Phantom Brave - Staff Retroview  

As Leaden As The Acronym Implies
by Andrew Long

Slim to none
20 hours and up


Rating definitions 

    Well, it may have been inevitable that after the immense success it had with Disgaea, Nippon Ichi Software would endeavour to follow it up with another tactical RPG featuring the trademark humour and addictive gameplay found in that title. Or at least, that would be the logical conclusion to draw. Reality and logic, unfortunately, seldom cross paths, and so it is that instead of humour and addictive fun, NIS instead opted to pack Phantom Brave to the stuffing point with all the sappy sentimentality a gamer could possibly handle. Then, with NIS still apparently unsatisfied with this syrupy cake, the batter was further leavened with bizarrely terrible game physics, poor AI coding, a miserable plotline, and gameplay that, while certainly addictive, does not manage to achieve this distinction in any fashion that could be recognized as positive. Thus it is that the actual follow-up to Disgaea ends up being less that and more a follow-up to Rhapsody, which needless to say is a Very Bad Thing.

    History lesson: anyone remember Cornet? How about Kururu? No? Repressing? Well, that's all well and good, but Phantom Brave will surely bring them screaming back to mind, because Ash and Marona are virtual clones thereof. Well, almost; Marona has green hair instead of Cornet's blonde, and instead of being an annoying fairy, Ash is an angsty Phantom who likes to bemoan things and utter random ultimatums while brandishing a glowy ball of light. The important thing is, though, that one protects the other as a favour, and so it is that gamers are introduced to the glamorous world of being a possessed Chroma, a profession which seems to be the bounty hunter-cum-summoner favorite of the island world of Ivoire. Curiously, despite being a professional summoner, Marona is outcast for being able to talk to the phantoms she summons, which seems rather silly in view of the fact that it's her job to talk to phantoms, but again, logic has no place within these walls.

    So anyway, with the deus ex machina out of the way, Phantom Brave quickly gets down to the business of taking players on Marona's quest to get repeatedly screwed out of her Chroma-ing fees. Marona loses her income in a variety of ways, most of which see her taking her ragtag pack of phantoms onto a tactical battlefield and opening a can of destruction on the backsides of whatever happens to be the unlucky target of her skinflint-du-jour employers. Marona fights off baddies by summoning her phantoms, a process which takes place through the game's "Confine" command. Because phantoms are disembodied souls, they need a place to hang out before they can go haunt someone, so Marona needs to find an item to confine them in before they can do anything. Thankfully, trash collection has not yet caught on across Ivoire, and so each battlefield is littered with a wide variety of items that phantoms can be summoned through.

    These items are also usable as weapons, each possessing a handful of abilities that can be learned through building the weapon's mana. Gaining mana follows the Seiken Densetsu principle; namely, use stuff and it shall magically become better. How exactly this correlates with reality is anyone's guess; suffice it to say that there is an apparent dearth of Dodge Darts among the development community, because its appreciation of the concept of depreciation is limited at best. In any case, each phantom has a set of proficiencies with different types of items, and so it is that the best results are achieved through matching up those proficiencies with items rich in abilities of that type. Once equipped thusly (or not; barefisters are more than adequate in the field of damage-doing), phantoms are then free to whale on enemies or toss them out of the play area if they're too strong to handle. It is also possible to toss allies and items to and fro, which, while generally unnecessary, is more fun than some of the battles end up being.
Caption Marona thumbs her nose at Ash's efforts to keep her alive

   This all sounds like a fairly typical, workable system in theory, but the devil lies in the details. Specifically, there appears to have been no discernable effort made to bugtest any of the combat systems, and so a dizzying array of issues creep up in the actual execution of combat. Not only is enemy AI laughable at best, the game physics never act the same way twice, pathfinding is atrocious, and one cannot help but be suspicious that the Out of Bounds feature was only added to the game when it became clear that the battle system would be unworkable without the option to just give up and throw stuff out of the way. It's a telling point when the enemy side can generally be counted upon to immolate one or more of its members, and usually without virtue of area-of-effect collateral damage. It's worse when the shifty targeting system fails. It's most egregious of all, however, when it becomes necessary to enter the same command several times just to get it to execute, as is often the case when attempting to move a character from point A to point B. Yes, circles are very outside the box, and at face value, can even be viewed as some sort of great victory for the forces of innovation in tactical RPGs. In point of fact, however, sided polygons such as squares or hexagons have traditionally been used in these games because they offer defined boundaries that make coding things a lot more precise, and precision is one area in which Phantom Brave's battle system is sorely lacking. While life may not proceed in little boxes, tactical RPGs most certainly should, and the failure to do so here is, unfortunately, an issue.

