Nippon Ichi Software JRPGs are well known for their ‘just deal with it’ levelling requirements. It’s possible to get characters to level 9999, a number that makes my brain whirl at how many hours of play that must amount to. Nobody is going to sink the time in if the gameplay is boring though, so let’s see if the recent PC remake of Phantom Brave (originally released in 2004 for PS2) is worth the grind.
Everything begins with a cheery tone. We meet young warrior Ash in a heated battle, then get to watch him die. It’s alright though, because with the help of magic, he’s able to regain enough life force to live as a Phantom (no longer fully alive or dead). Ash pledges to stay by the side of his fallen comrades’ daughter, but in doing so, earns Marona the label of ‘The Possessed One’ from those fearful of her ability to see Phantoms.
The story is presented through short 2D cutscenes in-between battles. I couldn’t help but be impressed by how much care has gone into remastering the beautiful background art. In comparison, the character sprites look outdated. The animations and full voice acting (Japanese and English available) go a long way towards the emotion of the story, but it’s a shame that their design is jarring against the intricate backgrounds.
Basics of combat are a turn-based affair, where a character’s speed stat affects how often they get to move. There’s a lot more to Phantom Brave than just pushing characters around a grid though, with the most obvious change being that the game has done away with the grid system entirely. Range of movement is instead dictated by how far a character is allowed to travel, allowing for a freedom in how you choose to use the battle space.
The second noticeable difference is how your fighters are not set-up for you in the beginning of battle. Only Marona appears on the field, as she needs to summon Phantoms in order for them to aid her. They can’t just appear from thin air, so must be confined into an existing item on the current map, such as a rock, plant, or weapon. These items’ stats then have an effect upon the Phantom, such as a rock adding defence while lowering speed.
Items have more importance than simply giving Phantoms a form. They can be picked up and used in battle to give new attacks, or may provide protection for nearby foes. If enemies are being buffed by an item, it can go so far as making them impervious to damage. You’ll want to check for any special items around at the beginning of a map, and either destroy or make use of them as soon as possible.
Further changing up my usual strategic plans is the way in which Phantoms can only stick around for a certain amount of turns. So, it’s time to forget any ideas about over-levelling 1 or 2 characters to easily blow through enemies. Deciding exactly where to confine teammates is really important, as it’s easy to waste powerful move-sets on grunts, or use up turns just moving across the map.
There’s plenty of choice when it comes down to deciding who you want to bring into a fight. Being a sucker for character variety and job classes, I was determined to try them all. Phantom Brave quickly got me to give up on that particular mission, by throwing its huge roster of Phantoms in my face, adding slow experience gain for good measure. It was always fun to discover new characters, but I just didn’t have the time or patience to get everyone up to standard (and never required a team that huge to make it worth the effort).
You’ve probably already sussed out that Phantom Brave requires a lot of time. It doesn’t really matter how good at strategy games you are, if characters and their equipment aren’t a high enough level, they’re not going to do any damage. To give an idea, grinding for 1-2 hours using the customized dungeon feature tended to reward me with enough level-ups to continue for 2-4 more story missions. It’s a testament to the gameplay that I never got bored, although the pitiful amount of experience points earned from each fight was often a letdown.
In-between each battle, you have the opportunity to return to Marona’s home island. Here, I was able to catch up on any in-game news, check the post, and create new Phantoms. Interestingly, some of these have abilities (while on the island) that give an extra edge in combat. These range from the Blacksmith being able to add levels to weapons, to a Fusionist that can combine items and characters for stronger stats.
It’s all the little extras that make Phantom Brave both inventive and taxing, as learning how to best utilize all the features can feel pretty confusing at first. I was still finding new ways of playing, and characters I could have put to better use, late on into the game. The in-depth systems make it one to avoid for a first JRPG experience, but any fans of the genre are sure to appreciate the intricacies within the battles, characters and all the many details.
Phantom Brave gets better the more time you’re willing to put into it. Whilst I initially worried that the mechanics would be too much of a faff, I quickly became invested due to an attachment to the story and my enjoyment of the game’s unique battle system. You need to be willing to tackle the lengthy play time and leveling system for progression, but don’t let that put you off. With a bit of perseverance, you can gain your own army of level 300 Phantoms.
This review is based off a PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
Phantom Brave requires a lot of time to delve into all of the mechanics and systems available to you. The emotional storyline makes the somewhat tedious grinding worthwhile though, resulting in a great time for fans of more intricate JRPGs.