Review: Brandish: The Dark Revenant

The PSP saw a lot of great games in its time, from groundbreaking original titles like Monster Hunter to series-best entries in long-standing franchises like Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Though it never came close to upsetting Nintendo’s market dominance, Sony’s handheld became a haven on the go for hardcore gamers – especially those with a penchant for JRPGs. Among all the developers whose games graced the platform, none were quite so adept at developing for it as Nihon Falcom. After reigning for two decades as Japan’s premier PC studio, the company finally found its console game groove on the PSP. Their games may not push the technical limits of the hardware, but they look gorgeous on its high-res screen, and their old-school design sensibilities are perfectly suited to portable play.

Unfortunately, not many of their games for the system have made it stateside – and even fewer have translations that do them justice. Konami and Namco Bandai completely bungled the early PSP entries in the Ys and Legend of Heroes series, nearly dooming the company’s chances in the west in the process. It wasn’t until 2009 that XSEED took charge of the company’s localization efforts, finally delivering the quality writing that Falcom’s games deserve. Unfortunately, we only saw a few more of their games stateside before the world moved on to the PS Vita – mostly entries in the Ys series. The likes of Nayuta no Kiseki, Zwei!!, and Vantage Master will likely never make it to our shores, but XSEED surprised us all recently by releasing one more gem from Falcom’s vaults. Brandish: The Dark Revenant will likely be the last PSP game we ever play, and it’s a hell of a high note to go out on.

Brandish: The Dark Revenant is a 2009 remake of Brandish, one of Falcom’s more ambitious PC-88 dungeon crawlers. Brandish (which saw an American release on the Super Nintendo) uses a top-down perspective reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda, but plays like a grid-based first-person dungeon crawler in the vein of Dungeon Master. Rather than being static, the camera is locked behind the player character’s back, and when he turns your entire perspective rotates with him. This makes for distinctive gameplay wherein you have a wide field of view, but the walls of the dungeon can hide secrets, and enemies can sneak up on you if you’re not careful. When Brandish works, it generates a palpable sense of claustrophbia, but abrupt transitions that happen whenever you turn can be disorienting – an unfortunate limitation of the older hardware on which it runs. In full 3D that’s not a problem, though, and this PSP remake feels like the game Brandish was always meant to be.

The plot centers around Ares, a stoic swordsman who finds himself trapped in an ancient underground city after a battle with his nemesis, the Sorceress Dela. At the center of the city is an immense tower that spears the earth above, and climbing it seems to be the only way to leave. The ruins are infested with monsters and riddled with death traps, and Ares needs every ounce of his wits and bravery to defeat the evil behind the city’s (literal) downfall and escape with his life. Amid the monsters he encounters other unfortunate souls who’ve become trapped like him. Some fight to escape, while others seem to have accepted their fate, eking out a living as shopkeepers in the ruined city. It’s not the most complex story in the world, but it’s well-told, with a distinctly somber tone.

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Dela dogs Ares’ every step as she seeks vengeance against him for slaying her master. That might seem like heavy motivation, but she actually serves to lighten the game’s mood. Her inept attempts on Ares’ life provide much-needed comic relief while conveniently demonstrating some of the city’s more dangerous traps. Her persistence is nothing of not admirable, and thanks to XSEED’s on-point translation she’s sure to put a smile on your face whenever she shows up. The other denizens of the lost city are interesting enough in their own right, but their circumstances are so dour that most encounters with them are just depressing.

Despite how solid the story is, you come to Brandish for its hardcore dungeon crawling gameplay. The behind-the-back perspective gives you plenty in the way of peripheral vision, but it’s all too easy to be blindsided by a trap or enemy if you try to rush your way through. You need to check your corners diligently and watch the floor for booby-trapped switches and hidden pitfalls. If you get caught-off guard or end up surrounded you can die in seconds, but so long as you tackle each floor of the dungeon methodically you can make it through unscathed. In this sense Brandish has a lot in common with Dark Souls and Legend of Grimrock, though in keeping with its portable nature it’s a lot more forgiving than either of those games. At worst a death will send you back to the start of a particular floor – costing you 20 minutes of play time at the most – and you can create a checkpoint at any time by either saving the game or dropping some crumbs of “retry bread” on the ground. More hardcore players might be put off by the lax punishment for death, but it comes often enough that most will eventually be grateful for the concession.

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Ares will need to conquer over 40 floors to escape the labyrinth, each more treacherous than the last. Pitfall traps lie waiting under broken floor tiles, and pressure plates are as likely to send arrows or a rolling boulder your way as they are to open a door. A few of the more inventive traps will warp you to different tiles or randomly change the direction you’re facing – they seem annoying at first, but they can be positively deadly if you’re dealing with enemies at the same time. If you pay attention to your surroundings you’ll always see traps before you hit them, but that’s no guarantee of survival unless you go in with a plan. Ares can jump to cross two tiles at a time, and you’ll need to make judicious use of that ability to get over pits, floor spikes, and other traps. While you’re exploring you’ll also want to pay close attention to the walls. With a keen eye you’ll be able to spot cracks that can be opened up with the well-placed swing of a sledgehammer. These walls often hide treasure and other secrets, so it pays to seek them out, and you’ll get an additional reward if you manage to uncover every tile of a given floor’s map.

