Platform: Nintendo DS/DSi
Developer: Tom Create
# of Players: 1 (Wi-Fi: 1-2)
Rating: T (Teen)
I may not know much about the Bleach anime, but I have enjoyed the different US localized games from Sega I’ve played over the last few years. Being a huge Strategy/RPG fan, I was surprised to find that the series has ventured into that well-traveled territory with a fun to play, albeit pretty basic turn-based game experience. Bleach: The 3rd Phantom mysteriously showed up via Fed Ex with another bunch of games, so out went Dirt 2 and in went this new game for a good chunk of review time. While what’s here won’t topple the giants of the genre, there’s more than enough solid hours of gameplay, over 50 potential party members and even a bit of Wi-Fi action if you’ve a friend who happens to have a DS and a copy of the game.
The story actually delves into the origins of the Soul Reapers as well as the whole Bleach saga and my poking around a few fan sites and such revealed it was actually scripted by Bleach creator Tite Kubo, a nice touch. If you know your anime and manga, you also know that games like this aren’t short on dialog at all. Therefore, owners of MTV-short attention spans will most likely be bored to tears by the great deal of exposition, explanations and in the case of this game, lots of descriptively helpful menu screens.
I actually liked these elements of the game because they show Kubo’s commitment to making sure everything players need to know about nearly everything regarding the large character pool is here. You might not like all those text boxes, chatty adults and street urchins that go on and on about bento boxes, high spiritual pressure zones and the like. Nevertheless, in this age of 30 cuts per second editing, meaningless sound bites strip-mined for deeper meaning that doesn’t exist and plot-less jump-to-it action moves (and yes, anime), a good read in a decent game is a welcome sight.
As densely packed as the story is with stuff about evil creatures called Hallows being controlled by someone (or something) mysterious and the twins’ getting to know the different Soul Reapers, the gameplay controls are quite basic, but elegantly so. In fact, the game doesn’t support stylus use at all. This isn’t a bad, nor shocking thing, folks. Both screens are put to good use in telling the story, playing out battles and given you handy information, so it’s as if you have two Game Boy Advance units glued together, if you want to look at it that obliquely. Heck, blame Nintendo if you want to for killing off the Game Boy Advance format for no other reason but to force developers to make any and every game use the DS format. What’s here is well done and given the simplicity of the movement and menus plus the straightforward storytelling, any stylus stuff would be gimmicky at best.
The story lets you choose a male of female twin as your lead character and both have different interactions with the large cast of eventual party members you’ll meet up with as the game progresses. This gives some great replay value, although you only have two save slots (one of my few complaints about the game). As you go through the story, the game uses pre-battle planning and post-battle wrap up sequences to tell the bulk of its story. In the pre-battle planning, you choose your party members (or add to the ones preselected by the game for certain missions), upgrade their stats if they’ve gained levels from previous battles, equip new items and assign co-op partners for the coming fight. You can also choose to tackle Free Battle maps, which leads to a bit of an exploit that can make the bulk of the game a total cakewalk.
While the game isn’t all that difficult save for a few mid to late mission fights, you can exploit the Free Battle function to train party members, gain levels and earn items galore as much as you want. Granted, the age cap for players of this game tops out around 15 at best, so anyone older (or who tends to be a bit snobby about their SRPG tastes) will laugh at the overt cheapness of replaying these simpler maps to reap level after level. I tried to ignore the Free Battles for a few missions, but after trying them once and gaining a level for three party members plus a few nice items, I ended up abusing the function to a good degree and not feeling one bit of guilt. You only get two save slots (a mild gripe), but you’ll learn to make the most of them.
Combat is the same as most turn-based SRPGs in standard missions or Free Battle. Your characters are placed on different maps and need to kill all the enemies on them. Sometimes, there are different objectives, such as protecting villagers from harm and the like, but you can beat most maps on the first try as long as you have enough healing supplies or magic. On some maps, you can be healed by standing near certain characters and in many cases, although you’ll take damage, you can win a map without healing at all. Some of your luck depends on how you level up each character’s weapons with new skills that do everything from add magic to attacks to keep party member resistant to certain status effects.
After each real mission’s post battle wrap up, there’s a great little Free Time mini-game in lieu of the usual RPG village full of NPCs that never sleep. The top screen shows a side-scrolling map and a cat-like creature that walks spaces according to the number of Action Points in portraits on the bottom screen. The goal in Free Time is to gain access to new characters, increase your stats by gaining items or upgrades from certain important characters and gain Affinity with new friends by choosing to interact with them. After you select a portrait, you’re taken to a lengthy cut scene where you find out a bit more about the person you chose.
When meeting a character for the first time, they’ll often appear again as a choice, this time with something for you in the form of an item, status boost or AP point decrease. All you need to watch out for are pits in the road that end the session before you gain some choice goodies, but if you can count, you can avoid the holes and sometimes the Goal point in order to meet an extra character or two. These Free Time sections aren’t more than a few minutes long each, but they provide more than enough information about the characters and game world that fans should be pleased.
The visuals are clean throughout with the end result sitting nicely between 2D JRPG, manga and anime thanks to hand painted backdrops and nice character art. There’s a cool animated intro movie and the top screen fights look great (albeit slightly choppy in some of the more elaborate special attacks). I really liked that the developer went to the trouble in animating many different combinations of party members’ co-op and team attacks and yes, the battle scenes look very much like Studio Pierrot might have had a hand in creating them. If you’re spoiled by 3D graphics or brighter colored 2D games, the matter of fact anime style might not be your cup of tea. On the other hand, you’re not going to confuse a Bleach game with Dragon Ball, Naruto or anything else unless you tend to lump all anime into one nice, handy (and confusing to others) ball of whatever.
Sound effects are basic, minimalist fighting game stuff with some spell and weapon effects added, although there’s a decent amount of voice acting here in the form of assorted battle cries. As I only received one copy of the game, I can’t comment on the Wi-Fi mode. The manual says it’s a battle mode where you and another person with the game (and a DS, of course) can fight it out using created teams. You won’t earn any experience points or items here, so it’s all no frills bragging rights for those Bleach fans who get together to duke it out, wireless style. The single player game takes roughly 25 – 30 or so hours to beat if you spend long enough leveling up in Free Battles. As noted above, the game isn’t all that difficult unless you don’t upgrade and equip your party members properly for what’s ahead or pay attention to some of the story sections that can help in the trickier battles later on.
In the end, Bleach: The 3rd Phantom won’t set the SRPG world ablaze, but it’s a good, solid well-made entry level RPG fans of the anime would be proud to own (and go back to when they need a refresher course on where it all began). Of course, if you happen to be a JRPG fan who has a large block of time to spare, what’s here is decent enough to play through twice just to see how each of the twins’ stories go. When you find yourself staying up too late as you grind away in Free battle mode or try to avoid pits in Free Time mode, try not to blame me for your sleepless nights or sleepy days.