Phantom Brave: you have to be brave to rely on a bunch of dead people in battle

In the world of Ivoire, thirteen year old Marona works as a Chroma (effectively a Hunter), earning the money she needs to pay for her home on Phantom Isle. Eight years ago, her parents were killed, and now their friend Ash watches over her as a Phantom- a being caught between the worlds of life and death. Unfortunately, thanks to Marona’s unique ability to communicate with Ash and other Phantoms, she is shunned as the ‘Possessed One’, but where a lesser person would have given up, Marona remains determined to help people in the hopes that they will one day accept her. And accept her they eventually must, for Marona and Ash may be the best defence Ivoire has against the Dark Lord Sulphur.

Having already made a name for themselves in the English-speaking world with the likes of Rhapsody, Disgaea and La Pucelle Tactics, Nippon Ichi went on to give us Phantom Brave, a game that truly should be called the queen of all SRPGs. Easy to learn, difficult to master, Phantom Brave goes beyond the other games of its genre to provide us with SRPG 2.0, a whole new experience. Even in its hardest and most frustrating hours, no game has ever been as addictive as this one, to the extent that nothing else matters so long as the daily fix of Phantom Brave can be gleaned. This is a game that will rule your life until it is complete, and rightfully so, for it has almost everything a fan of the genre could wish for (I’ll discuss suggested improvements in a future Tuesday Rumble).

Getting started with the game
With twenty episodes divided amongst four chapters, the overall flow of Phantom Brave is very simple; you see some events setting up a storyline, fight through a series of battles (interspersed with more events) in a particular location until said storyline is resolved. There is no free roaming- the only place you can walk around in is your home on Phantom Isle; other than that your selections are limited to choosing which of the islands on the world map you want to visit. Thankfully, event scenes can easily be skipped, so the many crushing game overs you will experience do not lead to having to watch the same twenty minutes of dialogue over again.

As your home base, Phantom Isle is crucially important if you want to be in any way ready for the many battles that will come your way. This is the place where you can save, heal, recruit characters, buy weapons, equip and set up any other niggling options that need attending to. Make sure you bring plenty of money, however- this may be your home, but you still have to pay for most services.

What to do on Phantom Isle
On Phantom Isle, you control Ash (unless he’s dead, in which case you’re the generic tutorial whisp). You can walk around, jump, pick up and throw characters and weapons and even damage your own units (not recommended). You can also interact with Marona and other phantoms in order to accomplish more constructive goals.

  • Making a Phantom Army: Marona handles Phantom recruitment, giving you the ability to create a level one character of any class you have unlocked (humanoid types can be obtained by defeating them on certain maps, monsters are available after defeating twenty of the same type) and adding bonus EXP to them if you have enough money. Since you can only have up to fifty characters or weapons on the island, you can also choose to store extras. Stored characters cannot be used in battle, whilst stored weapons can still be equipped, but they do not gain mana like the ones lying around on the island do. You can also rename Phantoms or even banish them from existence if they’re not doing you any good.
  • Healer: Ah, healing, where would we be without it? Your healer doesn’t work for free, and she’ll near bankrupt you in the early stages of the game, but it’s worth it to get everyone in fighting condition again- especially as weapons are just as prone to losing HP and ‘dying’ as characters in this game. You can also bring back ‘spiritless’ characters whose corpses were destroyed in battle, but only at the cost of an item.
  • Blacksmith: Unsurprisingly, the Blacksmith is the place to get your weapons upgraded by spending the mana they earn from being in battle or lying around on the island. You can level up weapons and add abilities, up to an inbuilt limit.
  • Witch: The witch lets you re-order your skills, which isn’t particularly useful at first, but becomes more essential later on, when you’ll find yourself frantically scrolling through a long list of abilities to find the one you want to use.
  • Titlist: Classes are important in most SRPGs, but Phantom Brave adds an extra dimension with titles- for example, your fighter isn’t just a fighter, he may be a Weepy Fighter, a Hungry Fighter, and so on. Each title confers a different stat bonus and set of abilities, and it’s the Titlist’s job to swap them around between characters, weapons and random dungeons. You can gain a title for use by completing a random dungeon, or by banishing a weapon or Phantom from existence.
  • Dungeon Monk: Your dungeon monk is your key to levelling up, thanks to his convenient ability to create random dungeons for you to go and fight in. These dungeons can be tens of levels deep, but thankfully you can use his return ability to go back to Phantom Isle if your party is flagging and you don’t want to tackle it all in one go. Lengthy as they can be, random dungeons at least add some variety to levelling up, since you don’t have to keep going back to previously completed maps in order to gain EXP.
  • Fusionist: Fusion may be costly in terms of mana, but it’s a great way to add the abilities of one character or weapon to another (instead of A+B=C, this sort of fusion works as A+B=powered up A). It also extends the level cap above 100, up to a maximum of 9999- yes, that’s right, in this game you can waste your life trying to attain such a ridiculously high level.
  • Merchant: Unsurprisingly, the merchant sells weapons to you, for despite already being dead, she is somehow able to trade in them. Armour, accessories and support items are not available in this game, so weapons are all you ever need to equip (one slight annoyance in this regard is that if your weapon ‘dies’, you have to make sure to re-equip it, and on some screens, it isn’t clear who is equipped with what).

