Phantom BraveThis review based on the US Limited Edition version.)
This game was a no-brainer reservation: I rank Disgaea in my top ten reasons to own a PS2, and while I was somewhat disappointed in La Pucelle: Tactics I recalled my friends attempting to tell me that Final Fantasy III was a primitive and uninspired game --- friends that had played Final Fantasy VII first.
The first hour was somewhat frustrating: unlike Disgaea, where the experience system was very forgiving due to the overwhelming power of Laharl, Phantom Brave doesn't pull as many punches. You'll still find Ash to be your strongest fighter for most of the game. Sticking to the storyline progression for experience will get you killed.
I like the Nippon Ichi art style: well drawn, nicely animated characters in simple, flat format. The same mastery of the style shown in La Pucelle and in Disgaea is in full effect, though the particle and lighting effects used for special moves and other various effects have been subtly improved upon.
With the sole exception of the Phantom Island theme, sadly the most common track, the music is exceptional and the soundtrack included in the US LE version is worthwhile bonus. The Phantom Island track suffers mostly due to heavy repetition, as Phantom Island is your base of operations. This isn't up to the caliber of Nobuo Uematsu, but it sets the mood and gets out of the way.
Voiceclips range from hilarious to touching, and Nippon Ichi once again includes both English and Japanese voiceovers --- both of which are top-notch, though certain catchphrases clearly lost a little in translation.
The sound effects are appropriate and unobtrusive --- I'm hard pressed to think of a way they could better serve their purpose.
The Nippon Ichi control schemes became much more forgiving in Phantom Brave: a few more character actions can be undone, which is a dire necessity. The changeover to free-motion targeting (as opposed to tile-based targeting, which is used in Disgaea/La Pucelle/Final Fantasy Tactics. Free-motion targeting is seen in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter) can be frustrating, as a pixel or two difference is frequently significant, but the undo feature removes the worst of the aggravations.
Loss of points for two reasons: 1) Targeting group attacks often takes a minute or so of fidgeting to determine the optimal area of effect. (-2 --- an attack optimizer would have been a welcome addition) 2) It is very easy to accidentally set an attack that will attack the nearest object to you and not the enemy you actually targeted. This is difficult to explain, but happens. (-1 --- this happens infrequently if you pay attention)
Since attacks cannot be undone (attacks are one of two actions that cannot: throws/movement that moves a character off the map also cannot be undone) these two flaws are the only ones I can find relevant. Otherwise, the sub-AI that handles attacks and movement is quite nice.
The game is substantially different in play, and to a lesser extent feel, relative to the Nippon Ichi line and for that matter most of the market.
The fact that all but one of your characters require confinement to an object on the map, and that confinement lasts a limited number of turns, creates two new unique tactical constraints that greatly alter the playing field. Creating one overpowered character is no longer a long-term winning strategy --- some maps cannot be traversed in the three to five turns the average phantom receives!
New classes, a new item leveling system, an improved title system, a new map system, and a new map layout/targeting/movement system --- this game has plenty to offer.
The storyline is by far the darkest of the Nippon Ichi line --- it will make you cry as often as it makes you laugh --- but it is still a credit to the genre. Not quite as deep as your average Final Fantasy, however.
Loss of points for one reason: 1) Most attacks are just carry-overs from earlier versions. (-1 --- This is common to the RPG genre, after all.)
Without a number of spoilers, all that I can say is that no matter how you play the game, the final set of challenges is simply obscene. I love it.
The actual storyline is trivial if certain systems are abused, and I'll leave the detailing of such to the FAQs and guides. However, in addition to the random dungeons, which aren't as random --- you can see the properties of a random dungeon before you create it, allowing for a "Small Slippery Ice Field with Few Monsters (Female only) LV 446" and so forth --- there are a series of extra maps featuring some surprising figures, and an even more surprising level of challenge. My team, which easily swept the storyline, could barely beat the first of these challenges, and they appear to increase in difficulty by an order of magnitude apiece --- and there's ten of them!
Phantom Brave represents the best introduction to the Tactical RPG genre I've seen since Final Fantasy Tactics: give this to your friends who scoff at anything that isn't real-time strategy, or are otherwise new to the genre.
For the TRPG veteran, the innovations are well worth the price of admission, as it's a game unlike any you'll find in your library.
For the casual RPG gamer, the storyline battles are short enough to accommodate occasional play, and it's very hard to lose track of the plot.
I'm impressed enough this time to finally seek out Rhapsody (Nippon Ichi's less-known PSX-based title.)