Finding items isn’t always a good thing, though. Slots in Ares’ inventory come at a premium, with only fifteen available at the game’s outset. Three of these are reserved for your sword, shield, and armor, while another three are bound to shortcuts for regularly-used items (such as health potions and sledgehammers), so you only really have nine slots to play around with. Much of this will be occupied by weapons, which can be found all over the place but will generally break after a set number of uses. You’ll want to visit shops regularly to sell off your excess, lest you be forced to leave something valuable on the ground. You can stack up to 99 consumables in a single slot to save space, but that will only mitigate pack overflow – the game even punishes you for mindless stacking with poison bottles, which will subtract from your health or mana potion total instead of adding to it. Your storage space can be expanded by finding “Otherworld Boxes” (think bags of holding), but there are almost always more items to gather than there are available slots.

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Combat is a steady, measured exercise in timing and situation awareness. Just about every new room you open will be filled with enemies, and though they come in a variety of shapes and sizes – ranging from stinging insects to axe-wielding giants – most of them will get up in your face and start slashing at you. You can swing your sword by hitting circle, chaining up to three attacks together at a time, though the last swing has a protracted follow-through and leaves you wide open to a counterattack. Ares will automatically use his shield to block attacks from the front if he’s not attacking himself, which is good because each blow an enemy lands will take a significant chunk out of his health bar. Every attack and move you make carries with it a balance of risk and reward, and taking on more than one foe at a time is generally a death sentence. As you climb, you’ll eventually run into enemies with shields of their own, as well as spellcasters and archers who attack from a distance. Strafing, dodging, and kiting monsters becomes increasingly vital as the game progresses.

Ares can learn spells of his own to even the playing field, but they don’t come cheap – and I’m not just talking about Mana cost. Spells can be cast with limited-use rings, but to have reliable access you’ll need to spend upwards of a hundred thousand gold pieces to acquire a scroll. Once you have a ring or scroll in hand you can cast your spell by using it from your inventory, though it can be a little tricky to do so in the heat of battle. Combat spells are generally a good choice for your shortcut slots. Many of the spells in the game are fairly useless, but a few are vital to progression. Fireballs provide a good way to deal with ranged enemies, while ice magic petrifies melee enemies so that you can get a few free hits in. By far the most useful spell in the game is the warp spell, which makes backtracking considerably less tedious and is even essential to opening a few hard-to-reach chests.

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Leveling up in Brandish will only increase your HP and MP. In order to increase your other stats you’ll need to make use of them – much like how character building works in Final Fantasy 2. When you take a hit, your defense will increase, while eating a blast of magic will build up your damage resistance. Swinging your sword or fists will steadily raise your strength, and nailing enemies with fireballs of your own will increase your spell damage. This system encourages you to seek out combat rather than avoid it, and forces you to change up your strategy in order to build all of your attributes evenly.

If you take too many hits you can close your eyes and rest at any time to recover your health. At first this might seem like a cheat – just hit select and wait for your health bar to fill after every encounter – but you’ll quickly learn how dumb it can be to fall asleep in the middle of a monster nest. Enemies still wander around while you’re sleeping, and if they catch you napping they can take out half your health bar with a single attack. To get a good rest you’ll need to find a room you can lock or a spot where enemies can’t reach you, and these safe areas become rarer and rarer as you climb. Once you reach the cave, with its flying bats and infinitely respawning skeletons, you’ll need to rely on health potions almost entirely – so here’s hoping you’ve stocked up.

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A lot of mechanics work in concert to make Brandish: The Dark Revenant feel tense and oppressive, but its aesthetics pull a lot of the weight as well. Where original game was heavily criticized for its bland, repetitive graphics, this new version features lush, heavily detailed environments that vary immensely from zone to zone. The crumbling walls of the city ruins are overgrown with moss and vines, while by comparison the tower looks pristine, its floor polished to a mirror shine and its walls patterned in white and gold. Despite the vast differences in how they look, the locations are uniform in their haunting atmosphere – an effect only enhanced by the excellent soundtrack. The original game’s songs have been re-arranged by Falcom’s supremely talented sound team, but if you feel nostalgic there’s an option to use the PC-88 Chiptunes.

For the twelve people in North America who played Brandish on the SNES, this remake has a few bonus features to help it feel fresh. Chief among these is Dela mode, an additional ten-floor dungeon that you can play through using Dela once you beat the main game. As a Sorceress Dela doesn’t use a shield, and her skimpy armour doesn’t offer much protection, so these extra-hard levels prove to be extremely lethal, and even Brandish veterans will need about 10 hours to complete them (impressive considering it takes 20 to clear the main game’s 40 floors). If you’re in the mood for some lighter entertainment you can play slots or cards at one of the game’s hidden casinos (these were present in the PC-88 version but not on the SNES). I’m particularly fond of the casino’s original card game, Blade, and if XSEED doesn’t release official rules for it I’ll probably end up homebrewing my own to play with friends. It’s a very fun addition to an already solid RPG.

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Closing Comments:

Given its somber tone and grueling difficulty, I’m not sure if I should refer to Brandish: The Dark Revenant as the PSP’s swan song or its funeral dirge, but either way it’s among the system’s best RPGs. Its Legend of Grimrock meets Legend of Zelda gameplay feels at once familiar and fresh, with plenty of nuances to master over the course of a 20 hour dungeon crawl. Offering a satisfying challenge and beautiful atmosphere, it will have keep you sitting in bed into the wee hours of the morning, pushing to clear “just one more floor.”