That’s all very well, but I want to fight!
So, once everything is set up, it’s time to head for the battlefield, and it is here that Phantom Brave really showcases its uniqueness. As the only living character on the team, Marona is the core of the party, and also the only one you’ll have on the field when you begin a battle. If you want to get your Phantoms out, you must use her ‘Confine’ ability to place them in one of the many items strewn about the battlefield- from rocks and trees to bread and trolleys, everything is fair game, but make sure that what you choose doesn’t adversely affect your stats. Also be aware that many such items are also giving or receiving ‘Protections’ from other items, and whilst some protections are beneficial stat boosters, others are most unwelcome, draining your HP or even preventing you from moving off the spot.

Once your Phantoms are confined (you can have up to fourteen units on the field, where an unarmed Phantom counts as one, and an armed one counts as two), they will leave the field after a set number of turns, ensuring that it is near impossible to rely on just one strong fighter at the expense of the rest of your party (note that turns are taken based on speed, rather than “all allies, then all enemies”). The fact that everyone except Marona has a limit on their fighting time means you must plan carefully, and even then you may find yourself (as I have) with only Marona on the field and having to adopt hit and run tactics to finish off the last few enemies.

Items on the field are not just for confining to, however, for if you find the weapons you bring with a little lacking, picking up anything you can find is fair game- including both enemies and allies (although enemies will attack the person holding them each time their turn comes around). Even corpses can be used, since they rarely disappear when they are first killed- instead you have to do so-called “over-damage” to remove them.

As if this all wasn’t enough, Phantom Brave has also removed the traditional SRPG grid in favour of use distance ranges and generally enabling everything to be more up close and personal. Although it is hardly the first game to try this, it can be difficult to adjust to at first when combined with the ability to stack characters, and certainly trying to target an enemy in a cluster or plan a route through uneven terrain can end in frustration and wasted turns, but even so, there is something refreshing and liberating about the lack of grid. It’s not something I’d want to see implemented in every SRPG, but it’s an interesting move.

On top of the lack of grid, there are also a few other tweaks to the battle maps of Phantom Brave. Maps have no borders, which means that almost anything can be tossed ‘out of bounds’, unable to return. At this point, you must surely wonder what prevents you from ‘cheating’ by throwing all your enemies out of bounds, but this possibility has actually already been accounted for. Aside from the fact that you can only lift and throw unarmed enemies (if they’re holding a weapon, you’ll try to steal it instead), every time you toss a living enemy off the map, the remaining ones level up- and once just one enemy is left, it becomes impossible to remove them from the map.

