Back when I was a strapping young lad, I was a huge fan of Nippon Ichi Software. Whilst I knew nobody who appreciated their games, they crafted some of the best turn-based strategy games to ever grace the humble PS2. Masterpieces like Disgaea, La Pucelle Tactics, and Makai Kingdom showed off the company’s desire to keep things fresh. It wasn’t until Phantom Brave, however, that NIS truly peaked. How does this port hold up, and how does it compare to modern games in the genre?
The game opens up with a party of three getting brutally killed by a powerful phantom. In their dying breath, they incant some powerful magicks to keep one of their number, Ash, alive to protect their young daughter. Whilst Ash gets the immortal treatment, he is most certainly a supporting character and not the lead. This story is focused heavily around Marona, who by the time we control her, has grown up to roughly teen status.
NIS games have a tendency to have highly comical storylines and beats with the odd serious theme sprinkled in here and there. Phantom Brave kind of breaks this mold. It has its moments, but overall, I’d say Phantom Brave is serious with a side helping of whimsy. Marona is a Chroma – a magic-user who is hired to deal with people’s problems essentially. Unfortunately, Marona has the unfortunate reputation of being cursed or possessed.
This is mostly down to her unique magical gifts and Ash. You see, Ash died in the introduction – rather painfully too. The spell used to bind him to Marona kept him in a state of perpetual undeath – a Phantom. He can take corporeal form for a limited time, but for the most part, he is invisible with the ability to interact with the physical plane. Having a ghost follow you around tends to get people talking, and this is the crux of Phantom Brave’s story.
Marona is quite possibly the purest soul to ever exist in gaming. She lives to help people and all she wants is a friend – heck, she’d settle for someone, anyone, being nice to her. Every job she completes the employer feigns friendship, essentially manipulating her, before unpaying her and damning her as this hellspawn who will only bring bad luck. Ash throws away all her hate mail – essentially scared visitors telling her to die – and it’s genuinely heart-wrenching to see.
The relationship between Ash, Marona, and the way the world perceives her is what drives the game’s narrative. All Ash wants to do is protect his ward, and all Marona wants to do is be accepted. These two stances don’t always align, and these conflicts of interest just add to the already gripping, if a bit slow, plot. The game gives you the option to skip all the cutscenes if you are not interested, but Phantom Brave is one of NIS’s best works.
It also helps that Phantom Brave is also one of their most unique systems. I think it’s fair to say that NIS games aren’t especially deep. Whether it be mechanically or even strategically. They have oodles of breadth, I mean, the number of systems that interweave to make any one of their titles is staggering to behold. Phantom Brave manages to not only add more depth than most NIS titles but also maintains that NIS breadth.
Where to begin? Combat is turn-based, but instead of being on a grid, you can move freely within a certain area. Things like obstacles and even slopes can alter your movement, and most attacks have AOE properties making movement very open and loose in comparison to a traditional genre entry. Characters can perform a move action as well as some sort of interaction before their turn ends. Interactions could be picking something up and throwing them, picking something up and hitting something with it, using a special ability, or just plain old attacking. So far, so standard.
Phantom Brave, as the name suggests, is all about phantoms. Marona is, for the most part, the only corporeal member of your party, and therefore, she is the only perpetual. Practically everyone else is dead and must be brought into the realm of the living – including Ash. Each Phantom can only survive for a set number of turns before they automatically return to the realm of the dead, and Phantoms can only be summoned if there are materials to bind them to.
Summoning a Phantom is always a big deal. Marona is pretty weak on her own, and her Phantoms are her main form of offense and defense. It’s all about timing though. A stage can last a pretty long time, so summoning all your phantoms at once will quickly leave you without any options. Ash can cling to life for 5 turns, whilst a mage may only be able to last for 3. In general, the quicker a Phantom dematerializes, the stronger they are. A 7 turn Phantom might seem like a good idea, but look at their stats and you can see why they last that long. Why summon a healer when nobody is injured? Why summon anything turn 1? I mean, the list goes on.
This limitation on your party’s survival makes Phantom Brave feel like no other. Strategy is always a consideration, especially on your first playthrough. There is always something to ponder over, number crunch and risk. It’s surprisingly thrilling and stressful for a game in a genre that typically lacks those emotions. But it doesn’t end there. Summoning materials are needed to bring a Phantom to life. This could be a rock, or a wayward sword, or a bush, etc. What you use as a conduit for your Phantom determines their stats. Using a boulder as a catalyst for your Warrior makes them tougher and more physically imposing, for example. Again, this adds more strategy and even small changes to what materials you have available can make huge ripples on how you tackle any given stage.
