PlayStation 2

Over the course of the last decade, Nippon Ichi Software went from a relatively unknown Japanese developer to a company well known in the west for their extremely deep strategy RPGs.  Their most well known product is definitely Disgaea series, a franchise as well known for its quirky characters and colorful sense of humor as for its extremely deep gameplay, challenging players to not only complete the game's story, but to fully master its mechanics, customize their weapons' levels and stats to the extreme and topple bosses whose levels and stats can tower into the thousands and millions (or even billions in later titles), respectively.

They've also tried their luck with numerous experimental titles, attempting to incorporate new elements into their deep strategy RPG formula. From the vehicle-based combat in Makai Kingdom to trying their hands at roguelikes with Zettai Hero Project and The Guided Fate Paradox.  A few of them have gained some cult acclaim, but none ever seemed to reach the level of popularity that their flagship Disgaea franchise could.

But even among their "lesser" titles, there seems to be a black sheep: A little Playstation 2 strategy RPG (later ported to the Wii and PSP) named Phantom Brave.

Like Disgaea, Phantom Brave is known for its turn-based action and over the top humor.  But what sets it apart is in the details.  Phantom Brave's gameplay is much more open ended; think Final Fantasy Legend or SaGa Frontier with its fully customizable characters and you have an idea of what to expect.

For one thing, the action is not bound to a grid like most games of this type - each character has a set distance they can move, and they can literally move to anywhere within that range.  A clever mechanic, but unfortunately doesn't really lend itself to any kind of defensive formation strategy, since units can simply walk between (or hop over) one another.  Or even stand atop another character's head and swing at the enemy from there.

Second, the game doesn't really have "equipment" - at least, not in the sense most RPGs do.  There's no armor in the game per se, but a character's stats can be increased to an extent through the use of "titles" - prefixes that go before your character's name and provide stat bonuses.

As for weapons... well, there are proper weapons you can buy at a shop like swords, daggers, maces and hammers.  But in addition that, you can also pick up and wield virtually any object you find in the field - rocks, trees, bushes, minecarts, bombs, and even other characters can be picked up and swung around, and virtually everything has its own special attacks to boot (which, in NIS tradition, are often delightfully over the top and flashy).

Characters' abilities also aren't bound by their class - any character can wield any weapon, title and skills they choose.  Of course, each character has different affinities for different types of attacks, with fighters tending more toward physical skills and mages tending more toward nature-themed attacks or elemental spells.  Still, that doesn't stop you from say, equipping a sword on Marona and teaching her Dragon Slash.  Or giving your fighters healing skills.  Not a whole lot of benefit to learning skills your stats don't really support (not until you're deep into power-leveling, at least), but hey, the option is on the table.

Like most Nippon Ichi titles, the game also doesn't have you deploy your entire party onto the field before the battle begins.  Instead, you begin with just one character - Marona - who isn't very strong on her own.  However, she is also the only character with the ability to Confine - literally sending your other characters (the titular phantoms) into objects on the field to give them a physical form.  Depending upon the object, it will also add bonuses and penalties to their stats - confining to a rock, for example, will grant them a substantial defense bonus, but a heavy speed penalty.  A dead tree will sap the character's HP considerably, but give them a heavy bonus to attack power, and so on.  Some objects and enemies also receive "protections" from other objects on the field, which can provide them further bonuses and penalties; these ranging from stat boosts to experience bonuses to being completely immobile.

Each character can also only stay on the field for a given amount of time, with the general trend being that the stronger characters get considerably fewer turns, forcing you to deploy them more wisely.  Especially so when there are few confinable out on the field, or even none (which forces you to toss your own weapons out and confine characters to them).

So unlike most strategy RPGs, where the emphasis is on outfitting your party and playing to their strengths, Phantom Brave is more about resource management - gathering items, fusing them, unlocking new characters, managing skills, and of course adapting your strategies in the field to get the most out of the limited number of turns a character is granted.  It's not the best-balanced thing in the world, but can a spinoff of a franchise known for having characters' stats literally towering into seven-plus digits really be called "balanced" to begin with?

Enemies are also quite fond of picking up characters and weapons and flinging them out of the map entirely, which just leaves even less for you to work with!

So the gameplay is pretty unconventional by strategy RPG standards, but what about the story?  Well, that may be where the game falls short to a lot of the Nippon Ichi faithful, who generally come into these games expecting larger than life characters and a lot of weird humor.  Instead, Phantom Brave's story is a lot more serious and sad in tone, touching on themes of prejudice, revenge and self sacrifice.

The story follows the tale of Marona, a young girl who is feared and hated among the general populace as the "possessed" for her unique ability to channel phantoms.  She takes up a job as a chroma (bounty hunter) to make ends meet, but it seems that everyone is out to get her because of her reputation - from fellow bounty hunters to people finding any excuse to not pay her.  Pretty cruel stuff, and not really what you'd expect to see in a game with such a cutesy visual style.

In short, Phantom Brave is a one of Nippon Ichi's experiments that I think turned out rather well.  It may not have the same tone as Disgaea or bear much resemblance to any other strategy RPG in terms of design, but it has a unique flair proves to be just as deep in its own way.  So if you're looking for something good, albeit unconventional by both Nippon Ichi and strategy RPG standards, give Phantom Brave a go.  If nothing else, it's a game you won't soon forget.