Phantom Brave: We Meet Again (Wii)
Let's face it: Publishers on the Nintendo Wii seem more interested in making a fast buck off waggle-enabled shovelware than in offering anything original. What Wii owners need is to awaken to the possibilities.
Phantom Brave: We Meet Again could be a gateway drug to strategy role-playing games, like Pool of Radiance was for me back in 1988. That first game set in the Dungeons & Dragons "Forgotten Realms" campaign changed the kinds of games I played forever. Phantom Brave is the same kind of game that can open doors due to its simplicity and accessibility.
It's easy to love its lighthearted tale about seeking and finding acceptance through perseverance and optimism in a world full of miserable pricks. This Wii-make of the 2004 PlayStation 2 release is also easier to understand than Nippon Ichi Software's signature strategy RPG series, Disgaea, which is far more complex and more than a little intimidating to new players.
You play as Marona, an orphan that lives alone on one of the islands that make up the world of Ivoire. Marona works as a "Croma," someone who interacts with and manipulates phantoms. Her gift has put a terrible burden on her, for the people of Ivoire treat her like a pariah, spreading vicious rumors that she is possessed by a spirit. That spirit is actually a phantom named Ash, a family friend who died alongside Marona's parents and had promised to watch over the little girl. The game opens to a series of terrible events on Ivoire that sends Ash and a teenage Marona on a series of adventures.
Phantom Brave offers a nice backstory, though it has its fair share of JRPG clich?s, quirks and odd dialogue that are probably the result of some strange translation during the localization process. But the game is very easy to play. While Phantom Brave may share some elements with Disgaea, it also takes away a lot of the more complicated layers (check out my review of Disgaea 3 for examples). The core differences have to do with ease of use, a simplified inventory system and the ability to equip just about any item to any character on your team.
Like in other strategy RPGs, in Phantom Brave you control Marona and her deployed phantoms on the field. The game eschews grid-based movement in favor of an open movement system where you point and click to your destination. This not only makes movement less rigid, but also enables units to take better positions. Marona is also the only character in the game capable of deploying units on the map -- and she is only limited by the availability of objects on the field, to which she needs to "confine" phantoms.
Everything can be a weapon in Phantom Brave , and everyone in the game can use any weapon. Objects like trees, rocks, boxes, books, swords, dead bodies and other characters can be equipped as weapons simply by being lifted from the field. While there's nothing more invigorating than beating a bad guy to death with a rock or slapping him in the face with a fish, Monty Python-style, what's most interesting is that this discards the importance of traditional weaponry. A loaf of bread or a monster carcass is just as deadly as a battleaxe, as long as it has the right skills attached to it.
That's pretty much how the game flows: You figure out the best placement for your phantoms, you deploy them on the field, they beat the holy hell out of anything that moves, and the match ends when everything is dead -- or you are.
Beyond the streamlined gameplay is the game's use of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk: It is almost perfect, and there's no waggling or shaking involved. You use the thumbstick on the Nunchuk to navigate menus and move your characters around, the face buttons to confirm or cancel, and the Z button as a "shift key" in some situations. It's as easy as using a Classic controller or the GameCube controller, both of which are also supported. For players who grew up with the PS2 or Xbox and are now stuck with a Wii (by choice, Christmas gift, or price), the control scheme feels just like a standard wireless gamepad.
There are other systems in the game that are important to hardcore players -- Fusion, Titles and random dungeons -- but novice players who want to enjoy and finish the original storyline, or the new chapter made specifically for We Meet Again, need not fret about them. Phantom Brave is as deep as you want it to be. The game flow is simple; the puzzles and strategic thinking are mostly self-explanatory. Meanwhile, advanced players can access the bonus maps and cameo characters you'd expect to find in a Nippon Ichi Software game.
There are a number of new things in the Wii version worth noting. "New Game +" allows you to start over and carry over all your characters, money, items, etc. after you have beaten the new chapter. This was missing in the original game for some reason, so it's a welcome addition here. There's also the matter of "Another Marona." Besides providing an interesting additional chapter and a throwing a new, alternate Marona character into the mix, "Another Marona" allows you to play just about all the people you might have faced off against in the main storyline. The key players (Sprout, Rafael, etc.), along with a bunch of other obscure characters, become playable at its beginning -- as phantoms.
In "Another Marona," everyone in the world dies except Marona, and another Marona appears in Ivoire. She's a brooding, bitter and self-sufficient Croma who seems to dislike everyone. While the new, darker chapter fleshes out some secret details about the main characters, it also feels a bit disjointed from the events of the original game. It feels like NIS didn't pay too much attention to the original plot, which wrecks the synergy between the two.
Phantom Brave: We Meet Again also doesn't look all that great on the Wii. While some minor enhancements have been made to the game, the system is not so underpowered that it can't deliver a decent-looking 2-D game. Parts of the game look pixilated, faded and last-generation. The game also suffers from the same camera problems as the Disgaea series does. There are almost always too many objects and units on the field that block and obscure your view, and no amount of rotating the camera helps.
Those minor complaints aside, Phantom Brave: We Meet Again's story is a perfect fit for an audience that is used to waggling and shaking things: not too serious, but not quite as dark as a game about overlords, netherworlds and demons. But the story is less important than the game itself, which can be all things to all kinds of players, from casual players that want to make it through an interesting story to those hardcore players that seek Nippon Ichi's familiar, ultimate grind to level 9,999.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Wii game provided by the publisher.