From the archives: Brandish revisited

On the surface, you wouldn’t think Brandish: Dark Revenant, a PSP remake of an old Super NES RPG — would have much in common with NES classic A Boy and His Blob. Surprisingly enough, though, they dovetail nicely. Both Brandish and Blob were creative but critically flawed adventures whose shortcomings tended to obscure their high points. As a result, both tend to be guilty pleasures, games whose fans tend to praise them with bashful qualifications. A “I know it kind of sucks, but I really like it anyway” sort of thing.

The crazy thing is that on PSP, Brandish is fantastic. Yeah, it’s still a bit obtuse and expects you to learn to take it on its own terms. And as far as I can tell the game content — maps, enemies, weapons, NPC encounters, everything — is exactly the same as it was on Super NES. Yet the PSP remake is as addictive as the 16-bit version was frustrating. Amazing what a difference the little things make.

Dark Revenant‘s improvements are entirely rooted in its interface, but these subtle tweaks take a prickly-but-promising adventure and make it far more enjoyable. The first improvement is right there in the screenshot above: polygons. The original Brandish was a top-down dungeon crawler, and Dark Revenant moves the view slightly behind your character’s head, and a bit closer to the action. Normally I resent zoomed-in cameras for dungeon crawlers since they make navigation trickier, but that’s not an issue; this remake handily adds a permanent map overlay to the screen. Not a minimap, either, but a full map of the current dungeon level. It’s a huge and welcome addition.

Even better, though, is the fact that Falcom has made proper use of this version’s polygonal nature. Brandish actually started life on the NEC PC-9801 computer, and the limitations and odd interface requirements of the original platform were reflected in the Super NES port that made its way to the U.S. The most obvious of these was the bizarre control/interface scheme in which the player’s character, Ares, always faced the top of the screen. Rather than, say, turning right, Ares (formerly Varik) remained immobile while the entire dungeon shifted around him in 90-degree increments.

That hasn’t changed in Dark Revenant, but unlike the previous versions of the game the dungeon doesn’t make instant 90-degree jumps. Instead, the environment rotates quickly but smoothly through these   turns, giving a new sense of visual continuity that makes the game far less confusing and frustrating. There was really no reason for the Super NES versions not to do this, since rotation was one of the system’s Mode 7 gimmicks, but for whatever reason this feature is new to the PSP. And it makes a huge, huge difference — I can’t really explain just how big a difference it is, to be honest. You just need to play the two versions back to back. It will blow your mind how this single embellishment changes the entire nature of the game.

Falcom has added plenty of other tweaks to make this the definitive version of the game — or rather, the enjoyable and playable version. The full-sized map allows players to mark items of note, such as locked doors and healing pools. Players can also map three items to the analog nub for quick access to useful spells or curative goods.

Another nice touch is that enemies flash when they’re about to attack, which helps a great deal with the battle mechanics. Brandish has an interesting combat system in that wading into battle, fists flying, is a sure way to die horribly. Instead, patience and timing are required in order to succeed. Ares actively blocks melee attacks when he’s standing still (assuming you have a shield equipped, which you should, at all times), but he’s vulnerable when striking. Once you catch onto this fact, fights become a sort of back-and-forth of waiting for an enemy to attack, blocking, then counterattacking. Not all enemies can be beaten this way, of course, so it’s wise to learn how they move and attack. Projectile attacks must be blocked more actively, and magic spells need to be avoided, period. Ares is a capable fighter against a single enemy but doesn’t fare so well when flanked, so it’s best to watch your back and sides and lure enemies into narrow passages. It’s a lot like a roguelike in that way…and a lot of other ways, too.

If you’re one of the three or four people who enjoyed Nightmare of Druaga, you’re gonna love Dark Revenant.

Much to my surprise, I’m already much further into this remake than I ever made it into the Super NES game — halfway up the Tower, which is the game’s second area. And I guess I’ll just keep going. Apparently once you reach the end, you unlock the ability to play as Dola/Alexis, the barely-clad sorceress chick. She seems to be a fan-favorite (for what should be obvious reasons) and serves as the series’ mascot of sorts, despite basically being a comic relief character who only shows up from time to time. She was playable in Brandish 3, which was only available on PC-9801, so not having played that I’m going to guess she’s good with spells and has pretty awful defense, because seriously, skimpy battle bikinis just don’t cut it in hand-to-hand combat.

