Graphics: While Nippon Ichi has a ways to go before they’re pushing the PS2 to its limits, Phantom Brave is easily the best looking game they’ve yet produced. Leading the way are the wonderfully detailed and lavish pre-rendered environs in front of which the story scenes take place. These lush, colorful backdrops are a sharp contrast from the so-so real-time visuals, but that being said, the battle maps are still not only larger, but much more populated and detailed than those found in Disgaea or La Pucelle. There’s also tremendous variety in both the humanoids and monsters; the designs are first-rate, and the characters themselves look remarkably at home against both the real-time and pre-rendered backgrounds. Furthermore, despite appearing a little choppy by next generation standards, Phantom Brave definitely features a more complete set of animations than its predecessors, especially when it comes to battles.
Interface: Even while they were busy revolutionizing the genre with unheard of levels of depth, the developers have somehow managed to streamline the interface, making it about as easy to navigate as possible for a turn-based RPG. Case in point, the decision to group all of your characters’ actions in the “attack” window. Though it doesn’t detract from the gameplay one bit, it significantly cuts down on the menu surfing that is so commonplace in turn-based RPGs. Things are just as good once you return to Phantom Isle. The merchant, the blacksmith, the fusionist – by splitting up the out of battle functions and assigning them to different party members, not only are you getting a cool gameplay bonus, but the risk or confusion is drastically reduced. One need only look at a few fairly recent SRPG (and traditional RPG, for that matter) failures to see the chaos that ensues when these functions are blended into one.
Gameplay: Initially, I wasn’t crazy about the new confine system, and though its given me my fair share of headaches on the battlefield, I’ve come to believe that this is one of the greatest innovations the genre has ever seen. Other companies have dabbled with such schemes, but none are nearly as robust or have been integrated into the gameplay as flawlessly. Aside from adding significant challenge and obscene amounts of strategy, the sheer flexibility of the setup ensures that no two battles are the same. It’s also fascinating how one aspect of Phantom Brave is so closely linked to the next, so much so that the entire gameplay structure is essentially one massive helix: starting with the equally as innovative weapons system, which is tied closely to the ability tree, which is tied closely to the blacksmith and fusionist trades, which is tied closely to the character creation system and so on, we see the pattern.
Phantom Brave is also second to none when it comes to building characters: blacksmithing and fusion are fulltime chores, and with these two immensely powerful tools, even two phantoms of the same class can be guided in two very different directions. Even still, the number of options that open up in terms of class selection is mind-boggling; with the many customization options available, there are virtually an infinite number of possibilities. Yet we’ve only scratched the surface of what this title has to offer, as there are plenty of hidden dungeons to unlock and many secret weapons to discover. Put simply, Phantom Brave has advanced the genre more than any other game since, perhaps, Final Fantasy Tactics.
Multiplayer: As Phantom Brave has no multiplayer mode, this criterion has not been rated.
Sound FX: Like the visuals, the sound component has been upgraded rather than completely overhauled. Many of the same effects used in the first two titles are recycled in Phantom Brave, but to its credit, much of the static and distortion present in Disgaea (and, occasionally, La Pucelle) has been eliminated. As for the voice talent, the entire cast might as well have been pulled from a Saturday morning cartoon (albeit a good one), with their way over the top performances and often-ridiculous accents and inflections. The actors are fully capable of hamming it up ala Disgaea, but unlike previous releases, there’s an emotional core to this script; when it comes time to be serious, the cast do a superb job of toning down their performances and establishing a much more somber atmosphere.
Musical Score: Much of the soundtrack has an understandably tropical flavor accentuating the contagiously upbeat tunes, though when the story – which is considerably darker than its predecessors’ – does delve into more menacing territory, the music effortlessly switches gears to accommodate. Phantom Brave relies primarily on winds and strings to convey feelings of wonder, accomplishment, sadness and loss, but a few choral and even vocal pieces are thrown in there to provide a little extra tug on the heartstrings when necessary. Among the catchiest tunes in the entire game, however, are the rotating battle themes, which are too often dull and repetitive in many other RPGs, but which stand firmly with the rest of the score in Phantom Brave.
Intelligence & Difficulty: While it’s a little disheartening to see a lack of attack strategy from the monsters early on, it doesn’t take long before your foes are blasting you with broad-reaching spells and reviving their fallen comrades. Moreover, the developers will intentionally space out the enemies to make the already strategic confining affair all the more anguishing, mentally. They also begin to get crafty as the story wears on, not permitting you an opportunity to rest and heal your party before thrusting you into the next battle.
However, since a little bit of leveling up can usually help to rectify that problem anyways, the real genius on the part of the programmers is how the monsters will try to work the confine system to their advantage. Since you need objects such as trees and shrubs to dispatch your characters to, there’s hardly a battle where at least one or two of your opponents will attempt to destroy these confine points, or worse, lift them, not only denying you the ability to get your party on the field, but also weakening your status, as these objects can be used as weapons. Their targeting isn’t random, either; if there’s a confine point behind your enemies’ lines, you can be sure that it’ll be gone after only a turn or two.
Overall: If Nippon Ichi’s last three releases can be considered a trilogy, then Phantom Brave is without a doubt The Empire Strikes Back of the series. Sure, it takes quite a bit of time to fully understand the intricacies, and the skimpy manual doesn’t help one bit. Still, it is a tremendous achievement, and one that equals and sometimes surpasses the brilliant, innovative systems introduced in PlayStation classics such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Just as those two titles served as a template for virtually all other SRPGs that followed, the gameplay mechanics introduced by Phantom Brave will almost certainly be mimicked for years to come.