   Beyond that, though, Phantom Brave also encourages players to treat their characters with the same respect they afford garbage. This is because confining a phantom to an item lasts for only so long, a period generally between 3 and 8 turns. Once this expires, the phantom disappears, sometimes taking the item it was confined to back to Marona's island for safekeeping. This can result in a lot of fights becoming suddenly lopsided if players do not keep around several copies of the same phantom, with the net result being that long fights tend not to go in Maronakins' favour too often. This isn't usually an issue, as the storyline missions are all laughably easy, but to the poor souls who spend their time in random dungeons, it can quickly become a nightmare, albeit one that is not quite so scary as when the game randomly jumps the level of enemies from 50 to 893.

   Once players are back at Marona's island, there is plenty to stay occupied with. In addition to creating phantoms and abusing them, Marona can also talk to a Titlist and a Fusionist, characters that serve as the embodiment of the game's two systems. Titles are the descriptions that a Titlist can append to or remove from each item, character, and random dungeon, and they carry a variety of statistical bonuses that, as in Disgaea, can be improved upon by sinking time into random dungeons. Fusionists, meanwhile, can cram weapons and/or characters together to form better weapons or characters. In practice, these systems are somewhat enjoyable, but given the fact that monotonous stretches of time in the random dungeon worlds are required to make any significant headway in improving titles, gamers will ultimately find it easier to just steal titles off items found in the storyline battles. Fusion, meanwhile, occupies very little time and is ultimately not of much strategic value. On the upside, at least the interface is passable, so both processes look decent, in any event.
Caption Rock-creature showcases the failings of the all-meat diet, disconsolately seeks more meat

   Tenpei Sato remains an able composer, and provides music that saves Phantom Brave from falling utterly flat in many places. In particular, the theme for Marona's island, entitled "My Little Garden," is a well-composed track, reminiscent of medieval folk music, and it's a good thing it is, since that particular piece is one of the two that sees the most airtime. Sadly, NISA has failed here to restrain the most repugnant aspects of the voice-acting community, and Phantom Brave's voicework is a painful experience at best. At no point do any of the exchanges between characters pass the bystander test - namely, does this conversation sound like something an outsider to gaming would laugh at? - and some of the work goes beyond campy and into banal and awful. There's just no reason to keep hiring these untalented individuals, but it seems their work will continue to be sought after. If only somebody could figure out why.

   Visually, Phantom Brave does little to improve upon the standard of NIS's previous work, and while graphics are not the point in a title of this nature, it shows rather painfully. The game is not ugly, by any means, but whereas Disgaea had atmosphere going for it, Phantom Brave just looks like someone went sightseeing in the world of Chrono Cross and then belched up their photo album for all the world to see.

   This brings up another sticking point with the game, incidentally; like Chrono Cross, Phantom Brave is set on a world of islands, and puzzlingly, any number of the islands in the latter bear a marked similarity to those in the former. Particularly, the Island of Evil looks almost identical to one that appears in Chrono Cross, and there is just a sense that very little creativity went into this title.
Caption Cacto Cactus: the Preferred Cactus of Raversİ

   Also painfully absent is a winning story. Phantom Brave, as aforementioned, hearks back to the sappy meanderings of Rhapsody, and then seeks to ladle on even more syrup at every turn. Not only are four out of every five characters in the game disgustingly cute, Marona's antics play rather like those unfortunate public service segments that used to follow such cartoons as GI Joe and Inspector Gadget. There's also a certain amount of random pseudo-religious pap thrown in, and just to make things as offensively inoffensive as possible, the game exhorts players to remember that no matter what people look like or how many inoperative limbs they are saddled with, they are, in fact, people. Well thank you, game. A valuable moral lesson has been learned here today, and it might even have borne some salience if only the target audience for this game wasn't roughly twenty years older than a person who is likely to learn something from this lesson.

   Also gone is the winning humour that so endeared Disgaea to fans. The translation is bland, and while this may be reflective of a weak story, it is also not spotless, which is a definite step backwards for the crew at NISA. The game is also insultingly easy, except, again, for the odd random dungeon that sees the average level of monsters climb from 20 into five digits.

   So in the end, there is little to recommend about Phantom Brave, other than the fact that its addictive gameplay will likely keep players going until the game comes to its ignominious end. This is likely to take at least 20 hours, but don't count on being entertained through that whole time, because the last half of the game drags, especially once dungeons begin repeating. Really, that right there is indictment enough, but there is much else to turn one's nose up at when it comes to this game. All in all, this is a stage of NIS's growth that is best avoided.

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