Does anybody else remember when Tactical RPGs (TRPGs) were a bi-annual event? Back when there was only Tactics Ogres and Final Fantasy Tactics? Well, with Nippon Ichi Software leading the charge, it seems like TRPGs are going to pull themselves up the ladder of genres. While featuring the standard unimpressive (but appropriate) graphics commonly associated with TRPGs, it does feature some well-done voice acting. Like other NIS games, Phantom Brave is quirky and cutesy while still providing solid game play and a decent plot, but unlike any TRPG on any console to date, Phantom Brave ditches the grid system and uses circles to gauge distance for movement and abilities and also features an unprecedented confinement party system for battle. The skill system is also incredibly deep, but it is so deep it ends up taking away from the experience. Despite that, the game still offers nice battles and a noteworthy list of innovations.
The game’s plot is cute and sappy while also being grim and (somewhat) depressing. The game starts off in less-than-happy manner with Ash (the game’s male lead) and two others being pursued by a large skeleton demon, which ultimately kills them. The game immediately switches over to the marketable cute heroine, Marona, talking to the ghost of Ash, who has been with Marona since her childhood. You learn she has the ability to communicate with phantoms and use them in battle by channeling their being into objects (like rocks, trees and bushes), powers which have brought her companionship with her phantom guardians, but also exile from regular people. With these powers, Marona sells herself out as a mercenary, or chroma, and picks up odd jobs but always ends up being cheated, much to the dismay of Ash. However, Marona insists that if she persists in kindness to others, people will accept her.
The battle system is incredibly unique. In each battle, you start out on the field with only Marona, surrounded by items, ranging from shrubbery to weaponry. With Marona, you use the “confine” ability to take your phantom allies and harness their power into the surrounding objects. Once a phantom is summoned, they can move, attack, lift and throw. Movement is determined by a character’s speed and is affected by the item they are confined to and is shown as a circle with the character as the center. Terrain also affects movement; if the weather is rainy, the ground will be slippery, making it harder to move up hills and easier downhill. The field items can be lifted, granting the holder new attacks, and if you decide to drop it or want it on another character, you can throw it. This is probably the game’s finest feature. The innovative battle system adds some nice depth and extra strategy to the skirmishes, and the different items keep battles fresh and entertaining even after you do them many times over.
That is the easy part, now here is the hard part. Each Phantom has stats, like anybody else from an RPG, and each item you confine them to add to or subtract from their stats. Also, each character can use items on the field to attack with. Each item and each character have a set of skills they can use which become stronger after each use. Now, once you confine a phantom to an item, you collect mana for that item. With mana, you can unlock new attacks, level up or combine the item with another item. Now, along with the items, you have to manage your phantom allies. As time passes, you unlock more and more kinds of soldiers who all have their own unique ability. While healers and merchants use money for their skills, others use mana. You use the mana on each character to use their individual skill, be it upgrading items, building dungeons or anything else; each one is entirely different. There are other stats, upgrades and so on, but this lets you get the idea about how difficult it is to get going and really makes the game tough to play when you have to constantly keen everything you have.
Phantom Brave is just short of being a masterpiece. The innovative battle system and nicely implemented terrain and weather settings make it entertaining and keep the battles feeling new and worthwhile. The character and item management is ultimately its only major fault?it is just TOO elaborate! Despite that, this is a nice RPG which any tactical buff is encouraged to pick up.