By Scott MacDonald / June 13th, 2015
|Title||Brandish: The Dark Revenant|
|Release Date||January 13, 2015|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Teen|
Developer Falcom, best known for the Ys and The Legend of Heroes series, has an extensive library of titles, most of which have remained in their native Japan. Brandish is largely one of those games. While Koei brought the original Brandish over in 1994 for the SNES, the series has mostly languished in obscurity for gamers outside of Japan, and especially for those unfamiliar with Falcom’s pedigree.
Brandish: The Dark Revenant begins with a classic tale of hubris. A thousand years ago, the land of Vittoria, led by Lord Bistable, knew nothing but peace and prosperity. An enormous tower stood at the land’s center wherein a dragon lived that protected the kingdom. The ambitious lord, in all his lordly wisdom, thought it wise to assault the tower and usurp the dragon’s power for his own. The dragon ultimately gave up its power, but sank Vittoria into the earth, cursing it and all its inhabitants to a hellish eternity.
A thousand years later, sorceress Dela Delon finally catches up with her rival, swordsman Ares Toraernos. The two duke it out to settle their score, but Dela fires a misplaced fireball and breaks the ground below them. They unfortunately fall into the cursed kingdom below, with the dragon’s tower as their only feasible means of egress. Players control Ares on his journey back to the surface.
Brandish mixes action RPG elements with roguelike level design. Ares and his enemies move on a grid, one square at a time, much like in Shiren the Wanderer; however, they move in real-time. Brandish also uses a third-person perspective that is rotated with the shoulder buttons. Ares always faces forward, so rotating the camera is necessary to get the right viewpoint of the area in front of you.
Brandish also features real-time combat. Ares automatically blocks with his shield when an enemy is directly in front of him. You strike with his sword and can initiate two or three strike combos. Ares must drop his shield to attack, though, which makes him vulnerable. You also have to wait for his attack animation to finish before he blocks again. As a feature of real-time combat, the game doesn’t pause when you open your item menu.
Combat is all about timing. If you want to quickly die, I recommend mashing the attack button. Enemies parry and counter just like you do, so it’s essential to watch their movements for the right moment to strike. This is also a necessity because the majority of weapons have limited uses; you can’t waste your precious weapons mindlessly hacking at an enemy and not damaging it. Magic won’t break, but is expensive to use and is restricted by a magic meter. You’ll find several magic spells on your journey, but I found the healing spell (sort of like regen) and the defensive spell the most useful.
As you might imagine, the lands of Vittoria are hostile, treacherous, and devoid of other humans. Monsters of all types roam the barren, trap-filled hallways, and, save for a few shopkeepers and Dela’s endless pursuit of you, Ares finds himself alone. Brandish is a one-on-one journey to the top, and your death is always on your hands.
And you will die, most likely frequently, too. The game’s tutorial does a decent job of introducing the controls and the world, but it absolutely does not prepare you for the dangers lurking around every corner. Spike traps, fireball traps, boulder traps, breakable floors, warps spots, fake walls…the world constantly has it out for you, and that doesn’t even include the enemies. Some revive themselves after you slay them. Axe wielders negate your shield and even push you back a space. Magic users cast magic several spaces away, which means they can hit you off screen. You can block some kinds of magic, but it doesn’t occur automatically if the enemy isn’t in front of you.
Enemies also love to gang up on Ares. If you walk into a room of enemies and begin to fight one, you can rest assured that the others will attack your sides without delay. You can jump over an enemy, and most pitfalls and traps, but most enemies turn around and follow you. Some will even follow you out of the room they previously occupied.
While most enemies are routed through an analysis of their attack patterns, the same cannot be said for the bosses. Brandish’s bosses are tough, clever, fast, and frequently lethal. Their speed, in particular, makes them difficult adversaries, and weak points are frequently shielded with only a few seconds of availability. Boss fights often demand a more defensive approach than the average enemy, and button mashing is usually ineffective or disastrous, if not both.