But the promise of tiny polygonal boobies is not a particularly compelling factor here; I’m simply enjoying the game enough to want to conquer the entire dungeon. I’m really hoping someone brings the remake to the U.S., but it’s not like I can’t breeze through the import. It’s exactly the same as the Super NES game (except in terms of playability, where it comes out victorious), so on the off chance I end up stumped I can always check a FAQ. For now, though, I’ll simply marvel at the difference such modest improvements can make in a game.

Brandish: Dark Revenant is a strange game. Besides the (much-needed) visual overhaul, the remake is about 99.9% percent accurate to the original versions. It’s that 0.1% that made things sticky. Falcom went to the trouble of programming out a few exploits (including a number of situations that previously could be bypassed with liberal application of the Warp spell), and they also seem to have remixed a few of the puzzles. For the most part, Brandish‘s puzzles are dead simple, easy enough for me to suss out even with my less-than-rudimentary comprehension of Japanese. That changed once I reached the game’s final area, the Fortress, where I was faced with a massive puzzle that left me baffled… and checking FAQs for the Super NES game didn’t help, since the mechanics of the puzzle have been completely reworked. So eventually I muttered a frustrated, “Well, crap,” and have to decided to wait for an improbable U.S. localization, or an even more improbable FAQ based on this remake, which so far as I can tell no one is playing.

Anyway, like I said, Brandish is a strange creature. It’s somewhere between an action RPG and a roguelike in its structure and mechanics. General descriptions of the game inevitably spark a number of “that sounds like a roguelike!” remarks, and there’s definitely some spiritual similarity happening on a fundamental level. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, Brandish was my gateway drug into the genre. But this is not a roguelike; it differs in many fundamental ways. Levels aren’t randomly generated and never change (mapping is actually a major element of the game). The save system is extremely forgiving — not only can you save everywhere, you get a free restart point when you change floors and can collect items that let you set a “quicksave” point anywhere.

Also significant is the fact that the action isn’t turn-based; where enemies in roguelikes don’t move until your character does, the monsters in Brandish act independently of the hero. This completely changes the dynamics of combat: in a roguelike, you want to beat the enemy to the punch and attack first. In Brandish, it’s generally wise to wait for an enemy to attack first — in most cases, you’ll automatically block, and the enemy will be left open to a counterattack. Hero Ares also has far fewer ways to interact with the world and the monsters within than you’d have in something descended directly from Rogue. He can attack, block, and use a handful of magic spells or items. There’s no great complexity to the enemies’ artificial intelligence, and the challenge largely comes from the fact that they get tougher and faster as you advance.

Also, sometimes they surround you and you die horribly.

At the same time, it’s hard to describe the game as a straight-up action RPG, since that generally denotes something in the Zelda vein, which Brandish really isn’t. I guess the best way to describe it is: “Brandish is what would happen if Falcom had made Diablo.” Which is to say, it’s a slow and often challenging dungeon crawler that features some weird design choices and a take-it-or-leave-it presentation. Brandish doesn’t care if you don’t like it. In fact, I think Falcom actively sought to make players hate the game, which culminates in the Dark Zone, a shadow-covered section of the game in which powerful (and nearly invisible) enemies attack you without warning, and an intricate maze of pitfalls covers the floor to thwart your every moment of progress.

Honestly, I have no idea why I even like the game. But I do! Maybe it’s for the best that I wasn’t able to figure out that one puzzle…I’m pretty sure I would have started up a second playthrough as soon as I beat the game. It’s a sickness.

Originally published March 2009

4 thoughts on “From the archives: Brandish revisited

  1. mercatfat, it would have been just as quick to do a Google image search than to complain. Jeremy is posting old content as both a view into how his writing and tastes have changed over the years. It’s nice that he’s selecting older articles to show us. Don’t discourage him by implying it should be a more labor-intensive effort.

    I looked up gameplay for both the SNES and PSP versions of Brandish on YouTube, and you are correct, Jeremy. That ability to watch the world rotate continuously, as opposed to seeing it rotate discretely changes everything. Watching the PSP version, I never felt disoriented. Watching the SNES version, I was constantly disoriented. I figure that after enough time playing the SNES version, players can gain the intuition for how the world behaves, but it’s still a large hurdle.

    • Nah, it’s my mistake. I thought I had nixed all the image references but it looks like I missed one.

  2. Dammit. This isn’t fair. I already beat Brandish, some 17 years ago. I have scrupulously avoided going back to it, and now you tell me there’s an improved version worth playing? I suppose I can stop banging my head against “The Dark Spire” for a while.

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