For those interested in remaining on the map, however, there is also terrain to pay attention to. Terrain can be both slippery and bouncy- the more slippery it is, the more your characters will slide before stopping (a double-edged sword since you can move farther than your range would normally allow, but may not end up anywhere near where you intended), whilst bouncing affects anything dropped or thrown on the ground.

Finally, no SRPG would be able to aim for the top without three faction battles, and even here Phantom Brave is able to come up with the goods. Although they are relatively rare, there are times when you’ll find yourself facing off against two different armies, where both will either fight you, fight each other, assist you (there are times when you can even revive NPC units from the dead to help you tackle the enemy) or do nothing until you provoke them. Be warned, however, even when NPCs are helping you, they feel no compunctions about cutting through your units if it means they can get a clear shot at the enemy.

With all these considerations to take into account, Phantom Brave is by no means an easy game, and as already mentioned above, there are times when you’ll face a crushing game over as even your best characters are revealed to be nothing more than puny weaklings in the face of the enemy. Even so, it manages to be immensely enjoyable at the same time, perhaps because it poses a challenge that forces you to actually play instead of merely hitting the attack button over and over.

After the game is cleared…there’s more?
Think you’ve finished the game when the final boss is defeated? Think again, because ten difficult bonus maps await you, featuring characters from Disgaea and even Rhapsody. Aside from the first map (and perhaps the second if you’ve been assiduous in levelling up), these extra stages will test you to the extreme, requiring hours of fusion, levelling up, and plumbing the depths of the game system. Even the most devoted player may balk a little at learning three thousand is the recommended level for attempting the later maps (you’ll end the main game at around level eighty to a hundred).

Story
In an almost offhand way, Phantom Brave bases its main storyline around the existence of a Lord of Darkness, but unlike previous games, Nippon Ichi has dispensed with the light-heartedness and tongue-in-cheek dialogue for a more serious tone. In fact, in its early stages, Phantom Brave is depressingly miserable, with poor Marona being hated by almost everyone she meets, and only making her first ever friend in Episode 4. By this point, you expect the story to continue in its vein of doom and gloom, and it is only in hindsight that you realise that the situation actually does improve later on, reducing the volume of tragic back story a little to actually include some happiness.

Despite the relative simplicity of the story, however, Phantom Brave actually achieves the rare state of making you care about the game characters, even if it is sometimes only to the extent of shouting at the screen as the pure-hearted Marona refuses a much needed cash bonus for her services.

Audiovisual
Unsurprisingly, Phantom Brave is set in an isometric world, and whilst maps are hardly groundbreaking in their complexity, they are still solid enough. Character sprites are detailed and generally good-looking, although some of the possible colour combinations are bit questionable (imagine a manly blacksmith with cropped pale pink hair).

I’ve already given the game’s music a favourable review in Tuesday Rumble, and my opinion of it has only improved since then, resulting in a love of almost every track, especially those used in battle. Voice acting is surprisingly solid (even youthful Marona fails to grate on the ears once you get used to her), with the likes of Crispin Freeman and Steve Blum lending their talents to the game.

Final Thoughts
I may have gone a little overboard in writing so much about Phantom Brave, but it only showcases my absolute love of the game. An absorbing and increasingly addictive ride that threatens to steal all my fangirl points and the title of ‘Best Game Ever’, Phantom Brave is by no means easy, but the satisfaction you’ll gain from mastering it is worth every hour spent on the game.

Extra: My Party

A-Team: Awesome
The A-team are my front line fighters; they’re a bit lacking in terms of magical backup but when it comes to brute strength you can’t go wrong with these guys.

Marona (Chroma): Marona may start out as a weakling (and she’ll certainly never be a great physical fighter), but as the core of the party, it’s helpful to make sure she can hold her own. Since her strength is in magical and support attacks, I’ve made her into the party’s healer, with a solid basic vase attack that means she can handle herself on the occasions when your phantoms are dead and gone and she’s the only one left to finish off the enemy.

