The first two Bleach games released for the Nintendo DS were fighting games that allowed players to duke it out head-to-head with a variety of characters from the Bleach universe. The third Bleach game, appropriately named The 3rd Phantom, is a departure from the fighting genre. Taking an isometric view typical of many role-playing games, The 3rd Phantom challenges players to assemble squads of characters and do grid-based battle against legions of dark enemies. We checked out this sizable handheld adventure and got a feel for Bleach's take on tense tactical action.
The 3rd Phantom travels 100 years back into the past before the start of the Bleach series. The story will reveal the origins of many beloved characters and show how many of them came to be allies (or enemies, as the case may be). As the adventure progresses, players will draw closer and closer to more familiar events, eventually overlapping with events of the manga and the anime. Though the party size is limited to eight characters at a time, we're told that by the end of the adventure, you can have closer to 30 characters available, with still more available to unlock.
Characters will have unique abilities and moves that not only resonate with their personalities but make them tactically unique. They can also level up, boosting their attributes and forcing you to make choices that will take them down different paths of their specific branching skill tree. As in any game with party-based combat, it's important to keep your party balanced in order to handle the various enemies that will come your way. The 3rd Phantom will encourage this, but it will also throw you some plot-driven curveballs that will force you to revisit your battle strategy.
A key component for battlefield success is making sure your characters can work together. Characters develop relationships with each other along the lines prescribed by the plot and by whom they fight alongside most often. Once two characters form a partnership, they can unleash powerful team attacks that will deal some serious damage to your enemies. Some characters can also buff or defend their teammates automatically if they are positioned adjacent to them on the battlefield, so strategic troop movement is another key to victory.
In addition to following the main plot arc, you'll regularly enter free time that will allow you to pursue any number of side scenarios. These scenarios often enable you to recruit new characters to join your party, so taking the time to complete them can earn you tangible rewards. Choosing certain scenarios will determine which scenarios are and are not available in the future, so it won't be possible to complete them all on your first play-through.
Once you complete the main story, you unlock the Bleach tower. This is essentially a gladiatorial arena that contains 30+ levels for you and your party to conquer. Varying victory conditions and the ability to take full advantage of your unlocked roster should make the tower a great place to flex your finely honed tactics or, perhaps, try out a few new battlefield strategies.
You'll also be able to battle a friend locally, though there won't be support for the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Though The 3rd Phantom is a departure from Bleach's DS history, it looks to be an exciting one that will give the Bleach faithful and action RPG fans something to look forward to later this year.