To set the scene: Atlus' American release of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness truly put Nippon Ichi on the map in America. Mastiff rushes to buy the rights to the company's other Playstation 2 game, La Pucelle. Due to the success of both these titles, Nippon Ichi decides to make an American office, Nippon Ichi Software or NIS, and localize and distribute their latest strategy RPG, Phantom Brave themselves.
Long time Animefringe readers know I'm a nut for strategy RPGs. They are the reason I wake up in the morning, PS2 controller firmly in hand. Strategy RPGs differ from regular ones in that they concentrate on the battle aspect of play; with stat building, weapons, and other minutia, it's an obsessive-compulsive's fantasy. So it's with great interest that I played Phantom Brave; Disgaea was a great game, La Pucelle was pretty good, but tied too heavily to Nippon Ichi's PS1 roots. Though the game should be weighed on its own merits, to some degree for U.S. fans Phantom Brave is stuck having to prove that Disgaea wasn't a fluke. Nippon Ichi could have rehashed their previous formula, but decided to boldly teach SRPGs a few new tricks.
First and foremost is a removal of the grid system. Most SRPGs, including Disgaea and Fire Emblem, have characters move from block to block, similar to a chessboard. Phantom Brave features a "free movement" system, in which a character has a radius they can move within and pointing the cursor to a point in the radius will move them in that direction. The system is horribly imprecise, which is especially galling, since unlike Disgaea, characters can be thrown off the board and out of play. However, the game is reasonably forgiving; when you move your character and it falls off the board, the game will put you back in place, without penalty. Slippery terrain, like ice, makes your character slip and slide around, which can often be used in your favor, as a character can be sent farther than it could normally walk.
A second change made to the standard SRPG fare is your army itself. When your main character, Marona, summons her army of phantoms, she must confine them to objects on the board. Trees, rocks, leaves, fish; nearly anything is fare game. Marona, thus acts as a mobile base panel. Furthermore, phantoms can only stay on the board for a set number of turns. After five turns, for example, Ash, the game's main phantom disappears, leaving behind whatever he was confined to. In shorter levels, this makes the game play quickly. In bigger levels, with many enemies, the player has to strategize on when to call out a phantom, and to make sure that there are enough to get the job done.
However, Nippon Ichi didn't change the compelling art style that so endeared Disgaea to its fans. While Phantom Brave is a bit lighter in tone, the character designs remain cute. Marona and Ash don't seem out of place with Larhal and other denizens of the Netherworld. If anything, the light blues, greens, and yellows of the beach-themed Phantom Brave seem appropriate.
While the beach-themed art is lighter in Phantom Brave, thematically the game is much less breezy. Disgaea reveled in being silly, with parodies of science fiction shows, Power Rangers and a little ribald humor. Phantom Brave, while not darker, is much more serious. As the game opens, Ash and Marona's parents battle a dangerous monster from another dimension. The small party is overwhelmed, but before Ash can be killed, Maraona's parents wish for him to become their daughter's protector. Neither dead nor alive, Ash becomes a phantom and Marona's chief guardian. As the game itself begins, we learn that Marona is a chroma, a sort of bounty hunter for hire who uses phantoms to do her job. However, most people are distrustful of her because of her powers, and she's often stiffed for the reward on her jobs. She's a far cry from the vain prince of the Netherworld, to be sure.
The game features a wide variety of phantoms, including owl men, humans and monsters. Also in the mix are some Nippon Ichi favorites, including scrabbits, Fungi, and even Prinnies. Though there are a wide variety of phantoms, it seems that the game encourages the use of certain classes to proceed quickly, and some of the variety between classes is lost. Some of the classes aren't really even useful in battle. Instead, they provide services between fights, like buying and selling weapons, unlocking new abilities and fusing together items. There is some drive to keep these characters leveled up, but they are so weak that taking them into battle becomes pointless.
Like Disgaea, Phantom Brave features a random dungeon generator, which allows you to battle through random dungeons, level up characters and weapons and gain new phantoms. However, the random dungeons of Disgaea automatically leveled up weapons, making them more useful. Phantom Brave also lets you replay old levels, but since new battles take place on old islands, you only have access to the latest ones, and there is no way to force the characters in those to level up. Disgaea encouraged an obsessive tally of stats through its random dungeons, reincarnation system, and the ability to play old levels. Phantom Brave doesn't completely eschew that, but it does take some of the focus off of number building.
The localization is fair; NIS wisely left the option open for Japanese or English voices for the story scenes, but in battle, there are only English voice effects. I ended up simply switching off battle voices and haven't regretted it. The translation is off in some places; the English text clearly goes with the English voice track, not the Japanese. With the success that its games have had in the U.S., it's time for Nippon Ichi to build its games bilingual from the ground up.
So the question remains; does Phantom Brave measure up to Disgaea? In some ways, it excels past its predecessor; the new movement systems, for example, are refreshing. In other ways, it disregards the obsessive nature that Disgaea cultivated. There are new challenges when you finish the game, but nothing quite like the mayhem of Disgaea. I think my play time says a fair amount about the games: I've spent a lot of time in random dungeons in Phantom Brave and my game clock reads about 50 hours at the end. Disgaea, with its wealth of details, comes in at 80 hours. However, even despite the comparisons to Disgaea, Phantom Brave remains a great SRPGs and fans of the genre will enjoy the game for its own merits.