Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Party
Completion Level/Hours Played: 100% for one faction/65 Hours
This title is almost universally known as Brigandine, but behold the subtitle for your amusement. There was a lot going on in the PlayStation world in 1998. Nintendo, Sega, and Sony were all in the game business and major interests were slugging it out for your software dollar. So it’s not surprising that this strategy RPG may have escaped your notice.
If you directly selected Brigandine, you may be unaware of the two preceding games we played. They set the stage for this analysis. Vandal Hearts II was a game we had high hopes for (considering the original, Vandal Hearts). It’s strange, wonky, and somewhat interesting–but not captivating. Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure was the first of numerous NIS games (Disgaea, Phantom Brave, Disgaea 47, etc.) which either failed to captivate, or destroyed captivation soon after it was achieved.
Thankfully, Brigandine, a little-known, little-budget title put some wind back in the sails of our appreciation for this great genre. And it accomplished this with few assets in every category. One movie, a small number of songs, limited art assets, and a minimalist story. Also, the game took chances in being different from the norm. The turns were not by unit, or team, but rather by an interesting party system which I will discuss. Another major difference was this wasn’t a square grid-based game, but rather hexagonal.
So the basic layout is disputed cities on a world map, which you try to capture by defeating the defenders. If successful, the city is your responsibility to defend. When opposing forces meet, the view switches to a flat battlefield with few obstacles.
- Upgrade to First Class: Fitting for this lower asset style game, upgrades are handled in a streamlined, but satisfying way. Your main warriors, the knights, can upgrade twice on a given specialization path that you chose. Even your monster units upgrade, which in their case is Pokemon style evolution. For example your roc can evolve into a phoenix, a ghoul into a vampire, etc. The system offers flexibility and a clear path for player buy-in, all without the burden of complication.
- Death Matters-duh: Brigandine doesn’t offer a way to immediately revive fallen units, but it doesn’t let them die permanently ether. There is consequence, though, which is good! Characters who fall in battle gain no experience from it. Additionally, if chosen for the next battle they start at only half power in both hit points and mana points. (Overall, we prefer the Final Fantasy styled “phoenix down” method to revive fallen units.)
- Fun & Fitting Art: While there’s little relation to the mini pixel sprites versus the painted portrait art, it’s not uncommon in such games. And both are good. The portrait art is classic and quality. The pixel art handles well a wide gamut of knights and creatures–scorpions, golems, dragons, unicorns, satyr archers, etc. You’ll see them all. The menu art is good as well as some of the interiors shown. The only artistic downside are the plain battle maps.
- Quest on! Brigandine allows units to be sent on automated quests. While that’s not revolutionary, the rewards are. You may gain a new knight or even a high level dragon. Even better, from our design perspective, is that your unit may actually die on the quest! This adds an element of strategy about who to send, and balances out the reward with some risk.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Six Times the Fun
This was our first experience with a hexagonal grid. We weren’t sure what to expect, and are fond of the classic four-sided. However, it turns out to be great fun. An interesting change-up.
With six sides to protect instead of four, we found guarding units to be much more challenging. As a result, we tended to create tight formations to cover the sides and back, leaving only one or two facets open to attack. A unit leaving the pack risks getting three or more enemies against them at the same time. Space goes for a premium, as ranged attackers vie for limited protected, yet within range, hexes.
While hexagonal grid makes formations more flexible, it’s only applied in a planar fashion. While that’s the primary way to get the most benefit from it, the flat terrain and lack of tactical obstacles hinders any further strategic growth with this system.
It feels a little like marching a Roman phalanx into battle. The toughest warriors populate the outside layer, and try to minimize their exposure. But some unit is going to have to be the exposed point or corner. They take some heat. Overall the tactical challenges are a real boon.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Being Led, Day and Knight
Brigandine has a fun party system whose like we’ve never seen before and have yet to see again. Every army sent forth to battle is comprised of three parties, each headed by a knight. How powerful each of those parties are depends upon the knight’s statistics. A point system is used to determine how many points a knight can command in a party. It’s a fair way to do it.
A golem may cost 50 points to add, whereas a pixie or wolf only 25. If chosen well, the wide variety of creatures will allow you to fill up a knight’s entire point limit. Forming individual teams like this is one of the things we like about Ogre Battle 64, though they don’t expand the concept into armies.
This style of mechanic encourages player buy-in and investment. You care about your teams and become familiar with their rosters, sometimes populating them in stylistic or even kooky ways. How about a party of magic users, ranged attackers, or dragons? Maybe fast-moving wolves and phoenixes. How about a tough bruiser squad with golems and other tank-like characters? Play it the way YOU like.
