Believe it or not, The Hermuda Triangle is the third (and final?) update to Nippon Ichi Software's Phantom Brave adventure. The original game was released seven years ago on the PlayStation 2, followed up by a well-intentioned Wii update a few years later. Now comes the PSP port, which lands with a low price point and some added content. Even after all these years, Phantom Brave remains an engaging adventure game worth suiting up for ... assuming you haven't played it before.
Phantom Brave tells the story of Marona, a young girl with a dark secret. Don't be fooled by her upbeat exterior, this unlikely hero has become an outcast amongst her own people. It turns out that her neighbors may have good reason to be worried, seeing as she is possessed and able to see invisible spirits. Marona travels around with her mostly invisible guardian named Ash; together the two make money by taking on quests and fixing problems.
It turns out that Marona can summon phantoms that are really good at clearing out unwelcome monsters. Unfortunately this power comes with a twist -- she must "confine" these spirits into inanimate objects. I'm talking about trees, weapons, rocks and anything else that isn't trying to kill Marona. These various objects have their own properties, something that will impact the character you summon. These phantoms will leap into the real world and take on the foes. But don't get too comfortable, because these summoned fighters will only stick around for a few rounds. Once they're gone it's up to the lone mortal to finish the fight.
Confining characters to objects is an interesting way of twisting the generally straight-laced strategy RPG genre. This is not one of those games where players can simply load the level with strong fighters from the start, when and where you summon your allies is vital to winning. This is the type of game where you may want to hold off on bringing in your best characters, saving them to be your all-important closer. Even though it's a little confusing at first, I came away impressed with the changes Phantom Brave made to the genre.
Outside of confining characters to rocks, The Hermuda Triangle feels a lot like many other turn-based adventure games from Japan. Although the game isn't laid out like a chess board, players are still told how far they can walk and what they can do. Each turn is about moving the character into place and either attacking or using items on fellow teammates. Anybody familiar with Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre will feel at home with Phantom Brave.
I was surprised at how shallow the combat engine was compared to other NIS America games I've played. With the colorful graphics, whimsical heroine and dumbed down combat, I get the feeling that Phantom Brave was intended for a younger audience. I don't say that pejoratively, there's a place for the so-called "starter" adventure game. It's important to work up to something like Aedis Eclipse: Generations of Chaos.On the other hand, if this is made for younger players, then why is it so difficult? The game seems simple enough at first, but it won't take long before you find yourself outclassed for the next challenge. This means that you'll need to replay a few earlier missions, which halts the flow of the game entirely. Grinding in role-playing games is nothing new, but it's especially annoying when you have to do it early in the game. And don't even get me started on what this constant backtracking does to the game's pacing. All this definitely feels out of step with the otherwise cutesy visuals.
Even with the trial and error levels, I was won over by the game's simple charm. After playing through some truly heavy adventure games recently, I was up for something fat-free like Phantom Brave. There's something very economical about this game, from the way you live on a house to how everybody that lives on your tiny island is also ready to help you fight monsters. The truth is, I really like island living. I like how I don't need to search around for the shopkeeper. If I want to sit and read letters, I'm free to do that. Phantom Brave is a very relaxing game ... at least until the monsters show up.
No matter how much I like hanging out on the beach, I can't help but be reminded that this is a seven year old PlayStation 2 game. The game does offer new content and playable characters, but it's not enough to buy this game all over again. Thankfully the graphics still hold up, especially on the PSP's widescreen display. The user interface is also good, even if they are on the simple side.
Then again, if you're somebody who missed the game on both the PlayStation 2 and the Wii, then Phantom Brave is a steal for twenty dollars. The game packs enough content to keep players going for weeks to come, longer if you dig into the exclusive PSP content. Best of all, the game offers a sense of whimsy that you don't normally get from modern-day adventure games. It's nice to see this kind of game find new life on a platform known for quality role-playing games.
The problem with Phantom Brave is that it will be ultimately overshadowed by newer (and better) games. Had this been released early in the PSP's lifecycle I would have been tempted to give it a recommendation, however now this seven year old RPG is forced to compete with the likes of Kingdom Hearts, Ys Seven, Persona 3 Portable, Valkyria Chronicles II and countless other recent releases. Phantom Brave isn't at the same level, which ultimately makes it hard to be enthusiastic about the release. The low price softens the blow, but this NIS America release is not the slam-dunk it was a half dozen years ago.