marino's Phantom Brave (PlayStation 2) review

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Nippon Ichi Further Establishes Their Cult Following

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Phantom Brave is the third tactical RPG to come out Nippon Ichi Studios in the span of a year.  They're still a bit under the radar but have definitely garnered a cult following of RPG and anime fans alike.  Phantom Brave is quite similar to its predecessors (Disgaea & La Pucelle) in many ways, but also very different when looked at closely.  The game still features graphics that will turn off the majority of the gaming audience, but tactical RPG's aren't meant for everyone.  The combat still takes place in an isometric perspective and turn-based, but what's different this time is that there is no grid and character's speed determines who goes next.  Yes, I said this is a tactical RPG that does NOT feature a grid.  Phantom Brave is definitely not for everyone, but for those who the game is targetted at, it's a complex and beautiful game.     
At first glance, it may look like a SNES game, but when you really spend time with it, you begin to appreciate the detail of the hand-drawn characters and striking special effects.  The environments are extremely well done and are surprisingly interactive.  You can pick up and/or use just about anything you see on the battlefield.  The interface is definitely improved from the previous games.  They have opted to use a FFX-2 style chart to show who's turn will come up next and the other menus give you the information you need without impeding the actual gameplay.  In the end though, all of the pluses simply can't justify giving the game's graphics a score on par with other games out today.     
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As I said before, the biggest change to the gameplay is the lack of a grid on the battlefield.  On one hand this tends to give you alot more freedom, but on the other hand it makes things a bit more chaotic and unpredictable which may come as an unwanted surprise to hardcore tactical RPG fans. 
While in La Pucelle you spend alot of time trying to "purify" monsters, in Phantom Brave you will spend alot of time "confining" ghosts and spirits to inanimate objects around the battlefield.  Marona, the female lead, has the ability to summon spirits but they only become useful once she confines them to say...a bush, a rock, or even someone's weapon.  Each phantom has its own innate skills (basic types such as warriors, monks, magicians, etc), but whatever you confine them to can add or subtract from these innate abilities.  For example, confining a phantom to a bush will make it susceptible to fire spells.  You can use Marona's confine ability as many times as you want on each turn, but there is a limit to the amount of allies you can have at any given time, so don't go confine-crazy.  Ash, the male lead, is responsible for asking Marona to summon more phantoms, and you can have her summon stronger ones for a fee, or take good care of your current ones and hope they stay alive enough to level up along with you. 
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The game is definitely complex and will take time to master.  To give you an abbreviated idea of what else is involved...the previously mentioned inanimate objects have their own exp levels; rather than watching for purifying rivers you have to watch for protection shields that guard enemies; you can throw items and even people/enemies off of the map; over 400 magic spells are available; and the dungeons are randomly generated. 
In the end, Phantom Brave does lots of new things, but not very well.  I applaud them for pushing the genre, and it's a step in the right direction, but the gameplay feels a little loose and not as fluid as it should.  It's not bad by any means, but it may catch some fans off guard.     
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The sound in Phantom Brave is hit or miss.  The voice-over work is outstanding and what any anime fan would expect.  As a bonus, they've also included the original Japanese voice-overs for the purists out there.  The downside is the effects, which mostly rehashed from the previous two games.  The music runs the gambit from wanting to turn it off to wanting the soundtrack.  Luckily, if you buy the Limited Edition version of the game, you get the soundtrack for free.     
Replay Value 
Despite its technical short-comings, Phantom Brave offers a good story that will keep you fighting through the levels to find out what happens next.  Like most tactical RPG's, you will sometimes inadvertantly be forced to go back to previously defeated dungeons in order to gain enough experience to put up a fight against the new mobs.  Even though that's fairly common in the genre, it should be fixed so that characters progress at the same speed of the linear storyline. 
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At the beginning, Marona is a cheerful girl who is shunned by her peers for being a bit...weird.  They believe she is possessed, and for good reason since she has an imaginary friend.  Ash is his name, but he's not exactly imaginary.  He's a phantom stuck between life and death.  Ash acts as Marona's guardian though their journey to rid the world of the monsters that constantly terrorize civilians. 
As the story begins, the Marona's main objective is to earn enough money using her gifted abilities to buy the island she and Ash live on.  Obviously the game eventually takes a darker turn, much like the previous Nippon Ichi games.  Of course they meet many zany characters along the way, some of which will join your cause.  It's a solid story, and the adictive nature of refining your skills in randomly generated dungeons will keep you coming back.     
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Phantom Brave is a very creative game that takes a tried and true RPG sub-genre and attempts to take it a step forward.  It's a noble attempt, and although not all of what they did was completely successful, Nippon Ichi has breathed a breath of fresh air into the strategy/tactics games.  Once you get accustomed to the differences, the game is quite fun and although the final score may not show it, a game worthy of purchase from any fan of the genre.  I for one am already looking forward to whatever comes out of Nippon Ichi Studios next.     
*** This review was written for shortly after the game's release. ***

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