Aged To Near Perfection
Like fine wine, there are indeed games that truly get better with age. Whether it’s through the hard work of dedicated fan communities who create mods to keep an aging game fresh years after its release, or updated HD remixes of classic titles from previous generations, there’s no denying the allure that comes with seeing a long-forgotten gem dug up from the annals of gaming antiquity, lovingly polished and put on display for a new generation of gamers. However, sometimes a simple visual overhaul isn’t enough, and developers need to tear the entire foundation down and rebuild for a game to realize its true potential.
Brandish is one such game.
Over 20 years ago, Ys and Class of Heroes developer Nihon Falcom’s dungeon-crawler Brandish debuted on Japanese personal computers, the NEC PC Engine and even the SNES in North America. While the game may not have looked much different from other genre contemporaries at first glance, Brandish utilized a clever- if not wholly disorienting, due to the primitive hardware of the era- “world turning” mechanic that rotated the camera 90 degrees every time the character turns. The idea was novel, and somewhat replicated the feeling of classic Wizardry-esque first-person RPGs while simultaneously offering a top-down adventure in the vein of The Legend of Zelda, Ys and other popular action adventures of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
While the adventure was passable, its vision was seriously hampered by the hardware constraints of the 8-bit era. The game’s touted world shifting mechanic was jerky and easily confused players, turning off many armchair adventurers well before they reached the apex of Brandish‘s ominous tower.
Thankfully, in 2009 developer Nihon Falcom took it upon themselves to resurrect this long-forgotten adventure for a new era on the Playstation Portable in Japan. The added horsepower of Sony’s handheld gave this brutally challenging dungeon-crawling epic new life on modern hardware that could fully realize the game’s original vision while offering an exciting and punishing quest well suited for today’s roguelike aficionados. Now, in 2015, Western gamers finally have a chance to experience this reborn classic courtesy of XSEED Games, and boy was it worth the wait.
Brandish: The Dark Revenant begins with the game’s protagonist, swordsman Ares Toraernos, laying face down at the foot of a giant tower after taking a seemingly endless plunge from the surface above. Having little recollection of what got him into this precarious situation, Ares soon discovers he’s being pursued by the his arch-rival, the voluptuous sorceress Dela Delon, who’s taken a keen interest in claiming a bounty that’s been placed on his head. With that, players begin their quest to ascend the tower’s 40 perilous floors, filled with treacherous traps, murderous monsters and troves of treasure to discover as they uncover the ancient tower’s mysteries and escape its labyrinthine corridors. Thankfully, he’s not entirely alone in his quest, as other humans have come to inhabit the ruined confines of the ancient tower, either as treasure hunters seeking vast riches deep in the heart of the structure, or as simple shopkeepers who can keep you well-stocked with helpful tools and equipment if you’ve got the gold to spend.
As stated earlier, one of the major things that sets Brandish apart from other dungeon crawlers in the game’s world shifting perspective, which keeps the camera firmly planted behind the player character as you explore the tower’s sprawling catacombs. Using the directional pad allows you to walk forward and backward, as well as strafe left and right. Turning can only be done in 90 degree increments, which creates a feeling very similar to many first person dungeon crawlers, and limits your view of the action creating a genuine sense of claustrophobia as you explore the game’s narrow, winding corridors. While it works for the most part, adding a very methodical pace to the game’s exploration, it certainly takes some getting used to, and can become a hindrance during some of the game’s more frantic encounters that require an equal balance of smart evasive play and well-timed attacks. However, after you’ve ascended the first ten floors of the game’s introductory ruins you’ll likely feel ready to tackle any obstacle that presents itself during your quest.
