Phantom Brave is very much a turn for the unexpected from Nippon Ichi, a game that (for the most part) puts away the upbeat comedy styling’s of their other titles and instead tells a story that’s bitter-sweet.
Released between their break-through hit ‘Disgaea’ and experimental extravaganza ‘Makai Kingdom’, Phantom Brave feels like the odd-one out in the Nippon Ichi library but it’s gathered a cult following and its characters are usually among the first released as downloadable content when new games come out of the studio. After the sugary sweetness of the Marl Kingdom series and the off-beat comedy of ‘Disgaea’ it’s possible that Nippon Ichi wanted to show that they could compete with the more ‘serious’ themes that other Tactical RPGs had been pushing at the time. This they accomplish without bending to a brown and grey colour pallet.
Visually the game is somewhat at odds with its story’s emotional clout, depicting the games world in the usual visual style from the studio and on occasion seeming a little too ‘anime’ for its own good, but this has the reverse effect of making the game’s leading character that much more likable. She’s depicted in that sweet-spot that Manga manages to accomplish where a teenager can appear younger without it breaking belief, and the player genuinely sees the impact of a harsh world on her. Her guardian, Ash is in parallel depicted as lanky and tall, enabling him to stand over her in a protective manner. Monster and background designs follow the usual trend, though the game does use a seaside theme to great effect, placing her home on an island where she’s truly alone. Menus and 2D illustrated elements are likably designed and the game uses larger sprites for some key scenes to better depict emotion.
Whilst the story and visuals stand out immediately in the memory, sound is harder to distinguish. Many of the games sound effects are re-used from previous titles, though they do the job very well and maintain their impact. Tenpei Sato returns to compose the game’s score and whilst he fills moments with a sad, fairytale quality it never reaches the heights of his other works, rendering the soundtrack a little weak. Vocal performances are strong, in particular Sandy Fox as Marona and Lex Lang as Ash, but almost every character feels well cast throughout the games run.
The narrative in Phantom Brave follows a young girl by the name of Marona who has the ability to see and communicate with phantoms, making her what’s known as a ‘Chartreuse’ in the games setting. She makes a living using these powers as a ‘Chroma’ (a form of adventurer for hire) and is largely shunned by people who don’t want her immediate help, even living alone on an island and communicating through letters. At the game’s opening we see Ash, accompanied by Marona’s parents in a no-win situation and he promises to look out for Marona. Dying alongside them, he finds himself between life and death, bound to be her guardian and sole companion. He’s well intentioned and can’t be seen by others, causing incidents when he speaks aloud and objecting to Marona’s self-deprecating nature. The game is essentially a slow-build up to the realisation that a being called Sulphur is attempting to cross over from the phantom realm into the mortal world and their efforts to stop him, but a major focus is put on Marona’s attempts to make friends and be accepted, often with heart-breaking consequences. Eventually however people begin to subtly soften to her acts of selflessness. It’s a very mature story, told in an accessible manner.
Gameplay is, for the most part, quite similar to that of a standard Tactical RPG, though Phantom Brave makes a few specific alterations to the traditional formula. For starters it removes the grid from battles, allowing characters to move freely within a sphere influenced by their stats. Attacks also have their own ranges (displayed when you select them) and although this provides a slightly ‘floaty’ feeling to positioning units it does enable multiple enemies to be hit with a single attack where a grid-based title would have limited its range to a single enemy. In many ways it’s a similar system to ‘Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits’ in this regard. The map is also without edges, enabling characters to be thrown, blown and slip off of its edge and go ‘out of bounds’, disabling them for the rest of the battle. Phantoms are recruited using a creation system similar to that of ‘Disgaea’ but are fused using mana collected from killing enemies to increase their level cap and add new abilities. A phantom called the ‘Dungeon Monk’ can even generate a random dungeon for you to explore in a manner similar to the Item World. Phantoms that are defeated in battle have their type (class) added to the pool of recruitable characters and mana can also be combined with items to make them stronger. Summoning phantoms into battle is the game’s biggest strategic element, with the player having to bind them to an item on-screen for a limited duration of activity before they vanish again. This can be a tree, rock, etc and the type of item affects their stats. This closely times period also makes battles more pressing and encourages faster tactics than the usual slow-moving squad approach.
Phantom Brave is a good game, though don’t expect to like it just because you enjoyed ‘Disgaea’ or ‘La Pucelle’ as the tone is very different from those titles. It has solid mechanics and a re-release for the Nintendo Wii that added new content. I’d advise this to be the version purchased, as it can actually be cheaper than purchasing the PlayStation 2 edition in some places. If you’re looking for a story that can hook you and take you on an emotional journey then Phantom Brave is the game for you.