Ash (Phantom): Ash is the heart of my fighting force, and although Johnny rivalled him for a while, now no one can touch him in terms of strength. With a sword in hand, and high end abilities like Killer Spin, Hurricane Slash and Heliotrope, few can take on Ash and live. The only downside is that he gets a mere five turns on the field, although to make up for it his attack doubles on his final turn.

Johnny (Fighter): With axe in hand, Johnny sacrifices speed for strength, but once his turn rolls around, he can steamroller the enemy. Unfortunately, his Power Combo is inconsistent, sometimes dealing out huge damages but occasionally reverting to something embarrassingly weak.

Shu (Mystic): You’d think a mystic would be good with magic, but somehow my Shu has ended up being a useless mage and healer (despite his innate healing abilities) in return for being a strong fighter. With his Love Brick, he can smash right through the enemy’s defences.

Kay (Saber Kitty): Named for the feline hero of Legend of Kay, Kay started off weak and pathetic, but once he levelled up a bit, he became an indispensable member of the team. Armed with a knife and the multi-hit King of Beasts and Instant Death abilities, what Kay lacks in defence and HP he makes up for in speed and strength.

Saki (Valkyrie): Although she was once my second best fighter, Saki is now the lowest ranked warrior in the A-team, proving weak with swords and only ‘solid’ with spears. She fights well enough, but unlike the others in the A-team, she doesn’t have any high damage signature moves.

Karen (Amazon): She may have joined up later than the other A-team members, but once she threw away her dirk and got a solid axe in her hands, Karen became as tough as nails and a vital contributor in the later battles of the game. Her Drill Kick cuts right through the enemy’s defences.

B-Team: Backup
The B-team are all desperately competing to be A-ranked, but their stats are just a little too low. They’re usually mixed up with the A-team to provide support.

Gray (Blacksmith): As well as being able to strengthen weapons back on Phantom Isle, Gray is a serviceable warrior who once belonged in the A-team. Unfortunately, although he has shown promise with both crates and bricks, he has dropped out of the big league due to his inability to administer massive damage. He is named for the young blacksmith in Harvest Moon’s Mineral Town.

Leonas (Manticore): A latecomer to the party, Leonas is steadily levelling up, and has made it all the way from meat shield to formidable warrior. Like Kay, he has King of Beasts, and with a few more levels, he should have the SP to use Burning Refuse, a damaging attack that has been used against my party to deadly effect in the past.

Atoli (Owl Sentry): Although it took me a while to notice that she was female, Atoli is one of the strongest of the owl types. Unfortunately, she just hasn’t been able to keep up with the A-team, and is notorious for getting killed within a turn or two.

Karasu (Owl Knight): The second of five owl characters, Karasu may be a bit chubby, but he has recently overtaken Atoli in terms of strength, and seems to be working well with a mace.

Lena (Lady Zombie): Once she belonged in the D-team, but after levelling up in a few dungeons, Lena proved to be a dab hand with a crate. In battles where I’ve saved the A-team for a later appearance, Lena has provided good support to Marona.

Robin (Knight): Named after Chevalier’s Robin, his oversized blade does solid damage, but until he levels up a bit more and gains some better abilities, he must remain B-ranked. He does, however, have a useful ‘Healing Steps’ ability, which lets him heal a percentage of HP each turn.

C-Team: Crappy
These are the characters that I know could be great if they gained some more levels, but somehow they just never keep up.

Melodee (Merchant): In the first few levels of the game, my limited party meant Melodee was one of my best fighters, but after better classes came along she began to lag behind, especially when I couldn’t find a weapon that she seemed to agree with. She has finally been equipped with a Cactus, and she shows promise for the future. She is also useful for buying weapons from on Phantom Isle.

Shana (Fusionist): Equipped with a crate, Shana (named so because of her flaming red hair) was once equal to Shu, but he soon left her behind and now she tends to get killed before she can even take a turn. Nonetheless, on Phantom Isle she shows her worth by fusing characters and items together.

