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Monday, June 18, 2012

Bleach: The 3rd Phantom (7.0/10)

I'm a big fan of the anime Bleach. Some friends of mine got me into the anime series last summer. As one of the longest running series in the genre, getting caught up to the show in Japanese is a major time commitment-never mind the fact that the English dubbed episodes are about one hundred  behind the sub-titled ones. There are several other Bleach titles out there, but apart from the Dynasty Warriors-style Bleach: Soul Resurrection, most were one-on-one fighters that weren't particularly good. But then I stumbled across Bleach: The 3rd Phantom, a bizarre J-RPG that, while rough around the edges, is surprisingly good... provided you fall under the "Die-Hard Bleach Fan" banner. It's weird, but it works

The story tells the tale of two young twins. You choose to play as one of the two, and then proceed to embark on a roller-coaster ride that involves time travel, multiple sets of characters (due to the different time periods in which the story takes place) that covers the majority of the Bleach universe: from the old days in the Soul Society to the introduction of Ichigo and his friends, all the way through the Arrancar saga. You'll have key moments, like learning about your zampaktou and picking your style as well as numerous interactions with key characters from throughout the Bleach canon. Let me put it this way: if you understood any of that then you might really enjoy this fun little DS title. But to truly appreciate it, you really do need to have watched three hundred-plus episodes of the anime.

But regardless of whether you know your shikai from your bankai, what kido incantation to use, or whose zanpakuto belongs to who, the basic structure of the game is more a mix of traditional, turn-based RPG with strategic, grid-based battlefields. What that means is each field of battle is set up on a grid, each character has a limited number of spaces he can move before he can make an action much like classic D&D. After that, it's relatively straightforward tried and true, turn-based combat. In fact, it's almost oversimplified. What's odd is that you can't really move very far, especially early in the game, so you might take multiple turns before you reach an enemy. In the meantime, you can raise your spiritual pressure. When full, you can release the swords of certain characters to their true, vastly more powerful "bankai" forms. It's clever in the sense that you need to plan ahead, much more akin to strategy titles.

Fans know all about the inordinate amount of dialogue that pervades this series. It is, at the same time, one of the greater strengths yet biggest weaknesses of the show. This game takes your knowledge of the canon for-granted. But what really happens is a lot, and I mean a lot, of exposition. You really need to be a fan a working understanding of the Bleach universe not to get confused, or worse yet, bored. However, I will say that the writing is actually pretty decent, increasing the appeal The 3rd Phantom to true dyed-in-the-wool fans.

The cast list is massive, covering a slew of characters both past and present, as well as many who were brought in during the side arcs of the Arrancar saga. Despite so many players, the game actually offers some pretty fun progression as you'll build affinity with characters through the text based mini-game (more on this in a sec) and, as a result, they will perform better alongside you in battle. Like the rest of the game, this sections are heavy on dialogue, and the shine quickly wears off... even if some of the writing is the sort of thing fans of the series might appreciate.

Be forewarned, like the manga or anime series, The 3rd Phantom goes on and on... and on. It's surprisingly long-I put in well over over twenty hours. Unfortunately, with so much written dialogue, it really does become a bit of a slog, especially towards the end. However, for those who endeavor to stick with it, the ending is surprisingly rewarding... just like the show.

There is more than just turn based RPG action. In a weird twist, you are given "free time" in between missions. This mini-game is okay, basically involving simple math as you need to get Kon (the loveable rascal!) to move through to the goal. This is accomplished by moving the right number of spaces involving doing certain tasks with key members of the cast. This is all text based and gets a bit boring, but it does expand the narrative as well as providing motivation and back story. You can't do everything during "free time," but what I find odd is that some selections actually repeat. It's confusing, especially when they throw what appear to be some moral choice conundrums in from time to time. As far as I could tell, these moments didn't have much of an impact on the proceedings, but then there was a lot going on that I didn't really understand (despite my knowledge of the show).

Looking back on The 3rd Phantom after the fact, I realized that I had never really understood a fair amount of the mechanics in the game... or rather some things are never properly explained. Maybe something was lost in translation, I don't know. For example, you can get items from the text based mini-games that are unique and special. But for the life of me I couldn't figure out how to equip them... or if they were already equipped... or you didn't have to equip them at all, the stat buffs happened straight away... or something?! It was very confusing to say the least! There was a poorly included guide, but despite referring to it several times, I never really felt like my questions were adequately answered.

From a gameplay standpoint, the biggest knock against The 3rd Phantom is that it's not terribly well explained either. Standard battles are pretty self explanatory, but there are lots of options that I never really made use of. The menus are a mess, which is a shame considering how much the game relies on them. The layout is confusing; obviously necessary things aren't always in obvious places. I didn't figure out for a long while that you can actually have 'free battles' during your party organization phase. These are basically set battles where you face a number of enemies roughly concordant with the number of people in your party. These pseudo-battles serve purely to practice tactics and level up your characters. It's fun and addictive-an incredible time sink. I love some good old-fashioned level grinding and I can actually see myself playing this game again at some point down the road... not something I'd normally say considering my considerable lack of free time.

It's important to spend a lot of time leveling your character. I like how much choice you have in spending the points you earn each level. It's not only stat increases-you can also learn special moves and level up your sword. Oh, and don't forget to level up your comrades as well! It becomes increasingly necessary late in the game. Sadly, the weird item management system doesn't make things any easier. You earn a lot of these in the 'free-time' minigame. But having said that, the good ones are hard to come by, not to mention difficult to replace because you never know what you're going to get.

The truth is that I found myself enjoying this far more than I thought I would. It's cleverly written just like the series; stringing you along bit by tantalizing bit, "To be continued..." plastered across the screen, until the next thing you know it's Monday morning and you have to go to work. But just like the series, it can take a hell of a long time getting anywhere. I thought I was on the final chapter no less then five times! I'll be honest, The 3rd Phantom reminds me of a lost arc from the show. Just like the show, there are stories within stories here, plot tangents forming and reforming, adding to the absurd and convoluted  database that is the Bleach canon. I love it, but then I've invested a LOT of time into the series.

Terrible menus and a complete lack of tutorials (I'm still not sure what half the stuff even was) really held back The 3rd Phantom for me, and the fact that there are only two save slots make it difficult to know when to take risks. The whole experience, from the overly long dialogue sessions to the confusing 'free time' mini game, to the same animations during battle over and over again, is an exercise in repetition. However (and this should probably be in caps), Bleach fans should absolutely play this hidden gem. I couldn't put it down, despite the fact that I have a stack of much better made games to play. But because I have so much invested in Bleach, the chance to take part in an interactive way beyond just button mashing one on one fighters was a dream come true. Fans of the series should absolutely play this... but no one else will be interested, nor should they be.


Score = 7.0 / 10

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