Bleach: The 3rd Phantom (Nintendo DS) - Review by Chris
With a large fan base watching the anime itself and buying the DVD releases, as well as the various other forms of media it is licensed to, Japanese anime Bleach continues to grow in popularity and stature here in the West. With Sega currently holding the license for creating video games, there has been a slow and steady release of them on many consoles, some being good and some being less so. With The 3rd Phantom, this is the third release for the franchise on the DS and sees the gameplay taking a more tactical approach to the gameplay, moving away from the action oriented games we've seen in the past. But will a new gameplay style be enough to cater to long term fans?
Whereas previous games have tried to make do with the characters and storylines set out and provided by the anime itself, The 3rd Phantom take an entirely different route, creating a new story arc within the Bleach universe set before and during the main canon. This new story arc is centred on new characters, twins Fujimaru and Matsuri Kudo, and takes place during the days of Urahara's captaincy and covers the invasion of the Human world by the Arrancar, eventually tying in with the most current plotlines of the anime. From the beginning, you'll choose one of the two twin characters to play as through the game, each character having an ever so slightly altered path through the campaign. The early days will see little difference and impact between the two twins but your choice of character will soon start to impact the game as you have to decide on your character's Shikai and Bankai.
The story is pure Bleach canon and definitely places itself kindly for fans and less so for newcomers. This becomes even more apparent when the story all too often takes a front seat and you will find yourself sitting through lengthy periods of dialogue exchange between characters in the hope of progressing the story onwards. You'll find yourself wondering when and where the actual gameplay is with so much of the story in place, particularly in the beginning, leading to a rather slow start to the game which may even put off some fans of the series.
When it does rear its head, the gameplay takes the form of a strategic RPG, where you'll have a number of characters on a grid that you have control over and a number of enemies which you'll need to defeat to progress. It employs many of the stereotypical actions that other games in the genre, and even on the handheld, have used meaning even as a fan of the genre, you'll instantly feel at home with the basic mechanics in play here. Strategically moving your units in to place and then launching attacks on your opponent moves the action from an isometric grid into a side on situation where your character and the enemy character undergo battle animations for attacks and defensive procedures. It all works incredibly well and there is plenty of strategy and opportunity to work strategy into the proceedings, even at its most basic, to best counter and launch attacks on your enemies. There are gameplay additions to further this by allowing partner units placed next to one another to assist in either offensive and defensive actions adding another layer of strategy to the game. As such, a game the initially seems simplistic quickly shows how deep and complex it really can be and with the difficulty increasingly to offer a good challenge throughout the game, the use of wider ranging tactics and utilisation of all powers that your units possess becomes the key to victory.
Providing a lengthy experience, the single player portion of the game will last you a considerable amount of time, with plenty of deep gameplay and a large cast of characters to make it so. But the over reliance on story and canon from the Bleach universe make it a very unwelcoming title for newcomers, who will be left in the dark as to many of the plotlines and happenings unless they have a good level of knowledge of the series. When finished here, a two player local wireless multiplayer option is available where players can battle it out using the same grid based strategic gameplay as the single player. It's a nice inclusion into the game but the local wireless seems limiting in comparison to the previous games, especially as Dark Souls included an online option which is something which would have elongated the replayability of this title even more.
As a strategic RPG on the handheld, you would expect that the developers would have implemented touch screen controls for the entirety of the grid based movement and micro-management you'll have to undertake. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the developers seemingly forgetting about the touch screen capabilities entirely, even though the gameplay takes place primarily on that screen. As such, the game is controlled completely through use of the d-pad and face buttons and while it works in principle, issues can crop up in the heat of some of the bigger battles and manoeuvring your characters around the grid can be problematic in part due to it being an isometric grid but more glaringly because of the use of the d-pad for this. Touch screen controls would have eradicated these issues immediately. Even with the problems, the game is still manageable but it's disappointing to see the lack of touch screen controls for this kind of title.
Although in the hands of a new development team, The 3rd Phantom manages to retain the same aesthetic look of its brethren titles on the handheld, keeping to the same high standard shown throughout those. The entirety of the game is presented in 2D visuals with the sprite work, particularly for the character and enemy models, being extremely well done replicating the looks and all of the details of the characters from the show perfectly while instantly making the new characters feel at home within the world. Animation of these models, throughout both the isometric and side on sections is expertly carried out as well. The anime stills that take up a large percentage of the game are equally well presented, allowing the story to come through well in each case and matching the standard of the show, albeit at a lower resolution due to the DS' screens.
The only areas where the game feels like a letdown visually are the actual battlefields themselves and the all too often cluttered menus. The battlefields, while looking respectable, fail to match the standards set by the character models and similarly look barren in comparison to similar titles on the handheld. Some further attention to these areas to at least bring them into line with the character sprite work would have made the game a real visual treat. It's still pleasant enough to look at though as is.
Opting for a more original score, the game takes very little inspiration musically from the anime. An entirely new opening track has been composed exclusively for the game and it sounds great, suiting the anime and the game extremely well, but unfortunately, the rest of the music doesn't quite live up to the same standards set from that opening moment. It's far from being bad, but it never moves much above levels of being passable in terms of generating the excitement or atmosphere that the game at times wants.
The sound effects included are done to a decent standard and, along with the samples of voice work incorporated, help to provide a furthering of the level of authenticity to the proceedings through something that will instantly bring fans back into the mindset brought about by the anime.
The gameplay primarily takes place on the touch screen while the top screen displays the statistics, menus and anime cutscenes showing some basic levels of connectivity between the gameplay. Yet, with no touch screen inputs, the game doesn't really make great use of the capabilities of the console's dual screens.
Taking the series in a new direction on the handheld is a bold move by SEGA and ultimately, Bleach: The 3rd Phantom is successful in creating a deep and enjoyable strategy RPG on the console. The main issue, however, is that as the game is heavy on the story, those who aren't fans of the anime will feel as though they've been thrown in at the deep end and although they can find something meaningful here, there are better strategy titles in the DS' back catalogue for those gamers. For fans though, the game is an essential piece of the Bleach canon that will keep them going for ages.
Pro: Lengthy campaign, brand new storyline for the anime that fans will love, team up mechanics in battle are a nice touch
Con: Gameplay not quite as good as others in the genre on the console, lack of touch screen input for battles, only really for fans
Final score: 7.1