Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle Review
If you weren’t aware, Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle has been available for several years on both the PS2 and Wii. This new handheld iteration is basically the same, although it does boast 5 new heroes and more refined visuals that add some luster to a pleasing palette. Of course, like most Nippon Ichi productions, the game thrives on a crazy amount of depth and enough micromanagement to keep fans absorbed for weeks. But in many ways, The Hermuda Triangle is needlessly complex and the clunky control interface speaks to this title’s age. It all depends on whether or not you consider yourself a hardcore strategy/RPG fan: if you do, you’ll likely lose many, many hours to this long, immersive adventure loaded with lots of trail-and-error. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with this style should pass and even some avid role-playing followers may be given pause…
Recently, I’ve enjoyed many of the NIS games on the PSP; they have a very clean, colorful, and even distinct look that never seems to grow tiresome. Character design in Phantom Brave isn’t quite as intricate and detailed (again, this game is older) and some of the effects are a little lacking, but the presentation is consistent and undeniably appealing. Disgaea fans will appreciate the look and style, despite the obvious visual drawbacks. However, one aspect of the game that didn’t age well is the battlegrounds: they’re surprisingly dark and devoid of vibrancy, and they tend to contrast sharply with the brilliance of other World Map locations. It’s not that there’s a lack of environment variety; it’s just that too much of it looks the same when in combat. Outside of this, provided you make some allowances for the fact that this isn’t a current production, you’ll realize there’s little to complain about.
Sound-wise, it’s all about the expected soundtrack quality and the sharp special effects that punctuate our strikes and spells. The voice acting ranges from poor to decent, with too many performances settling for mediocre, although the female narrator is actually quite good. For the most part, these developers rarely let us down in terms of music; we’re always fans of the fitting, original compositions heard in titles of this nature. It makes for a fun, engaging experience, especially when the soundtrack kicks in for epic confrontations. The effects get substantially cooler as your skills grow in effectiveness and technically speaking, the sound doesn’t often waver. The balance is just about right at all times and if it weren’t for some painful voice acting and times when that great music slips away, the sound would be a huge highlight for this game.
Strategy/RPG aficionados will know what to expect in terms of gameplay, but even a few of the most accustomed may be surprised at some of the clever mechanics found in The Hermuda Triangle. Typically, these turn-based quests take place on a board of sorts; the characters move square by square, and various elements like speed and ability dictate movement on that board. But here, we get our first twist- rather than marked-out squares, the battlefields are open. One can move in any direction he or she desires, and the only limitation is in terms of distance, as characters have a meter (i.e., distance traveled) restriction. But I just haven’t decided if I like this yet…in some ways, it offers more freedom – which of course is the purpose – but in other ways, I kept thinking we sacrificed some strategy. Know how we always want to be occupying the square behind when attacking to insure the best success…?
I just couldn’t be certain if attacking from the side or the rear had any extra effect, which immediately detracts from the experience. But I’m not about to complain about the depth; if anything, I can only complain that it’s too complicated. There are tons of tutorials at the start of the game, and you won’t really feel like you have a firm grasp on the action until you’ve played for many hours. As far as similarities to other strat/RPG titles, there’s the standard turn counter (you can see who moves when on the right side of the screen), the picking up and tossing of allies and enemies, and various environmental attributes. But it’s the latter aspect that sets this particular Phantom Brave iteration apart: you have to “Confine” Phantoms, which are all your characters, save one, to inanimate objects. And those objects can completely alter the flow of battle, believe it or not.
For example, “Confining” Ash to a rock will up his defense but negatively impacts his speed. Then there’s the fact that some pieces of the terrain impart various effects all by themselves; a tree might provide healing power or protection, and if that tree is protecting an enemy, you’ll probably have to get rid of that tree. Up to 16 Phantoms can be Confined in a battle, but not only do they have HP limitations, they also have turn limitations; i.e., they can only stick around for a certain number of turns. Therefore, you really have to carefully select when and how to introduce a character into the fray. Furthermore, you can pick up various weapons when they’re available, and those weapons grant different skills. Of course, even the weapons have HP in this game, so that’s something else to consider. As for basic progression, you move along in a very Disgaea-like fashion, as you will select your destinations from a simple menu. You can also speak with party members for even more options.
Money will give you the chance to Summon more Phantoms; the more money you spend, the better Phantom you’ll get. The whole process may sound a little convoluted and in truth, it sort of is… It’s as if they took the concept of micromanagement and depth a step too far, and we just spend too much time thinking about a million different elements. There was a time when I was convinced there could be no such thing as a “too complex” strategy/RPG, but these days, I’m starting to believe otherwise. On top of which, the storyline in this game starts very slowly and isn’t all that thrilling even when it does get going. I suppose it’s yet another competent, enjoyable title and even a haven for strategy/RPG followers, but the control is iffy – maneuvering that icon about isn’t much fun – and there are too many times when death seems inevitable after one wrong tactical decision.
Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle has all the elements and aspects of a solid strategy/RPG, and despite the fact that it’s more than a few years old, it delivers what it promises. Unfortunately, the whole thing feels a little more muddled than it should’ve been; the combination of the less-than-slick interface, occasionally overly complex gameplay mechanic, somewhat generic plot and characters, etc.; it all comes together to hinder our enjoyment. The experience is still very much rewarding if you find yourself lost amidst the intricacies of yet another robust strat/RPG experience, but it does feel a little dated and a little cumbersome. And remember, when Disgaea 4 arrives, games like The Hermuda Triangle will start to show their age even more…
The Good: Good music. Interesting twists on a traditional strategy/RPG format. Plenty of depth and micromanagement. Ample rewards for the patient and vigilant.
The Bad: Voice acting can be poor. Gameplay feels overly complex at times. Clunky interface. Sort of a “meh” storyline and characters.
The Ugly: “Geez…what’d I forget this time?"
3/7/2011 Ben Dutka