There's a lot of creativity in Phantom Brave, and the audience for whom it's intended--fans of anime and strategy RPGs--will enjoy it for the most part.
Phantom Brave is the third strategy role-playing game from developer Nippon Ichi Software that the PlayStation 2 has seen in the space of a year, though, interestingly, it's the first to be self-published by the company. Those familiar with Phantom Brave's predecessors, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness and La Pucelle: Tactics, will find that this latest game is unmistakably similar in many ways. For example, the game's anime art style, presentation, and structure are all very much akin to Nippon Ichi's previous works. Phantom Brave has its own unique premise and plenty of original gameplay twists, but it nevertheless feels like familiar territory--too familiar, perhaps, if you've already poured dozens or hundreds of hours into building up your characters in those other games. At any rate, this latest game is charming and entertaining in its own right, though its appeal is mostly limited to hardcore fans of other strategy role-playing games and anime.
Strategy RPGs like Phantom Brave represent a very specific type of game in which you fight your way through one isometric-perspective battle after another, taking turns with your opponents as you move your fighting forces around a map, attacking foes, and healing your allies. Some of the particular mechanics of Phantom Brave are very unusual, but the core gameplay here is well-worn. Like Nippon Ichi's previous games, the strategy in Phantom Brave often takes a backseat to the necessity for RPG-style leveling--that is, no matter how ingenious of a tactician you may think yourself to be, unless your fighting forces are of a sufficiently high level for a given battle in the game, you're pretty much guaranteed to lose handily. So the best "strategy" in Phantom Brave is, actually, just to spend lots of time repeating battles over and over, thereby gaining more experience points and stronger abilities for your characters. To facilitate this, you can revisit any of the maps you've fought in as often as you like, and you may also freely teleport yourself to randomly generated dungeons to fight in (once a particular type of character has joined your group).
Phantom Brave has an interesting story that can make the requirement of having to go out of your way to level up somewhat frustrating, since you'll want to keep proceeding from mission to mission in order to find out what happens next. The game's focal character is a young girl named Marona, who's eternally optimistic yet spited by society for being "possessed"--a reputation that's not entirely unfounded, since she travels with a mostly invisible guardian, Ash, who once was a young warrior but became trapped in limbo between life and death. Marona can summon Ash to fight for her, and she gradually gains the ability to summon many other types of phantoms. She uses these powers to make money by taking mercenary-style jobs from people.
Marona and Ash meet numerous odd characters on their journey, and in typical anime fashion, there's a lot of inner monologue to listen to and secrets waiting to be discovered as the tale unravels. The story is told mostly through meticulously animated sequences using 2D character sprites, and the story sequences themselves have full English voice-over (the original Japanese language track is also available for purists' sake). There's a lot of story to wade through in Phantom Brave, and it's paced quite slowly (you need to keep pressing the X button to advance the dialogue), but the characters are endearing and the story itself is often amusing, and so it helps keep you motivated to keep fighting.
It seems that every strategy RPG from Nippon Ichi has to have a particular abstract twist to its gameplay. In Phantom Brave's case, that twist is Marona's ability to "confine" phantoms to certain objects. She cannot simply summon her allies into battle; she must instead target objects in the environment--anything from rocks to shrubs to weapons--and confine phantoms into them, which causes Marona's colorful band of phantom warriors, monks, magic users, monsters, and more to materialize in place of the object. You may then control these characters when their turn comes up, though be careful--each phantom has only a limited number of turns to spare before he, she, or it automatically dematerializes and can no longer be used in that battle.
Marona may use her confine ability as many times as she wants to during a single turn, but since she can only bring a limited number of phantoms into battle, it becomes strategically important to ration your forces as you move your way across the map. What's also interesting is that, it depends on which type of object you confine your phantom into, because your phantom's core attributes will be affected in various ways. For example, phantoms confined to rocks will be tougher and stronger yet slower than usual. Phantoms confined to certain types of plants will, for whatever reason, be more intelligent or maybe faster.