I can’t exactly ascertain when strategy RPGs (SRPGs) got their hold on me. I’ve posited a few potential situations before, but the first real big revelation came with the inaugural Shining Force, Ogre Battle, and Final Fantasy Tactics entries. Those were like a gateway of sorts into a long string of NIS games that grabbed and never let go. They pretty much had me at hello with Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, before Disgaea managed to capture the attention of pretty much anyone even remotely interested in the genre. But because of the massive success of that series a few games went relatively unnoticed by many. One such title is the lovely Phantom Brave.
The good news is this is a completely fresh adventure. No knowledge of any previous NIS game, or even any SRPG conventions is required. Following the tale of Marona, a young girl watched over by a phantom named Ash, Phantom Brave sports a unique comedic and charming feel to it. The stakes can get pretty high, and moving deaths do occur, but the idea of having Marona as the only person who can see Ash leads to some funny situations. The dynamic between the two is fun to watch in its own way, making a relatively by the book adventure a little more amusing. That, along with a quirky cast (without being overly quirky, as Disgaea is guilty of from time to time), keeps things interesting.
Characters aside, the real star of the show is the battle system, as this is a strategy game after all. It’s a tried and true NIS setup, with an isometric camera style on top of a giant board of sorts where player characters act as pieces. But instead of forcing players to work within the confines of a grid, you’ll use a “dm” stat (which varies from character to character) to move wherever you want. To get creative you can also use the terrain to your advantage, or pick up and throw allies — who can also be chucked out of bounds — a concept that isn’t normally seen in tactical games.
Like most NIS projects, there’s more content here than most players would possibly care to exhaust. You can create dungeons, fuse and create new party members (combining certain classes for group synergy), and of course, grind out to level 9999. There’s a lot to do in general (including plenty of post-game challenges), and if you wish, a lot of time you can spend with your nose in stats and menus. On top of that, this also includes all of the content from the Wii and PSP editions, making it the most definitive version to date.
Phantom Brave is in a unique position where it relies on established NIS conventions, but strays from them just enough to give diehards something different. The fact that it holds up over 12 years later on PC is a testament to that.