Brandish’s dungeons are sprawling and labyrinthine, but the game rewards exploration. An in-game map is created for each floor as you explore, and you can add different colored squares to it to make notes. I found it necessary to mark locked doors, pitfalls, and other features. A reward stone also becomes breakable on each floor if you map all 100 percent of the floor. Money isn’t earned simply by defeating enemies; the only way to earn it is to sell items or gold bars, which makes exploration an absolute necessity.
At first glance, Brandish might seem incredibly unfair. The odds are clearly stacked against Ares from the start, but that’s the best part of the experience. Even making it to the next floor feels like an incredible achievement, and the rush of surviving a boss will propel you onward.
Brandish fortunately includes a few features to help increase your chances of survival. You can save at almost any time, and a rest feature allows you to slowly replenish your health and magic, although, the game doesn’t stop during that phase. If you’re attacked while you utilize the rest feature, you absolutely will die.
An item known as “retry bread” creates a checkpoint at the exact location in which you use it. I initially thought the item was useless; you can save at any time, so what’s the point? The point is that you won’t think to stop and save it every time you might die. It’s easily the most useful item in the game, and, thankfully, quite plentiful. I learned to use it the fourth time I stepped on the exact same spike trap and died. There’s nothing quite like your own stupidity to teach you valuable life lessons.
Brandish won’t win any awards for its graphical presentation. That’s not to say it’s ugly, but most everything in the game is either jagged or slightly blurry. Given the game’s setting, it actually kind of works in Brandish’s favor. This isn’t the kind of game you play for graphics, though. There’s little time to admire the setting when everything is busy trying to kill you. The few character portraits in the game are well detailed, at least by 2009’s standards for a PSP game, and a few animated cutscenes sprinkled throughout help set the setting for each level.
Falcom Sound Team jdk handled the musical production, and, as usual, they do not disappoint. Brandish features an idiosyncratic and, at times, paradoxical soundtrack. Each song seems to change genres as you play the game, and it’s common to switch from a seemingly classical piano-heavy composition to a hard rock, techno mix with synthesizers and screeching guitars.
Each area has its own song that perfectly complements the environment. The song for the Ruins is soft synth, but has a strong bass beat that echoes. Encounters with Dela are practically jazzy, and the Tower is regal with its mix of horn and string. Boss fights, in particular, are an energetic affair and definitely help bolster your fighting spirit. As an added bonus, the developers included the option to switch between this release’s soundtrack and the original 8-bit soundtrack.
Brandish is not without its problems, though. Those looking for an incredible narrative are in for a disappointment. Brandish’s story is about survival and escape from impossible circumstances, and there’s little else to the story beyond the introduction. I wasn’t expecting a groundbreaking tale given Brandish’s history, but even Ares’s and Dela’s entanglement is underdeveloped. Their fight starts the game and little is said of their relationship.
Despite a tutorial, Brandish has a steep learning curve. Ares doesn’t move quickly, and any movement at all feels downright clunky at the start. His movement style, which is certainly a unique feature of the game, doesn’t come naturally. It took me a few hours to adjust to how he strafes, moves, and fights, and that occurred while I battled fierce enemies and attempted to dodge traps. This is not a detriment to the game, but something of which to be aware.
Players are rewarded with “Dela Mode” after they finish Ares’s tale. Dela fights in a different manner, and the difficulty spike is simply incredible. This mode only lasts for ten (incredibly interconnected) floors, but will truly challenge your adventuring prowess. I finished Ares mode in 22 hours with 54 deaths, and completed Dela mode in 10 hours with 62 deaths, if that’s any indication.
Brandish: The Dark Revenant is a spruced-up and unexpected gem from the past. Adventure aficionados and Falcom fans alike will find something to enjoy here. Just remain calm, watch your step, and remember the power of bread.
Review copy provided by the author
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