Finally, Protections. Protections are like environmental totems or sources of power. Objects and enemies can project protections, and these can have drastic effects on gameplay. Fighting a humble slime might seem easy, but when that slime has all of his stats enhanced, well, it’s not quite so simple. Destroying the source is basically the way the cookie crumbles, but getting to it can be the issue. Protections can also benefit you. A suspicious tree may be granting buffs to various rocks or shrubs, and creating phantoms out of these materials provides those buffs to said phantoms. As I said, there is always something to think about.
Outside of combat Phantom Brave doesn’t relent. Creating new phantoms is as easy as talking to Marona, and the further you go through the game, the more powerful, or at least, the more unique, classes start showing up. Each class is proficient with different forms of attack, has different statistics, turn limits, and even movement speed. Crafting the perfect party is just as satisfying as taking that team into battle.
But that’s not all. Weapons in Phantom Brave are much more than static dispensers of death. Each weapon draws in mana when they are used. This mana can be exchanged to enhance them beyond their base form. You can do simple things like enhancing its stats, or more complex things, like unlock new abilities. Buying a new weapon might seem like a good idea, but nothing says that a stronger weapon will have the skills you want. Don’t get me started on all the things you can do with weapons. I mean, throwing them to use as summoning tools, passing them between teammates just as a phantom is about to die, etc. It’s crazy.
Even More Things?
But not as crazy as Fusion. Fusion allows you to take things and smoosh them into other things. Want a cool weapon? Combine it with another weapon. Or turn phantoms into better phantoms, or take a phantom, and create a hybrid class by rubbing his face against a book until they form a singular being. Fusion is awesome, deep, confusing, and, interestingly enough, is made easier if you bring your Fusionist into battle and level them up.
What else? Dungeons. Right, so dungeons can be conjured with the Dungeon Monk and these let you go on jolly adventures through the infinite realms of procedural generation. Make a dungeon, go spelunking, find powerful loot and kill powerful enemies. This is where you go to grind, and if you want to get seriously powerful, visiting the monk is one of the ways to go.
Being a NIS game, Phantom Brave lets you break the game in half and make it your bitch. Levels cap at 9999, hidden uber bosses await the brave. Once you know how to abuse every system the game offers you, yeah, you can have a lot of fun going on the powertrip to end all power trips. It may be a lot different from your typical NIS game, but Phantom Brave is just as whacky as ever. Oh, and the game also has a side-story called Another Marona and NG+. Plenty of things to break.
My biggest gripes with Phantom Brave come with the port. Visually, Phantom Brave looks pretty damn ugly. Not because the sprites are badly designed, but because it doesn’t look like they were redrawn. They look horribly blurry, especially when standing on some amazingly sharp backgrounds. It makes the game look disjointed and unfinished – at least on the TV. It looks substantially better on handheld. Not to mention the lack of quality of life improvements. Looking through the menus I couldn’t find an option to skip animations or increase game speed. Compared to any modern NIS game, Phantom Brave feels slow – too slow. I cannot express how much this harms the game.
Ending the review on a high note, Phantom Brave has a great soundtrack that, like the rest of the game, is a departure from traditional NIS. There are the occasional jazzy tunes that get cycled through all their games, but a lot of Phantom Brave’s OST is much more serious in tone. They have tried, and succeeded, in complimenting the more serious themes with some cracking tracks. Voice acting is also pretty good. Marona is a bit of a pain in the arse, but she’s meant to be a child, and well, children are exactly that.
Overall, Phantom Brave is a wonderful turn-based strategy that, in my opinion, is the glittering jewel mounted atop the NIS crown. There is nothing quite like it, and it absolutely holds up in terms of quality today. It’s just a shame the port is so underwhelming. The lack of visual polishing and quality of life improvements are immediately noticeable and prevent the game from reaching the heights it should really nail.
PHANTOM BRAVE IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to NIS America for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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Forged in the rainy wilds of northern England, I carved a path of mediocrity through generations and genres. My play style is often described as: “optimistically awful”.