Full Review: You're out of bounds! The whole system is out of bounds!
When I purchased Phantom Brave for this review, the clerk gave me real insight into the allure of Nippon Ichi RPGs. He was on the phone with his manager as he was helping me and when I asked for Phantom Brave he told his manager: "I finally sold a copy of Phantom Brave. But in six months, when everybody else wants it, we won't have any." That describes games by Nippon Ichi in a nutshell. Word of mouth advertising at it's finest. They hook one person, he tells two friends. They each tell two more and on and on until every RPG fan is hooked. I was hooked with May's La Pucelle: Tactics, but it couldn't prepare me for the changes Nippon Ichi brought to their latest.
Building on the success of La Pucelle and Disgaea, Nippon Ichi went in a different direction for Phantom Brave. Sure they've still created a quirky Japanese flavored strategy RPG with lots of anime influence, but the gameplay mechanics are brand new.
The most obvious change is also the biggest: Phantom Brave has gone gridless. The grid system has been used to coordinate attacks in almost every strategy RPG up until this point, stretching back as far as the genre's birth. The gridless system that Phantom Brave employs isn't leaps and bounds different, but it feels different. In Phantom Brave, characters can move anywhere inside a movement circle that surrounds them during their turn. After moving they can then perform various attacks that have range nets and as long as an enemy falls within the net, it can be attacked. Different attacks have different net styles as a simple slash can hold one enemy and they must be very close. But a dash attack (Berserker for example) has a pie-piece shaped net that emanates from the character and will attack any enemy in the net's path.
Other changes to the formula abound, as Phantom Brave no longer features the board game turn style. Each character now has a speed rating and that rating in relation to every other character determines when their turn is. This turns up the strategy, as each of your character's turns will be broken up by an enemy's turn.
Even with all of these changes, Phantom Brave is a deep Nippon Ichi-like experience. Marona is a green haired thirteen-year-old girl who lost her parents after they were killed by demons. She is joined by her friend Ash, who was with her parents the day they were killed and was resurrected as a Phantom to watch over her. Because Marona can see Ash and other Phantoms, she has been dubbed "The Possessed" by the residents of Ivoire and is shunned by almost everyone. But a girl's gotta earn a living and Marona takes up her parent's old job as a Chroma, a mercenary for hire. With Ash and an army of Phantoms in tow, her story begins.
Marona can bring sixteen Phantoms into battle with her but first they must be confined to an object on the battlefield. A rock, a tree, a shrub, a bush, a Presidential candidate (that was a joke), each one will change a Phantom's stats in different ways. Rocks are good for defense and attack. Crystals are good for magic users.
It gets more complicated. Any item not confined with a Phantom can be lifted and used as a weapon. Further, any enemy can be lifted and can be used as a weapon or thrown Out of Bounds, never to be seen again. As the battle rages on bodies of fallen enemies and Phantoms will litter the screen. That's because they can be lifted and used as weapons as well. Phantoms will also begin disappearing as each Phantom can only be confined to the battlefield for a set number of turns and when those turns are used up, they vanish. But then Marona can call a different Phantom to bring her number back up to sixteen.
This abridged version of the battle system brings up many of my problems with it. Since nothing fades away, the battlefield becomes extremely cluttered very quickly. The clutter makes it possible to select a living enemy for an attack and then making you watch in horror as your character attacks a dead body (which then will fade away).
Movement in the gridless system can also be frustrating, as you're never quite sure what's in range for many of the attacks. Many of the specialty attacks also require your character to stand at a certain angle that won't be obvious until you can bring up the range net. Moving around obstacles or other characters causes other fits as characters can get caught on these things and you'll have to cancel several times to get the movement right.
I also have a huge problem with the Out of Bounds system. It just doesn't seem fair. Sure it doesn't work for bosses, but it's seems it was only shoehorned in there so players would have a chance to compete with the limited turn rule placed on the Phantoms. I also don't like that in one turn weak enemies are able to lift my strongest fighter and throw him out of bounds. It takes the strategy out of the game completely if characters can just throw a problem enemy off the screen.
Actually, a lot of the strategy seems to be taken out of the game. With the gridless system, attacking a monster from behind or taking the high road doesn't seem to cause any extra damage. Weaknesses to certain types of magic or elements also look like it's been eliminated. And if it's not, they're so well hidden that they're imperceptible.
The sheer depth of the game actually pushes a lot of things to the background. Marona can create Phantoms from dozens of different character classes. Each class is different and many have special skills that can be used when Marona goes home in between missions. For basic examples, a Merchant offers weapons for sale and a Healer will heal members of your party for a price. But others are more exotic. A Titlist can bestow a title onto a character for a statistical boost. A Blacksmith can forge weapons with Mana power. A DungeonMonk can create random dungeons for your Phantoms to practice in (more on this later). And a Fusionist can combine weapons and/or Phantoms to create something more powerful.
But like some of the game's strategy, how to best use these character classes has been hidden. At this point I still have no idea how weapons gain Mana or how bonus Experience Points are distributed at the end of a battle. I know it has something to do with how you attack, but it's not clear. I don't know how to best use the Fusionist. It's really just guessing when combining weapons or Phantoms. And much like sending things to the Dark World in La Pucelle, it's not really necessary.
On the other hand, the DungeonMonk is a perfect new idea. When it comes time for the level grind you're able to just walk up to the DungeonMonk and create a random dungeon to build levels in. It breaks up the monotony and keeps the game interesting because each dungeon is always different.
Even though it sounds like I dislike Phantom Brave, that's not true. I just long for the simplistic hook of La Pucelle. Phantom Brave is too cluttered when it comes to everything. But yet, it's still a great RPG with a good story and an interesting new battle system that makes it more than worthwhile. It gives me that RPG fix and playing with the Phantoms, figuring out which item is best to confine with which Phantom to is great. And when the combat works like it's supposed to, the gridless system proves to be a good alternative to the grid system. I just wish the clutter could go away.
Visually, Phantom Brave looks very nice and if you've played La Pucelle or Disgaea (or any Super NES RPG for that matter) you'll know what to expect from Phantom Brave. It won't wow you, but the colorful world will bring you back to a simpler time and I almost can't picture an RPG like this with 3D characters or the like. I'm sad to see the close-up battles from La Pucelle go as well, but it had to be down for the gridless system.
The voices however are a mixed bag. Ash and the Narrator are pretty good, but Marona's voice grates like nothing I can accurately describe. I watched a Lewis Black comedy special this weekend and I think he sums it up: "If I were to describe these sounds to you you'd run screaming from the theater in horror!" Of course he was talking about N'Sync and Britney Spears, but I think it applies. The music is good, and Nippon Ichi was even kind enough to include a soundtrack CD that I've given a few spins. It's pure Japanese RPG stuff and if you've heard it once you've heard it all, but I really wouldn't hear it any other way. It fits and that's what's important.