Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle

Nippon Ichi Software games are – for the most part – always a safe bet. You tend to know roughly what you're getting yourself into when picking up the developer's latest SRPG title: a large amount of content in a game with fathoms of depth, a dark sense of humour juxtaposed with endearing character design, reams of stats, jaunty tunes, and an isometric point of view.

For fans of NIS's particular brand of strategy, this updated port of the 2004 PlayStation 2 original will not disappoint. Almost everyone else can rest easy as this outing passes them by, safe in the knowledge that Phantom Brave is not looking to accommodate them.

Pity the dead

Set in the World Of Ivoire, where the dead often remain as summonable Phantoms, PB:THT sets its action on several islands, the hub of which is our heroine Marona's home - Phantom Isle.

Marona is a young 'Chroma' with the ability to call forth the recently deceased to assist her with her quests, most of which involve removing demons from the previously mentioned islands for wealthy or plain desperate inhabitants.

Marona is primarily aided by Ash, a melancholic teen with - you guessed it - a troubled past, and together they set about on a Ghostbusters-esque adventure across lots and lots of stages. On the way they encounter shadowy characters, loveable villains, giant demons, and yadda yadda.

The plot is pretty thin, but the world is complete. Gaps in your knowledge of the day-to-day goings-on are filled in by newspapers and NPCs. The one standout theme shot through the spine of this lengthy affair is that of Marona being reviled by the majority of its population, while those same people are useless without her help.

If it's difficult to engage with the weak plot, it's made harder still by the phoned-in voice acting. While monologues are solid, dialogue is disjointed, lacking connection with either the player, the situation, or indeed one another.

Cut-scene animations are performed through inflated sprites, stiltedly playing out their individual actions, dragging out scenes that should last thirty seconds across minutes.

When character models aren't being overly stretched, the game looks decent. 2D soldiers, slimes, healers, demons, and so on fight it out atop a 3D board. Maps are neatly designed multi-level affairs, the units engaged in battle display that unmistakeable NIS style of adorable horror, and effects often border on the bombastic.

Voice acting aside, the music is expectedly top notch, the upbeat ditties incorporating a fair amount of string and wind instruments, infused with just a hint of the sinister.

What Phantom Brave is missing from its presentation is flair - there's nothing to stand this release out from its stablemates.

Quality or quantity

Much of the beauty to be gleaned from any SRPG is in its systems of play, and again the title is a solid enough offering, though nothing special. Unlike in many turn-based strategy titles, player movement is not restricted by set squares, but rather characters can move freely about the map.

To get characters into the game, Marona must 'confine' them to an object on the play field, such as a rock or a bush or a watering can. When they're active, they have a limited number of turns before they're removed until the end of the match.

This makes for tough choices as to when you should bring them out of the stable. Using them too early could leave your party vulnerable at the back end of the encounter, while if you act too late you could be overrun by foes.

Elements have a major part to play in Phantom Brave, with each item and avatar having strengths and weaknesses in Wind, Water, and Fire, and as you would expect. Using these elements against your opponents is very effective at removing them from the fight.

The Throw ability is also a neat addition to this otherwise mechanically ordinary SRPG, and tossing your heroes across the play field can be a useful tool in getting from one end of the map to the other - even crucial when your strongest character has but a couple of turns remaining.

Play can be hampered by some dodgy path-finding. Units will occasionally confuse themselves by tripping up over elevated sections of a level, requiring the 'attack' command to be repeated. The controls feel a little slow at times, too, with the cursor limping across the battlefield and no effective way to quickly and precisely select locations and squad members.

As you'd expect, your army of Phantoms levels-up throughout the course of missions, as does equipment, though the ability to combine two characters and/or items has the potential for a heightened meta-game of stat maxing. There's nuance here, though never enough to be overwhelming.

I want something more

If this rather tepid reaction to the title hasn't changed your mind, then go grab it - it's a generally well put together time sink between Disgaea games.

However, it's disappointing that this is all it is, never building enough on its strengths to fully justify its existence to a wider audience that isn't rabid for more NIS strategy games.

There are flecks of great potential here - it's just a pity they're scattered too thinly.

Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle

If you're aching for more SRPG action from the makers of Disgaea then this is a solid choice, but an eye rollingly bland plot and ironically