Corti (Archer): Named after the female lead in Polyphonica, Corti cannot actually be equipped with a bow and arrow, but she does have a ranged attack when unarmed (in contrast to everyone else’s close range unarmed attacks). At the moment she’s more weak Guraa than killer Dorii, but there’s always hope for the future- and she comes with Quick Attack, which lets her take a turn as soon as she is confined.

Nox (Fenrir): Basically Leonas with Quick Attack, Nox has yet to fulfil his potential, and currently attacks with a weed. Based on enemy Fenrirs, he has the potential to become fearsome.

Teol (Owl Ninja): The third owl character, Teol has yet to show any skills or abilities that mark him out from the crowd.

Alf (Slime): Named after a smiley face car air freshener, Alf was part of the project to show that slimes do not have to be pathetic weaklings- but sadly, it didn’t work. When equipped with an axe, he has a promising Slimurai attack, but most of the time he gets killed before he takes a turn, and only once has he made a notable contribution to battle.

Suzanna (Healer): A Healer should be vital in battle, but with Marona already filling that role, Suzanna is just excess baggage who usually gets killed before she could ever heal anyone. Her main worth is for healing on Phantom Isle.

D-Team: Distraction
I’ve generally given up on levelling this lot; they’re purely brought out as cannon fodder to occupy powerful enemies whilst Marona and the others get to safety and plan their counterattack.

Mellon (Zombie): A slow and weak zombie, Mellon has often been considered for banishment.

Ader (Titlist): Although he can damage everything around him when confined, Ader is next to useless in battle. His main worth lies in assigning titles on Phantom Isle.

Noodles (Soldier): Whilst your party is out saving the world, Noodles can usually be found sunbathing on the beach or getting distracted by a shiny object. As a soldier, you’d think he would at least be a good physical attacker, but he seems to resist improvement.

Para (Dungeon Monk): He can create random dungeons for levelling up, but when it comes to actually fighting, he’s lucky if he can inflict more than zero damage.

Hayla (Mermaid): Enemy mermaids are formidable, but mine is useless.

Titan (Merman): The same goes for my merman, although in his defence he was only recently recruited.

Lyrica (Bottlemail): Yes, you can actually send out a bottle to fight, and the reason you would want to is that they have the highest probability of bringing the item you confined them to home with them. Unfortunately, I’m usually too focused on battle strategy to bother with that.

U-Team: Unused
They never get a chance to shine, and I don’t know why I created them.

Willow (Whisp): I made “Will O’ the Whisp” because I read Whisps were good healers, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort of levelling it up.

Bana (Putty Smith): The first of several putty units made on ‘must have putties’ day, Bana can perform the same functions as Gray.

Brains (Putty Shaman): A putty version of the fusionist, named for its large glasses.

Sadako (Putty Mage): Named because of the black ‘hair’ that obscures its face, has yet to see the light of day in battle.

Putty (Putty): A standard putty and mascot character.

Benik (Owl Sage): An owl healer, he’s useful on Phantom Isle, but never gets called upon in battle.

Derik (Owl Mage): Enemy owl mages are powerful, but mine is a weakling.

Grandma (Granny): This old lady has a short movement range and only spends two turns on the field before disappearing- even if she could damage the enemy, she can’t even reach it.

Gorben (Old Man): Named after the pervert mage in Fantasy Legend Adventure, this old man is the ultimate in desperation characters- a unit who can do no damage no matter what the circumstances. He can randomly give you EXP, though.

Sharu (Funguy): A mushroom character, Sharu has yet to prove himself as annoying to the enemy as their mushrooms are to me.

Banished
Already banished from Phantom Isle and thus from existence.

Putty 2 (Putty): Another putty mascot, already gone.

Su Ling (Saber Kitty): Named for the female cat in Legend of Kay, another unused mascot character.

Walrus (Blob): Seriously, what was I thinking when I made a blob?

Tetsu (Mimic): See above.

Candela (Shade): See above.