Malik (6/2/05)

Phantom Brave (PS2)

From NIS

This is a game that I had long awaited when I first learned it was coming to the states. That would be about a year ago, as I was playing La Pucelle Tactics (shortly after finishing Disgaea). Yeah. I got hooked on NIS games. They were able to take the old tactical RPG genre and give it new life through unique twists on both plot (and narrative style) and game play elements. 

Phantom Brave seemed to offer the same levels of uniqueness that would once again show to the world that NIS could breath new life into an aging genre. However, before I could play it and find out for myself if this would be true, I had to wait. Phantom Brave had the misfortune of coming in the Fall of 2004. This was that horrible time when too many good games came out, and there was too little time and money for a geek to enjoy them all. So, I pushed back PB until I figured I could fit it into my schedule. That would be the Spring of 2005. 

So, in the end, the big question still remains. Did NIS continue their magic and help to further redefine this genre? Let's see... 


Let's try to be nice here...ok, screw that...the plot is horrible. I hate to say it, but NIS forgot to include a real plot in this game. In fact, after 30+ hours to finish the real quest, I am still left wondering if half of the game was even needed. 

The primary plot is really simple. About 8 years ago, three chromas (mercenaries) went to the Island of Evil. Yeah. NIS was so uncreative this time that they even resorted to naming the most evil island in the island nation of Ivoire "Island of Evil". Yeah, that's original. Anyway, these three chromas get killed by an (yeah, you guessed it) evil monster. As a final show of power, one of them does some sort of magic on Ash, a member of these three chromas. 

8 years later, we are introduced to Marona. She's the child of two of these dead chromas. We also see the one who was effected by the final magic spell is still with her, as a phantom. Marona is determined to become a great chroma, like her parents, with the help of Ash and her ability to summon phantoms to do her bidding. However, she also has to deal with the resentment of the common people due to her ability to summon phantoms. For this, she is dubbed "the possessed one" and is shunned by all. Her only solace is to live on "Phantom Island" by herself, with a chance to occasionally do a job to earn her living and to help out those who need help. 

It sounds like the start of a great story, right? Ok, the start of a good story, at least. Well, that's were this plot line ends for a long time. I think it would be considered a spoiler to reveal anymore, since we don't learn anymore for about 10 hours of game play. Needless to say, it will eventually involve a great evil coming back from a 30 year banishment to the Island of Evil (surprised? I didn't think you would be). 

As Marona helps out people, she also slowly finds friends and removes the stigma against her. This part of the plot is very similar to Legend of Mana (Square, for the PSX). You see small glimpses of side characters from time to time and soon learn how they all inter-relate to the state of the world. However, unlike LoM, this is don't in a bit too brief and blunt of a way to ever feel yourself being attached to the plot. 

Overall, the plot is just not present. More times than not, an episode (the game is split into 20 episodes) will feel as worthwhile as an episode of a common sitcom. In other words, you will find yourself wondering if that really was the best way to use 1-2 hours of game play. You will also usually come to the same conclusion; nope, it was a waste of time. 

Game Play 

PB takes a different take on the standard tactical RPG rules that the classics, like Shining Force, have used. It goes with NIS's philosophy of always trying to do things a little differently. With Disgaea, they showed some interesting uses of abilities to throw enemies to create more powerful foes, with La Pucelle Tactics they had energy streams and exorcisms to control or destroy powerful foes. Well, with PB they kept up the idea of keeping things fresh and different. However, this time they may have taken things a little too far. 

First off, the grid system of SF, Disgaea, and LPT is gone. You can move freely in any direction. You also can attack in the same grid free method. It's basically like what was done with Arc the Lad: TotS. It's nothing new, but it is something that has been done successfully and should have been continues from Arc's lead. This is a very good way to manage many combatants in a limited area (the battle map). It means that you can have more strategy in your combat, and it means that a minor mistake could be far more costly as you accidentally move too many characters a little too close as an enemy spellcaster moves in with a massive AoE spell ready to fire. There is nothing wrong with giving this extra level of control, and strategy. 