Combat in Brandish: The Dark Revenant plays out just as methodically as the game’s exploration sequences. When approached by an enemy Ares will ready his shield and sword. When standing still, Ares will automatically block incoming melee attacks, though you’ll need to manually block incoming arrows and magical spells with a well-timed tap of the circle button. Playing defensively is often your best strategy, keeping your shield at the ready, and striking only when an enemy lowers its guard. Against solitary enemies Brandish’s combat does seem overly simple, but when more than one enemy enters the fray combat quickly becomes a frantic chess match where careful movement and environmental awareness are imperative to your success in battle. This combined with the numerous hidden pitfalls, deadly spike traps and other assorted perils ensure that only players with keen wits and patience will be able to climb to the mammoth tower’s summit in one piece.
Having said that, it’s not hard to draw comparisons between Brandish: The Dark Revenant and games like From Software’s equally popular and punishing Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls. It doesn’t take long to realize death awaits around every corner in this grueling journey up the subterranean spire, and you’ll find yourself double and triple-checking your limited equipment bags frequently to ensure you’re ready for the next floor, with a healthy supply of pitfall-revealing steel balls, a cache of sturdy swords, and a plethora of mystical trinkets to even the odds. The unrelenting challenge and tense pacing of the game’s masterfully crafted dungeons offer a palpable sense of cautious excitement as you progress, crafting an addicting and exhilarating blend of adventure that makes completing each floor feel immensely satisfying, pushing you to finish “just one more floor”.
Of course, what would a good dungeon-crawler be without bosses? Totally reworked from the 8-bit original, each of the game’s distinct locales is capped off with an impressive boss encounter. From giant, armored beasties that are only susceptible to explosives, to heavily-armed mystical security mechanisms that unleash multi-limbed monstocities, you’ll face some truly intense encounters when going toe-to-toe with Brandish’s biggest baddies. These foes can take quite a beating, and often require some speedy thumbs and some outside of the box thinking to get the best of them. While these encounters are fantastic, they’re also the times that Brandish’s awkward control scheme rears its head the most, creating unnecessary frustration as you try to swap items, block oncoming attacks, and evade deadly environmental hazards that can send you to an early grave.
While Brandish won’t win any beauty awards, it’s really surprising just how solid the game looks considering the aging hardware it was designed for. The PSP hardware may be leaps and bounds below the visual prowess of Sony’s current handheld powerhouse, but Brandish’s environments are still very appealing, with nice details such as beams of light that pour in from above, overgrown moss lining the catacomb walls, and plenty of enemies on screen with little to no slowdown, even during the game’s extremely frantic boss encounters. To top it off, each of the game’s areas features a distinct and vibrant design that keeps the visuals fresh and adds to the ancient city’s sense of mystery. In addition to the game’s updated visuals, Brandish: The Dark Revenant’s soundtrack has been updated as well. Unfortunately, the new tacks are few and far between, and after hearing the same tune for ten floors in a row they quickly wear out their welcome. Thankfully, much like Zojoi’s recent reboot of Shadowgate, developer Nihon Falcom has included the option to switch to the game’s original PC-88 chiptunes, which hold up surprisingly well today, and are a real treat for those with a taste for the sounds from gaming’s glory days.
While it’s no doubt strange to be reviewing a new PSP game in 2015, it’s hard to stress just how fortunate PSP and Vita owners are to finally see Brandish: The Dark Revenant land on Western shores. The game is chock full of excitement, with the challenging main campaign easily offering 20 hours of adventure to satisfy any on-the-go adventurer. As if that weren’t enough, players who finish the game unlock an additional mode that puts you in control of Dela, which brings even greater challenges to the table in an additional 10-floor dungeon. The PSP may already be on life support, but XSEED and Falcom have certainly found a great way to send Sony’s debut handheld off with one hell of a bang, delivering one of the most satisfying handheld adventures in recent memory, and quite possibly the best the PSP has to offer.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PSP, Vita (reviewed) ; Publisher: XSEED Games ; Developer: Nihon Falcom ; Players: 1; Released: Janurary 13, 2015; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $19.99
Note: Review impressions are taken from a review copy of Brandish: The Dark Revenant that was provided by the game’s publisher, XSEED Games.