fight, though, the close proximity makes it far too easy for them to land a hit.
One final twist in the system is that Phantoms can only remain active for a certain number of turns before dissipating. Once the limit has been reached, that specter cannot be brought back until the next battle. Thankfully, with Marona’s ability to create new allies (provided she has the money) it’s easy enough to weather longer battles. As a bonus, if a Phantom runs out of time on the battlefield, the possessed item becomes part of the inventory. Blacksmiths can be paid to unlock higher-level skills for each weapon and collected item. It’s as important to level equippables as it is to buff up their wielders.
All of the different aspects of the system are introduced through an intelligent and comprehensible tutorial. I had no confusion after going through the sample battles. That’s not to imply that combat is easy. With all of the layers of strategy, expect some trial and error as you get the hang of the system. Between random dungeons, the main story, and the “Another Merona” mode, there is well over 100 hours of gameplay here; a great value for fans of the genre.
The characters are sprite-based and the backdrops are gorgeous, vibrant still images. This works to great effect, despite treading familiar visual ground. Audio is strongly presented with a compelling score and fully voiced dialogue for the main characters. Presentation is solid, evoking memories of the 16-bit era, while still taking advantage of current-generation hardware.
All told, there is a lot to like here for SRPG fans. Admirers of NIS that missed this the last two times out, or those that have just been craving a portable release, should snatch this up. Unfortunately, it isn’t the best starting point for those looking to try out an SRPG for the first time. There are far more approachable entries in the genre with much less complex and more forgiving systems.
Review copy provided by publisher.