Phantom Brave can hardly be described as a new game, its first release coming out over twelve years ago for the PlayStation 2, but this week marks its first foray onto the PC – hooray! – with all the goodies that twelve years and several different versions entails. I’ve played it a bit and decided it’d be best to bring you the word before I finish and review the game, because it seems that actually beating it will take a decent while.
I’ll start with the basics for those who are unacquainted with Nippon Ichi Software, a Japanese developer and publisher that’s particularly famous for its tactical jRPGs, the Disgaea series specially. Think of Final Fantasy Tactics, but with an absurd, 4th-wall breaking story and several additional layers of gameplay that give it a huge amount of replay value. Phantom Brave is in many ways very similar to Disgaea, with amazing depth in its tactical gameplay and a seemingly limitless amount of characters and items to unlock, but its story is much more grounded and conventional (in the jRPG sense of the word).
You control Marona, an orphaned Chroma (a bounty hunter, more or less) that has the special ability of summoning phantoms. Due to this she is known as the possessed one, a prejudicial title that signifies that most people both fear and shun her, while still needing her combat prowess to solve their issues. The story has so far been guided by this dynamic, as well as an overarching plot that’s presented to you at the start of the game – Ash, her first phantom and best friend, was a Chroma that got killed by an evil spirit alongside her parents, who managed to place him in a state between life and death where he could guard their daughter.
As a Chroma you will get requests from people from around the world to help them, and parting from your island hub you will go to other islands, where small story snippets are followed by combat sequences. Unlike Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea, combat does not take place on a grid, with free movement instead. Missions revolve around eliminating all enemies from a map, each time increasing in difficulty until a final, harder fight that contains a boss. This gives the game a surprisingly low amount of down-time, and aside from the story moments and when you’re creating new phantoms or buying items on your island, you’ll be engaged in tactical combat.
The combat is the game’s core, as well. This is a relatively easy-to-learn system, conveniently taught to you via some tutorials for the first few missions, but it’s also very hard-to-master, merit of the sheer amount of mechanics present in the game: not only can you level phantoms and items, but you can merge them, give them titles and have them combo with one another according to their placement on the field. You can confine your phantoms to any item on the field – from trees and rocks to the very items you have, such as swords and staffs – and each of them grants different bonuses to your phantom’s attributes, with skills being bound to items meaning that you can make use of a single, leveled item with multiple characters. There’s also the matter that each phantom you confine will have five actions to carry out before disappearing, creating a careful balancing-act between how many and which phantoms you field at a time. Later stages had me maximizing the active time my Phantoms had, picking the items I’d confine phantoms to with Marona and tossing them close to my enemies before summoning them.
The other gameplay aspect that is likely as important as combat is your inventory management – and by that I mean both your items and your phantoms. Phantoms you create and items you buy will physically show up at the main hub, where you can talk and interact with them if so you wish, and it’s at the hub that you will equip them with items, upgrade said items and carry out any of the many interactions you can unlock by creating blacksmiths, fusionists and other phantoms that allow you to upgrade items, grant titles and merge phantoms.
Graphics-wise, the game is still very similar to how it was twelve years ago: the sprites are still at the same resolution, though you can enable a filter to make them crisper (I personally did not, as you can see in the screenshots), while the backgrounds will run at your native resolution. I have no complaint about the port, either, running a steady 60 FPS even on my laptop and with not a single bug or issue so far.
While the graphics might be nothing to speak of, the sound effects and the soundtrack particularly are memorable: every boss fight I’ve encountered so far has had a different track, noteworthy given the amount of said bosses, and each of them successfully conveys that these are different fights, not regular ones.
What’s impressed me the most about Phantom Brave is the sheer amount of interactivity and mechanics present in it, and how they come together so cohesively. I’ve played it for over six hours and feel like I haven’t scratched the surface yet, not even having done one of the random dungeons or the additional game-mode geared towards those who’ve already beaten the game.
I still don’t know how the story will pan out and whether I’ll like it or not, but Phantom Brave has given me a good early impression just from the fact that it has both length and replay value strictly from its deep gameplay. If you’re fond of the tactical RPG genre and want something that’ll likely give you a few dozen hours of play, Phantom Brave might just be your cup of tea, and at 10% off for the next few days you might want to take a look at its store page.
For this segment the game has been played for 7 hours, and is an early evaluation based on what I’ve seen so far.