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Death and Tactics
By Jake Alley
Nippon Ichi's Disgaea: Hour of Darkness set the bar for quirky offbeat Tactical RPGs. Now, hot on the heels of their last title, they raise that bar several notches with Phantom Brave, a game with more unconventional twists than the genre has seen in years.
The plot of Phantom Brave is well grounded when compared to the gameplay. The decidedly character-driven story centers on an overly nice young orphan girl named Marona who commands an army of phantoms, and also on Ash, a phantom dedicated to protecting her. Together the two travel the world, encountering some surprisingly complex characters, a good deal of prejudice, and this being a Tactical RPG, a great deal of combat.
Combat is where things get interesting. As Marona is the only living character under the player's command, she is the only character initially present in battles. To deploy the rest of one's party, a special ability of Marona's must be used, confining these characters to items scattered across the battlefield, ranging from traditional weapons, to rocks and trees, or even such bizarre items as starfish and abandoned mine carts. This takes the item off the map, and leaves the character in its place. Depending on what item a character is confined to, large bonuses and penalties are applied to that character's stats. A character confined to a rock for example will receive bonuses to their attack and defense, but penalties to intelligence and speed, while most plants tend to be just the opposite. Additionally, while a good number of characters may be out at any given time, after several turns on the field, characters will disappear for the duration of the battle, occasionally taking the items they are confined to with them. This lends a tremendous amount of strategy to the game, as one not only has to decide which characters to bring out, but which items to bind them to, and which characters to save for the end of the battle so they don't disappear while walking to the largest enemies. Things are complicated even further by the fact that in addition to serving as anchors for character deployment, the various items on the map may grant special bonuses and penalties to various characters and items until destroyed. Additionally, everything on the map, from rocks and trees, to corpses, other characters, and even enemies, may be picked up and used as weapons.
This is just one of the many strange concepts that abound in battle. Movement, which at first may seem simple as the game lacks the traditional grid-based positioning of most TRPGs, is greatly effected by terrain. Characters will slide around on some terrain, allowing a careful player to traverse the whole map in a single turn, but making it quite difficult to position oneself to use a special attack. On other terrain, dropping from a higher elevation or as the result of an attack will cause characters to bounce off the ground and soar off a great distance. Even stranger, characters and items can be thrown or knocked off the edges of the map, removing them from battle entirely, although measures are in place to prevent the player from simply tossing every enemy they encounter to their doom.
When not in combat, most of one's time is spent on a private island populated by one's characters and items. Those feeling creative can spend a great deal of time positioning their possessions in an artistic fashion here, and various character classes fill the roles of NPCs. If the player has a merchant standing around, better weapons and armor can be purchased from her as she gains levels. If characters need to be fixed up, the healer class will do so for a fee. Various other classes allow one to customize characters and items to an impressive degree, unlocking and transferring the hundreds of special skills in the game, although most simply provide amusing snippets of random dialog.
Of course, all these fresh and original ideas do come at something of a price. Rather than a steadily increasing difficulty curve, battles in Phantom Brave swing wildly back and forth between decidedly easy to exceptionally challenging. Periodically having to take a break from the story and work out a new strategy for a particularly difficult battle only to find the next laughably simple can be quite jarring. Additionally, several battles, particularly early on, have an uncomfortable degree of chance involved. Many enemies can easily steal away one's weapons or knock a crucial character off the map just after battle begins.
Aesthetically, Phantom Brave offers up what one has come to expect from Nippon Ichi. Polygonal backgrounds, hand drawn characters, and a fairly mellow soundtrack dominate the game. While nothing about the look and sound of the game is irritating, the style of both is so low key that nothing stands out as particularly memorable. Plot points are more memorable, as they feature higher quality 2D artwork and well done voice acting, with the player's choice of either Japanese or English dialogue. Players expecting the wacky dialogue of Disgaea won't find it here, but there's still a chuckle or two to be had.
Overall, Phantom Brave is one of the freshest and most innovative games to grace the genre in years. While it may be a little rough around the edges, and it lacks the sheer volume of extra challenges Disgaea offered, those seeking something new and different won't be disappointed.
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