There remains the familiar anime look to the game and the sound effects will be immediately recognised as being pulled straight out of the previous games. The musical score has a very similar theme too, which is no bad thing, but although the overall feel of the game is very similar, the flavour is as different as curry and chocolate.
If you've played Disgaea and La Pucelle, well, frankly you can chuck any tactics used for those out the window; the battle engine works in a completely different way. The changes have increased the complexity; things appear almost overwhelming at first, but it is clever nonetheless.
Gone is the moving your troops, giving them orders to execute in a sequence and apply; character turns are based on their speed. It's similar to the way things are done in Final Fantasy, but without the time limits. A list of the characters is shown on the right side of the screen in the order that they will be able to move. Characters perform actions one at a time in accordance to the order of that list. Speed is the most important statistic in the game; the faster your troops can move, the more damage youíll be able to dole out before the enemy gets a chance. In a way itís a more logical implementation, but can make for slower progress.
Also gone is any idea of grid based movement, and Nippon Ichi should be applauded for attempting something different; when it works it does so extremely well. The map allows for free movement with the limits of your characterís range displayed via a circle. It really does take some getting use to and itís not without its problems. Things can become cluttered very quickly with enemies, objects and characters taking up very close proximity at times. This is exacerbated by the dead leaving their corpses in the field. A final blow is required to remove them completely.
Maps can have different surfaces to makes things more interesting, such as being icy or bouncy. This perhaps gives rise to the only major gripe of the game. The concept of out of bounds introduces the very annoying problem of having your character falling off the map if hit or thrown by your enemies, should they be too close to the edge. Enemies can be thrown off too, but the remaining units get a level advantage, player troops do not, making the tactic less appealing.
Attacking, particularly with ranged spells, can also be a little awkward, especially when trying not to hit your own units. Unlike with most physical attacks, which will move your character as needed and then execute it, these have to be aligned manually. This can be a matter of moving, checking the range, cancelling, moving and checking the range again. Eventually you discover that with the spell selected, holding down the square button allows the character to be moved and the attack aligned with the range still displayed. Itís a feature that's displayed at the bottom left of the screen when a spell is selected; it shows how important it is to look at all the finer details.
Your team works in a very different way too: all units, with the exception of Marona, are phantoms. As they're not physical entities, they must be confined to objects on the map before they can hit anything. These can be rocks, flowers, boxes; thereís a bewildering array of different things and all modify the unitís statistics. Confining the right phantoms with the right objects is a task all of its own. Rocks mean slower, shorter movement, but higher defence and attack. Flowers mean higher magic ability and speed, but lower defence. Itís an expansive system giving plenty of scope to player choices.
Things donít stop there. The unit limit on a map is sixteen; however, if your character is equipped with an item this counts as two units. Any of the items on a map can be picked up, including enemies be they dead or alive, and used as weapons. This gives them different attack abilities and more scope for experimentation. Having no weapons equipped gives the chance of deploying more troops, but as the numbers of items on a map can be limited, a fine balance is required.
Thereís another complication: phantoms can only stay confined to items for so many combat turns. Eventually they disappear for the rest of the battle, and potentially take the item they were confined to home to the island on which they live. It makes things difficult; at times your best fighters will disappear at the worst moment. It forces strategic thinking: your characters will disappear, so whenís the best time to deploy them?
One further game concept that should be mentioned is that of protection. This can boost or reduce stats, alter received experience or mana, or provide status modifiers such as out of bounds protection. The protection is bound to certain map objects having a source and destination. The number of modifiers an item has is displayed above it, confining a unit to the object gives it the protection modifier. The objects can be destroyed removing the modifier, and sometimes this has to be done as protection can be used by the enemy too.
Whilst being at a very much higher level will make battles easier to some extent, since the confinement aspect means characters have a map life (typically 3-5 turns) before they disappear, just having high level characters won't always help, unless you go really mad. The AI isn't super clever and can still be fooled into going after the lowest level, closest character, allowing the method of divide and conquer to be used. However there are elements that would suggest there's a little bit more to it. Enemies, as well as trying to throw you off the map, will sometimes throw out their own units, using the OB level advantage concept against you. Itís nasty and devious.
So then, it's complex. This review doesnít mention the concept of combining objects and characters to change their abilities, or give details on the random dungeons, similar to Disgaeaís item world, available to adventure through and gain titles from. It doesnít even talk about the blacksmith and his ability to improve weapons by forging mana into them, or Maronaís ability to create new phantoms. No, there are many more things to discover in the perplexing yet wondrous world of Phantom Brave that, free grid issues aside, go up to make a superb and well rounded package.
It isnít a game for the TRPG newbie, if anything it would put people off playing the genre ever again. At times the difficulty has been set at an over the top level and it can annoy. It frustrates and pleases in equal measure. It is a game for the TRPG hardcore; those whoíll enjoy spending hours playing the same maps or random dungeons over and over to level up in order to progress through the story, or who spend days working out the best combination of stat modifiers to make finishing off the mission puzzles that little bit easier. If you are so minded, Phantom Brave will not disappoint you.