Phantom Brave is the latest game from Nippon Ichi, the Japanese game studio who has made a name for itself with last year's Disgaea: Hour of Darkness and this year's La Pucelle: Tactics for the PlayStation 2. The developer's knack for offering inventive twists on the venerable turn-based strategy genre has resulted in some of the best original games to hit in quite some time. For its latest offering, Nippon Ichi is once again serving some fresh takes on the standard turn-based strategy formula, which is once again wrapped in gorgeous 2D art. We had the opportunity to test out a work-in-progress version of the game to see what the developer's latest creation holds.
Phantom Brave follows the adventures of a young girl named Marona, a cute green-haired lass who wouldn't be out of place in most any anime. As with all cute and color-coiffed maidens of her variety, Marona is sporting some serious baggage. The young girl possesses the unique ability to summon phantoms to do her bidding. Rather than waste her time sewing up her own costume and thinking up a suitably heroic name so she can fight the forces of evil like some superhero, young Marona has wisely opted to be more industrious. She works as a hired gun along with the collection of phantoms residing on her rented island home.
Her right-hand phantom is Ash, a hero seen in the game's opening sequence who met with what was apparently an untimely demise. Since transitioning to ghosthood, Ash has taken to looking after Marona. As if all that wasn't enough baggage, Marona also happens to be possessed. Yes, it's all a bit much, but such weirdness ensures interesting adventures. The game's narrative will follow the pair as they go about making money and taking out evil in strategic turn-based fashion. However, don't expect a very conventional storytelling method, as Phantom Brave's narrative unfolds in a very deliberate fashion. While it's not initially easy to follow the tale, you just have to ride the wave of disorientation, and it all starts to make loony sense after a while.
Although Phantom Brave takes a pretty unconventional approach to telling its story, the game makes use of a pretty typical structure for its genre. Your time will be divided between watching cinematic sequences that move the story along, interacting with NPCs, party management, and a whole lot of turn-based combat. The cinematics in the game are lengthy and focus on the use of the in-game graphics, which help to keep you in the game experience. Interacting with NPCs is basic, and you can chat with the locals when you can control Marona. Party management is done when Marona and company are kicking it on her island between missions.
The phantoms you'll summon can be found milling around the place. While you'll only start out with a few phantoms to take with you on your adventures, that number will grow considerably as you progress. How much more will that number grow, you may ask? We'll put it this way: The maximum number of phantoms you can have roaming on Marona's island at any one time is 50, and Phantom Brave features a storage system for phantom overflow. Anyone familiar with Nippon Ichi and its penchant for populating its games with large, eclectic casts should know what to expect from Phantom Brave. Fans will also be pleased to see some cameos from previous Nippon Ichi games as well as some playable guest stars.
While most of this should be old hat to veteran players, Phantom Brave's combat system is unique. The framework of battles is classic strategy game all the way: your duels will take place in a set area and they will play out over the course of alternating turns between you and your foes. You'll deploy your team of fighters against a comparable, or in some cases, potentially overwhelming, opposing force. Victory is achieved by smart use of your fighters and the unique abilities they possess, such as physical and magical attacks and healing magic. Now, while this all sounds pretty routine for a strategy game, aside from these basics, Phantom Brave's battle system isn't quite like anything you've played before.
The core of Phantom Brave's combat system is Marona's phantom-summoning ability. Each battle will begin with you binding your phantoms to objects on the battlefield, such as rocks, trees, wood, and plants, in order for them to become corporeal and kick some ass. The twist is that your troops can only have physical form once per battle, and they can be taken out of the rest of the fight if they're damaged enough.
One of the other little touches to keep you on your toes during a fight is that each of the objects you tie your phantoms to will directly affect their stats for that battle. So objects such as plants and trees are better suited for the healers in your group, while being paired with blocks of wood or rocks is more apropos for your fighters. Getting the right match for your group quickly becomes essential, as, for the most part, Marona isn't much of a warrior on her own. Once your group is matched and corporeal, you'll spend your turns moving everyone around the battlefield and engaging your enemies in menu-driven combat.
While your early fights are very straightforward and do a good job of easing you into the basics of managing your phantoms, Phantom Brave doesn't let you get too comfortable for long. As you progress, you'll learn about some of the more complex elements in battle, some good and some not so good. You'll be able to pick and throw items and other characters, much like in Disgaea, which falls under the "good" category. In the "not so good" department, you'll discover that certain groups of enemies are tied to a leader who must be dispatched first before you can make any headway against the other foes on the map. The leader is, more often than not, on the far side of the battlefield surrounded by foes.
How do you get to the leaders and take them out before your phantoms run out of turns and leave you high and dry? That's for you to figure out. While this can make for some pretty hairy battles, we were surprised at how easy the game is to get into. Granted, you won't turn into a strategic combat master overnight, as mastering all the fine points of Phantom Brave's combat system is going to require a time investment, but, for the most part, the system is easy to understand and use. Part of the fun of the game is experimenting and refining your battle strategy.
Phantom Brave's overall presentation refines Nippon Ichi's pleasing mix of old school and modern elements to create a good-looking game. The graphics in the game sport the same marriage of polygons and sprites seen in Nippon Ichi's previous games. The cast of characters, both playable and nonplayable, are all colorfully brought to life courtesy of large, detailed sprites with smooth animation. The backgrounds range from beautifully crafted 2D set pieces for cutscenes to more modestly detailed polygonal environments with sprites mixed in.
The game's visuals are embellished by various effects during combat. You'll see all manner of flashes for physical attacks, and an even greater number of dramatic effects for the various magic spells that will be flung around in the heat of battle. The audio is pretty much what you'd expect--a collection of dramatic voice acting, eclectic tunes, and crazy sound effects that bring the game's unique world to life.
Based on what we have played so far, Phantom Brave appears to be shaping up to be another impressive offering from Nippon Ichi. The quest you'll embark on is a long, involved one that offers a good level of challenge. The unique combat system offers plenty of depth but still manages to be surprisingly accessible. Anyone hankering for a meaty strategy game will want to be on the lookout for Phantom Brave when it ships this August for the PlayStation 2.