Back in the early 2000’s, a little-known Japanese developer called Nippon Ichi Software was making waves with games like the very popular Disgaea: Hour of Darkness on the PlayStation 2. With Strategy RPGs seemingly dead in the water in the pop circles, many believe Nippon Ichi, now Nippon Ichi Software of America, single-handedly brought the genre back to life for mainstream audiences. It was not until Phantom Brave, however, that we really saw what they were capable of.
Phantom Brave, despite being a Strategy RPG in the same frame as previous NIS America titles, was a departure from the comedy-ridden, over-the-top worlds that the developer was known for. Beyond that, it brought about changes to the genre that, despite how small they may have appeared, completely changed the way players approached gameplay. As such, it is no surprise that the game has been remastered with new content twice in recent years in both “We Meet Again” and “The Hermuda Triangle” for Wii and PSP respectively. However, in the tradition of Japanese developers porting every game ever to PC, Phantom Brave is returning yet again for PC gamers to finally have a crack at.
Phantom Brave PC, an apt title if I do say so myself, follows the adventures of Ash and Marona, two mercenaries for hire known as Chroma. Except, there’s one catch. Ash is not actually alive. As it turns out, Ash was the bodyguard of Marona’s parents who died tragically when she was just an infant. In a last-ditch effort to save everyone, Marona’s mother attempted to cast reviving magic, but only had enough power to bring Ash back as a ghost, or Phantom as they are known in this world. Fortunately, Marona just happens to have the ability to not only see and communicate with Phantoms, but summon them into the world to do her bidding by “confining” them to various objects in the game world.
From there, the two march onward throughout a surprisingly dark and horrifying story. Fans of Disgaea looking to pick this up for the first time be warned; while Laharl’s rise to greatness may have left you in tears, Phantom Brave will do the same but for entirely different reasons. The most stoic of warriors would find themselves broken down by how much Phantom Brave pulls at your heart-strings. However, the story is fairly enjoyable, if you can ignore a few early-2000’s anime tropes.
The change in tone is not the only difference that fans of the meta series might find. Phantom Brave was actually the first NISA game to go gridless. What does that mean? Well, exactly what it sounds like. There are no grids for you to move your characters. Rather, you are given a circular range of area that you can point and click to your heart’s content in. This allows for a lot of deeply strategic movement. Rather than having to count squares, you must now be aware of the completely three-dimensional that surrounds you. Positioning is absolutely crucial to your success – not only because it allows you to use many of the available attacks you can learn, but so your enemies can’t use theirs.
Speaking of customization, it comes in dump truck-sized proportions in this game. See, games like Phantom Brave actively encourage you to completely break out of the bonds of the game world and discover new and exciting ways to play. To put it lightly, the max level is 9999, though you will barely be breaking level 100 if you just go about the main game as if there is nothing you can do about it. That level is not just limited to characters either. No, that level applies to items as well. You can literally pick up a rock in the first level and, through proper upgrading, turn it into Ash or Marona’s ultimate weapon by the end of the game.
As you can imagine, there are virtually limitless ways for you to upgrade your character. Do you want to make a mage that explodes every time they are summoned? You can do that. Do you want to turn potted plants into deadly projectile weapons? Do it. Everything is performed through the variety of shops and services you can unlock throughout the game. Actually, in kind of a real-yet-funny moment through gameplay, the way you collect the different spirits to summon is by literally killing them. So, if you see a blacksmith hanging out in the middle of the woods, you just have to slaughter him, and bam! Now you have a blacksmith on your island that can help turn that uprooted tree into the deadliest of weapons.
Unfortunately, as cool as the customization and overall gameplay is, you also have to remember that all of this is incredibly dated. Phantom Brave’s mechanics are 12 years old now, and it really shows. While some will argue it is part of the challenge of the game, in the end there are a lot of balancing issues presented. For one, while dungeon-crawling can be a lucrative experience, the only way out of a dungeon is by summoning a dungeon monk and using his return ability. The problem is, dungeon monks are incredibly slow and weak. Meaning, you can summon a monk, but there is no guarantee they will survive by the time their turn comes around. Marona can equip the monk’s body and use all of his abilities, but when she uses return, it often costs most, if not all of your resources. So when you finally end up back at home, you have no money left to heal yourself with, essentially leaving yourself in a potentially worse situation.
There are quite a few issues such as this, like how enemies gain a level if one of their troops goes out-of-bounds, yet your team does not, or just the general difficulty spikes that require potential hours of grinding in order to get through the main story or the many end-game maps. In the end, they can be viewed as minor gripes, but it is worth noting that this is not a game you can really play casually.
Finally, because this is the fourth iteration of the game, it has all of the content that previous versions boasted including the alternate, bleaker reality of “Another Marona” mode and plenty of end-game content to keep anyone busy. However, if you have already put in the many hours necessary to complete even just the original game, you will not find a lot here that makes it worth playing again. The steam page for Phantom Brave PC proclaims that this is the definitive version of the game, and it certainly is, but mouse and keyboard controls add very little to an adventure that many fans have already experienced before.
However, if you have not yet experienced Phantom Brave, or if you are new to the overall series after Disgaea’s own recent PC release, then by all means, check out this game. Despite its dated mechanics and lack of new content, new players will certainly find a lot to love in this grand adventure.
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