However, there is something quite wrong with PB's method of dispatching fighters to a battle. You have to "confine" each of Marona's phantoms into objects to have them participate in combat. Also, each phantom only has a limited number of turns before they are un-confined from battle. On top of this, whatever you summon a phantom into will effect it's abilities. If you place a phantom in a rock, it will obviously be more defensive, but it will also be slower. If you place an object in a plant, it will be more intelligent (since flowers While this gives you more strategy in a battle, it can also cause more frustration as the game will often times be rather stingy, in later levels, on how many objects are present and what type of bonuses and penalties they give. You'll find mages are not welcome in the last few chapters as the plants vanish from the battle field. 

Also, each object may have an effect on it from another object that will further complicate things. For example, THAT stump in the corner may be forcing all of the objects it influences to be invincible. So, if you confine a phantom in one of the influenced objects, it will be invincible. However, the enemies may be under that influence too. This means you'll be forced to determine, in very few turns (since your phantoms will only be confined for 4 or 5 turns, at best, on average) to eliminate a certain object to initiate combat. Also, if you confine a phantom to this object that's granting the invincibility, then you will have to either wait for your character to no longer be confined, or you'll have to kill this phantom, to destroy the object to start to initiate actual combat. 

If you're starting to think this is a good thing, you are thinking right, but you're ignoring the fact that NIS made some poorly designed battle fields, and this type of over-strategizing is only going to give the player a headache. It is not fun to have to plan combat about 10 rounds into the future with each battle. Plus, once all of your good combatants have been confined and have poofed, you will be left with the wussiest RPG character of all time (Marona) to die on her own from weaker enemies. 

As for equipment, your characters can each be confined with a pre-set item in their possession. This item can bhe anything from a scroll (for spells), to a weapon, to a rock, to a fish, to a flower, to whatever else you can find. You can either buy these items (which is hard at the start since you don't start to really make money in PB until the 10th or so episode), or you may, depending on your characters stats, steal it with your character when it's time to be confined has ended. Either way, don't expect to get fun items until late in the game. 

Also, you can combine and upgrade characters and equipment just like in Disgaea and LPT. Except in PB you will earn "mana" as you battle, and this will be your currency to buy upgrades and skills. However, just like with other NIS titles, you can go well beyond the required 60 or so levels needed to finish the main quest. In fact, like with those other two NIS games, you can make your characters reach level 9999 if you're truly obsessed with the boring plot and headache inducing combat. Once you reach the triple and quadruple digit levels, you can expect the normal quest to be a cake-walk. 

You also, like in Disgaea, make your party. There are only two set characters in the normal game, Ash and Marona. Beyond them, your party is made by your spending some money. You can "create" and "summon" (or buy) anything from humans with different jobs (witch, merchant, healer, fighter, amazon, etc) to monsters with jobs (Owl Knight, Owl Sage, etc) to normal monsters (dragons, merfolk, etc). However, each newly created character will be level 1. So, if you get the ability to make a dragon late in the game, only expect to use it if you invest some major time leveling it. 

There are also some phantoms whose jobs will be used outside of battle. Merchants and healers are pretty obvious, but there are some unique and interesting ones. There is a "titlist" who applies titles to your characters and weapons. These titles will boost (or penalize) your stats, give an occasional extra combat skill, and even be used to exploit the game. You will tend to find better titles are you create new phantoms of the same class/type as your most powerful characters. There's also a "fusionist" who lets you fuse items and characters together to make more powerful ones. There's a blacksmith who will draw extra power out of items (for the cost of mana). "Witches" will let your reorganize your skills outside of combat for more ease of use in combat. There's a "dungeon monk" who will let you make bonus dungeons of varying difficulty... 

...and using this with a titlist, you can exploit the game like no other. By applying the worst title on a dungeon, you can gain massive levels with a little thought. This will be the only way most players will find the patience to finish this game. I mention this exploit in a review to state that I would've never finished PB if not for exploits like this to get my characters strong enough to overwhelm the final 14 episodes. 

So, while NIS is still giving plenty of amazing features and concepts, they fall short in giving too much. There are too many new factors to take into account. This will lead to a major hassle that isn't even worth it with how poorly devised the plot is. 