The Good & Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:
I won’t read this menu: We give the developer a break here considering this technology was written for a 1998 PlayStation game. But not a complete pass. The modern gamer has become accustomed to fast and efficient menus. Loading times for such interfaces is no longer acceptable. We believe the programming for Brigandine’s menus is too fat, and it causes unnecessary slowdown in addition to the hardware limitations.
- Stick Together! …or not: So the hexagonal system often compels you to group units for mutual protection. However some knights, especially enemy knights like Cador, a level thirty deathknight, has devastating, ranged, area-of-effect attacks. It’s a challenging choice. Leave units exposed to being ganged up upon, or grouped for mega-magic target practice?
- A desert island with two songs: Normally we zing a game for tiny repertories. Brigandine’s is perhaps the most limited of any PlayStation SRPG at Play What You Like. There’s a main theme, and a theme specific to your kingdom of choice. It more or less boils down to two pieces of music you hear again and again. However the theme for our kingdom is quite good, and so is the general main map theme. We still listen to them on occasion.
- There has to be a faster way… So your army can be made up of three parties. Each party can have five or six units. Now imagine your army and the enemy separated by a whole bunch of hexes. There’s no quick way to engage. It may take minutes to tediously, and painstakingly move unit after unit forward. All this before the first strike is even launched. And it’s not like the battlefield is a fun and complex tactical task. It’s flat. Feel free to count every single hex that needs to be crossed….
- I can’t see you: Since the gameplay encourages unit grouping for protection, one ends up with closely packed armies. In many cases it’s difficult to determine who’s who, and it starts to look like a pixel mishmash.
- Don’t you know this war is over? Toward the end it gets tedious. Even with only a couple enemy cities left to conquer, enemy armies are continually sent out in real time. Unless you want to throw your custom parties into a meat grinder, they must be brought back to a friendly city to heal. So be prepared to marshal many forces, in time-consuming fashion, from all across the board to try to finish the last obstacles.
- 3D Battle Scenes! Remember when 3D graphics were brand-new? Well, loading times for 3D battle animations gets tiresome regardless of entertainment value. Maybe it’s a hardware issue as Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance on the Wii pulled it off better. Even if the animations are turned off, we cannot help but think of all the development hours and money spent on this aspect of the game.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Multiple Story Branches, Endings, & Promise Breaking
Characters with side stories add depth to a game. But a game’s main story completion should not depend on whom you pick at the beginning, at a time when you have no guidance about what faction will yield the best ending (or any ending at all). When we got to the end, a final bad guy showed from nowhere. He could not be engaged because we picked a certain faction in the beginning. Are you serious? What did we just play this whole game for? And why would developers allow a faction choice that cannot complete the game? Perhaps there’s some obscure hoop we missed jumping through, but why should we have had to?
It’s hubris on a game developer’s part to think their game is so engrossing that players are going to spend the many extra hours necessary to go through a second time (although there’s a select few who will, and then write FAQs). It’s not a first-person shooter where the game length may be eight hours. This is an SRPG with game play lengths of forty, fifty, or even a hundred hours. Don’t bait players in with the promise of an ending, make them play all the way through, and then deny them.
The story itself is already rather lean. Further splitting it across six factions dilutes it to the point of irrelevance. We only played one of the five or so kingdoms offered in the beginning, and likely, that’s what 90% of players did. This type of story design misses the mark and is unsatisfying.
Despite this game’s drawbacks, we still regard it fondly, and apparently are not alone. When we hear the music, which becomes very familiar, we recall wide battle maps filled with units awaiting upgrades. If you’ve never played a game with a hexagonal grid, we can recommend this one for hours of fun. It’s unique and different. However, we don’t recommend the whole package unreservedly, even though we think it a worthy entry into the genre.
The late 1990s were an interesting time for the SRPG genre. Many studios were looking to add a title into the niche, and console games weren’t so outrageously big or expensive as they later became. Corporate power, production values, and wide talent pool made these full-sized console adventures quality outings with varied results. You never knew just what you might get.
Big studios are much more careful about the titles they greenlight now. Perhaps there’s less experimental development and more focus group testing. The indie developer is today’s driver of smaller games for mobile platforms or playable through internet browsers. Independent shops usually don’t have the wide foundation, varied talent pool, or money for a really big game, although they can make fun budget SRPGs like Xenosquad and Tactics Maiden. Making a big, top-tier SRPG may not require the art assets or advanced visual effects of a first-person shooter, but it does require solid design and story. It needs hours of testing, and solid programmers working with designers to make the systems flawless and fair. See Final Fantasy Tactics.
Brigandine is an adventure worth trying, at least for a little while. It’s not a mass-popularity styled game, but it may be your cup of tea.
Updated 09/2016: Refined and polished text.
If you like Brigandine: The Legend of Forsena, try: