I really like the concept of Prinny Presents NIS Classics Volume 1. Nippon Ichi has dipped into its deep history to dust off two of its games that would be a tough sell as separate releases without a massive project behind them to remake them. Bundled together, however, and it suddenly becomes a “retro collection” as such, and while it may not have as many titles as, say, the Mana collection, between the two of them you’re looking at a monstrously large project to play through it all. Both these games might be incredibly niche tactics JRPGs in 2021, but since we’ve never seen anyone try and recreate these games again, both of them feel fresh and interesting to play.
Just be aware that the presentation of this package is deeply disappointing. Nippon Ichi has given the first of the two titles in the collection – Phantom Brave – the HD treatment. It’s in widescreen now, and while the sprites seem a little low resolution in comparison to everything else, the fuzziness is an oddly aesthetic effect that works to the game’s benefit. You can thank the existence of Wii, PSP, and PC re-releases for all this, as the game has undergone continuous development over the years, and there is even “DLC” included in the package as an added bonus.
Soul Nomad & The World Eaters isn’t so lucky. This is the first time that this has been re-released since the original PlayStation 2 launch, and that means that the game is locked to the old 4:3 screen format and resolution. The aesthetics of the game are as gorgeous as NIS is well-known for, but it’s nonetheless clear that the game was built for the PlayStation 2. That in itself doesn’t bother me (as I rather enjoy PS2 aesthetics), but what does get to me is the lack of cohesion across the “collection”. It’s two games, Nippon Ichi. You really should have done something to make it feel like they were linked together in some way.
With that being said, I actually prefer Soul Nomad. Phantom Brave is a very fine game indeed, but this is the first time I’ve played Soul Nomad, and I am so glad I got the chance. The best way to describe it is a blend of Ogre Battle (not Tactics Ogre, the RTS Ogre Battle), and Fire Emblem. Before battle, you build small units of a handful of different character types (soldiers, monsters, wizards, clerics, etc). Then you command these units around a map, tactics-style. When you encounter an enemy, both parties will have a swing at one another. If the leader of either side is defeated, the unit is dissolved. If both leaders survive, then after a round the combat is suspended until the next turn.
This system is exactly like Ogre Battles’, and since developers don’t really make these games anymore, playing this now has been a treat. There is all the customary depth of a NIS title – including the ability to power stuff up by fighting random battles – and building ideal units of characters is a fundamentally pleasurable learning curve that continues through most of the game. While the 4:3 aspect ratio is a little distracting, it’s a joy to watch your carefully managed units tackling the increasingly powerful enemies, too.
The gameplay is supported with a narrative that hits some pretty intense notes, too. At the very start of the story, your character is bonded with a supremely powerful (and malignant) spirit, trapped inside a black sword. You’re tricked into doing this in the hope that you can control the power and use it to take down giant monstrosities of Godlike presence… the catch is that if you give in to that power too much, it will take you over and proceed to destroy the planet. It’s a story of resistance and corruption, and while that’s a time-honoured story if ever there was one, Soul Nomad has a narrative that could have been pasted over a game produced in 2021, and no one would bat an eyelid. It’s really that well told (even if the game has a bad case of the “PlayStation 2-era voice acting”).
Phantom Brave is a game I have a more complex relationship with. I enjoy it (and indeed vaguely remember it being one of the first games I ever reviewed professionally, so there’s a bit of nostalgia there for me as well), but I also find it cumbersome and its quirks were things I tolerate more than play the game for.
The problem is the summon system. See, in Phantom Brave you only control one human character – a young girl who is hopeless in combat, but can summon phantoms into battle to support her. These phantoms need to be summoned to physical objects – trees, rocks, flowers and the like, and only hang around for a few turns, at which point they – and the object – disappear and you can’t summon them again for that level. Beyond that, some objects get “boosts” from other objects, and the enemy benefits from this system too, so there are times that you’ll want to destroy the boosts before targeting the enemies.
Phantom Brave is a game of timing and positioning; you need to make sure that you don’t run out of phantoms or objects before you’ve had the opportunity to defeat all the enemies, and you’ll need to make sure that you’re summoning the right allies to deal with the right situations. This combat system does work, but over time I find it to be a lot of busywork, when I simply want to move units around in my tactics games.
Phantom Brave doesn’t have anywhere near the same quality narrative to write home about, either. It’s enjoyable enough, but it lacks the same extreme zaniness of the Disgaea titles, despite being similar structurally, and while it has plenty of fun moments (and is anything but a “serious JRPG”) it just isn’t the same standard.
With all of that being said, Phantom Brave is still a highly enjoyable and challenging game. The difficulty curve is truly hardcore and you’ll want to have this combat system and the underlying tactics mastered early on, because you’ll be tested on them frequently and without mercy. As with all NIS early titles (and Soul Nomad, above), there is a fair dose of grind inherent in the run-time, but chances are that if that combat system does click, it won’t feel like a chore by any means.
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