Well, if you've seen La Pucelle Tactics and Disgaea, then you've seen these visuals before. If you haven't, well, just look at the pictures. This game is not going to win over any fans of eye-candy. The visuals are, in most cases, about as good as a mid-Playstation generation got. 

In some of the dialogue screens, you will sometimes be treated to some really simplistic 2D profiles of the characters. These profiles will have a few minor animations, like the ability to pick up a bottle and pour the contents into a glass. That's as complex as it gets. 

The rest of the game is viewed with the combat engine. You have a basic 3/4 view world that can be rotated in 90 degree increments. You can zoom through three levels of zoom (way too close, a little too close, and too far away). The zoom levels are quite poorly chosen, and can cause some annoyances, especially when you're trying to locate the source of an augmentation on an object in combat (remember that invincibility example?). These augmentations are shown by a dashed line that will connect the object you've selected with the object being influenced or causing the influence. Sadly, you can rarely zoom and angle the camera to see the proper connections. Worse yet, you cannot rotate in less than 90 degree increments, so you can't even line these lines straight up and down or side to side to more easily guess where they come from. 

So, in the end, you are left with a new and crappy effect; bad camera controls in a tactical RPG. This is truly a first for me. It won't actually ruin the game, but it will cause some major annoyances as the game progresses (later levels will involve 50+ objects that are all being influenced or causing augmentations). 

The visuals are nice, in the simplistic visual style that made LPT and Disgaea nice to look at. They won't ruin the game, but you won't see any of the fancy conventions of animated cut-scenes, fully animated characters, or fancy effects from spells and abilities. I honestly didn't mind, but this could be either a non-issue for those who care little about visuals, or it could be a major disappointment for eye-candy fanatics. 


Another mixed bag. The background music is rather nice. Well, for the first dozen times you hear a song. The music is well composed and played, but there are very few songs to the PB soundtrack. The music all has a nice classical/fantasy feel to it, like the previous NIS games have had. Expect a lot of nice sounding songs that will be repeated to the point of annoyance. Think of the PB soundtrack like a typical radio station; you'll like the music, until you've heard it for the hundredth time. Also, these songs are fairly short before they repeat, so repetition is further helped along by this fact. 

The voices are also a mixed bag. We are given an option to select from English and Japanese voice actors. The Japanese ones tend to be better as a whole, but both languages have some annoying voice actors for some key characters that keep making themselves heard.  However, overall the voices are tolerable. While the Japanese voices are better as a whole, the English ones are actually quite good (when they're good...the bad ones are horrible) for a video game. However, this is pretty standard, and good, for NIS who consistently tries to deliver top-notch voice talent. It's just too bad that Marona and Calderon (two rather talkative characters) are so poorly voiced. At least some great talent is seen. 

As for the last part of the sound trilogy, the effects...well, they are standard issue. I mean there's nothing bad here, but there's also nothing outstanding or new. It definitely doesn't take away from the experience, but it won't add anything either. 


So, unlike many RPGs, the sounds, including the voice acting, is the high point of this game. The visuals aren't bad. Beyond that, Phantom Brave suffers greatly. The most obvious problem is that there is no motivation to play since the plot is all but absent from this game. Sadly, too many developers are forgetting that the point of a non-"MMO"-RPG is to tell an enthralling and deep plot. Without one, you are left with a less than exciting engine (I love RPGs, but let's face it; RPG engines are never as fun as one in a good platformer or action title). 

To further exasperate the error of not including a great story, we are left with a game engine that is fun on paper, but poorly executed. Without taking advantage of some obvious exploits, this game can turn from "mildly annoying" to downright torture in a matter of a couple hours. The game will start fun, but the level designs and the difficulty curve will soon remove all semblance of fun. A great game should not require the abuse of exploits, and I am not one to recommend such tactics in any prior RPGs I've finished (well, if there were some in Xenosaga 2, I'd suggest them in that title), but I have to face facts; I suggest, recommend, and demand that you use exploits to have any fun in this game...and for this reason, and for a lack of plot, I have to give Phantom Brave a 5.5/10 (why, NIS? WHY!?!). It's playable, but it will get tedious.







High Quality Cinematics





The Infamous "Island of Evil".













Setting up and letting loose a spell