Phantom Brave is a very good, surprisingly heartfelt tRPG with some wonderful messages about female friendship, disability, environmentalism, and prejudice. It also has a really unique item system that had a moderate learning curve but was lots of fun once I got the hang of it.
I’m publishing this concurrently with the Disgaea review because Phantom Brave does all the things Disgaea does well even better, has a coherent plot, and is without all the shitty sexualization, so it’s worth looking at them together, but I had too much to say about each individually for a single dual post to make sense.
Disgaea and PB are both story-heavy 2D tRPGs, and their basic mechanics are very, very similar. The character creation, summoning, and levelling systems are almost identical. The gameplay format, with cutscene > battle > back to home base >cutscene > battle > home etc. is the same, and the way the strategy is used is the same. The both also have a side dungeon and some minigames that you can use to make the gameplay deeper but that are mostly optional.
There are some small gameplay differences. Disgaea uses a combo system similar to (though not as elaborate as) Yggdra Union’s, where if you line up characters and chain attacks you do more damage, while PB has a kind of weird but fun equipment system where characters basically don’t have dedicated weapons but just use whatever is in the environment. Phantom Brave, which came out the year after Disgaea, also has some streamlining — wow did I miss the ability to filter all your mana to one character during Disgaea. Being able to see your summoned NPCs in PB was also a nice UX touch.
My point is that despite some small differences, they’re basically the same engine and same strategy, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they were developed mostly parallel to each other. They both do some interesting, if not totally unique, things that set them apart from the typical Fire Emblem-style straightforward tRPG, but what they do isn’t so exciting that you’re missing out if you only play one, so just play this one.
Phantom Brave is the story of a little girl named Marona. She has inherited the ability to summon spirits and bind them to her from her parents. Several years before the start of the game, her parents, who are mercenaries, are killed on a job by an absurdly powerful monster. Her parents attempt to save their friend, Ash, but the monster is so powerful all they manage to do is inadvertently bind him to the world as a spirit. He watches over Marona as she grows up, and between her power, which freaks people out, and spirit!Ash, she gains an unfortunate reputation as a girl posessed by demons who cavorts with evil spirits. The story starts out with her approaching her wits’ end — she’s 13, and is losing her ability to cope with the fear and hatred she gets from people.
This is a brightly colored, upbeat game, which is largely what NIS is known for, so I was surprised by just how good it was at dealing with Marona’s despair and at conveying the utter frustration she and Ash dealt with every single day. Seeing Marona hold on desperately to her childlike optimism and the idea that if she just keeps trying hard enough people will realize she’s a good person, and watching that belief absolutely crush her, was so heartwrenching. The game does an excellent job of showing how small fears and acts of prejudice can have big effects on the people they’re directed toward, and Ash’s being at a complete loss with how to teach a child that the world isn’t always kind was very effective.
Just as Marona’s ready to give up, though, she meets Castile, another little girl, who can’t walk and is confined to her bed; later, after she starts to recover from her illness, she’s in a wheelchair. Because Castile has been mostly shut out of the world, she has no preconceived notions about Marona, and when Marona saves their home from monsters but won’t accept payment because the money needs to go to Castile’s medical needs, Castile’s parents can’t object to the friendship, either.
This game is very much about how tiny acts of kindness can mean everything — just getting a kind letter from Castile is enough to give Marona the faith she needs in the world to carry on, and unlike other people, Marona treats Castile as an equal. Castile is integral to solving one of the central mysteries of the plot because she knows sign language, and later, she attends the final boss battle in her wheelchair as a key player. It was very cool — I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair at a final boss confrontation in any game I’ve ever played. The game also manages to resist the urge to ‘fix’ Castile as a reward for the player; the message is very much that even though she’s disabled, she’s a whole person.
Castile actually isn’t even the only injury/disability subplot in the game, but I won’t get into that one because it’s huge spoilers.
The game also has great character design. Marona’s costume is completely adorable, and the female characters aren’t dressed any differently from the male. And and and! Without giving away too much, this game completely and utterly misled me by having what seemed like low-res jiggle physics actually be a plot point. It was wonderfully done.
The whole story is just very sweet, with some great female characters, and while the save-the-world portion of the plot isn’t groundbreaking or anything, the character part of it is really great.
The gameplay is really interesting. It revolves around Marona’s ability to summon spirits — basically, you can use her MP to create character classes, which unlock throughout the game, and then fuse those character classes to combine their skills and weapon affinities. The fusion element means that you can rather easily make use of a newly summoned character late in the game (in Disgaea, on the other hand, the grindiness meant that at a certain point you were better off just levelling up preexisting characters than creating new ones; I felt very locked into my early-game choices, which was not the case in PB).
On the battle map, Marona can summon spirits by ‘confining’ them to objects. Each spirit is only on the map for a limited time, and if you use all your spirits up, you lose. The object you confine to also affects the stats of the spirit, so, say, you want to confine tanks to things like rocks and mages to things like flowers. If a spirit runs through its time on the map without dying, it will vanish, with a chance of taking the item it was confined to back to your home base with it, which is largely how you get new items. All objects in the environment, including enemies and other spirits, can be used as weapons, and you can steal weapons from enemies… but also vice-versa. Anything a spirit is holding when its time is up is left on the field, so if you’re not careful you could end up facing an enemy that has picked up your best weapon. Weapons and objects can also be combined by Marona back home to that you can create ever-stronger weapons with whole lists of abilities.
Despite how elaborate it was, I felt like the spirit classes and skills were quite well-balanced. I used a pretty big, rotating roster and tried out tons of different skills, and I never got stuck anywhere or felt like I’d found the skill that let me breeze through maps.
There are a lot of other small things like the title system that you can use to further modify character classes and the random dungeons but it’s too much to get into here. I put about 60 hours into the game and really enjoyed every second of it.
This was, incidentally, one of those games I got for like $5 during a sale, but honestly even its retail price is totally fair for the playtime and the fact that it comes prepackaged with a DLC extra scenario.
So, yeah, play this instead of Disgaea. I’ve been sifting my way through NIS’ catalogue trying to find something else this good and haven’t really, yet (do not play A Witch’s Tale). Sometimes the elements just kind of fall in place for a dev, I guess.