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Game Review

by James Beckett,

Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia

Playstation 4/Nintendo Switch

Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia
Long ago, on the continent of Runersia, the ancient Rune God bestowed upon humanity the power of Mana, enabling warriors to fight as Rune Knights, and to bear mystical relics of power known as the Brigandines. The Kingdom of Norzaleo wields the Brigandine of Justice; the Republic of Guimole has the Brigandine of Glory; the secretive, all-female Shinobi Tribe keep the Brigandine of Freedom; the theocracy of Mana Saleesia exact their will with the Brigandine of Sanctity; the pirates of the United Islands of Mirelva own the aptly named Brigandine of Ego; while the Holy Gustava Empire possess no Brigandine whatsoever, and fights in defiance of the Rune God. In their constant struggle for power and domination over one another. After years of turmoil, subterfuge, oppression, and betrayal, these six nations all sit on the brink of a world-consuming war, and their Rune Knights will find themselves on the frontlines of a conflict that will determine the fate of all Runersia.

In 1998, I was barely old enough to have a firm grasp on how RPGs as basic as Pokémon worked, so I had never even heard of the original Brigandine: The Legend of Forensa, though here in the West it has apparently amassed quite the reputation as a cult classic and primo collector's item in the two decades since its release. Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia is the long-awaited sequel that first came out on the Nintendo Switch this past summer, and it is now making its way back to Sony's PlayStation 4, which is the console I used for this review. Strategy role-playing games like Disgaea, Valkyria Chronicles, and especially Fire Emblem are more popular than ever outside of Japan, so I was very interested to see what such a late revival of an old-school SRPG franchise could bring to the table by making the full leap forward into the 21st century.

The first thing that caught my eye about Brigandine was, appropriately enough, the game's gorgeous art-style and aesthetic, at least so far as the cutscenes and character portraits are concerned. Lacking fully animated cutscenes, the story is instead communicated through a combination of traditional visual-novel style dialogue interactions, and strikingly gorgeous two-dimensional tableaus that utilize some limited animation for stylized effect. The glowing color palette and diverse character designs make a great first impression — even if some of the over-sexualized costumes for the female characters seem out of place — and it is easy for the player to be drawn into the complex and politically fraught land of Runersia. The music provided by industry veteran Tenpei Sato is also appropriately grand and moody, and even if the limited number of songs can make for repetitive listening, I never minded much.

Though the two Brigandine games have distinct settings and stories, they share the same general gameplay conceits and mechanics, along with the basic premise of choosing between one of the six different nations that are using their armies of monsters and Rune Knights to vie for control of the Six Brigandines, which are ancient relics that will grant their wielders the power necessary to conquer the world — for good, or for ill. There are over a hundred unique Rune Knights to recruit and command in battle, depending on which nation you select for the Main Story Campaigns, which are Brigandine's primary gameplay mode (You can eventually unlock an “Alternate Chapter” that allows you to endlessly replay a more sandbox version of the campaign). I spent some time with the all-female Shinobi tribe, who are basically Runersia's equivalent to Amazon warriors, as well as the monarchy of Norzaleo, though I played my primary campaign from the perspective the pirate coalition of the United Islands of Mirelva. This band of brigands is led by the firebrand Captain Stella Hammett and her equally rambunctious father Ginium (aka “Mermaid Ginny”). There's also a talking robot with a top hat that adorably murders monsters and Rune Knights left and right, and yes, he is just as awesome as that description makes him sound.

So far, you might be forgiven for comparing Brigandine to a certain other wildly popular SRPG franchise, though Brigandine is ultimately a quite different beast. Unlike a series such as Fire Emblem, the story and characters in Brigandine take a backseat to the gameplay. While I found the cast of characters that I encountered in my campaigns interesting enough on paper, the actual opportunities the player has to become invested in them are few and far in between. The occasional story event that will pop up when you complete a Quest or a Season are fine, but nothing spectacularly gripping. The scripted encounters between specific friends and foes that encounter each other in battle are also not much to write home about, usually amounting to little more than battlefield banter. There are certainly a lot of lore and whatnot to dig into here, but it's supplementary to the gameplay experience in my opinion, and I can't imagine that Brigandine's narrative elements will be what motivate players to pour in the dozens of hours it would take to get through everything Brigandine has to offer.

Thankfully, Brigandine's gameplay isn't too shabby, provided that you're the kind of player that values robust systems over exciting spectacle. Each main round, or “Season”, of play is divided into two primary phases. In the “Organization” phase, you can deploy your troops to the different castles that you control around the map, either to fortify their defenses or to perform quests that will occupy their turn accumulating valuable items and experience points; you also can use your accumulated Mana Reserves to summon and evolve monsters to fight by your Rune Knight's side. In this sense, Brigandine often feels more like a Grand Strategy or tabletop game than an RPG. The interface is functional, but there's a lot to manage, and I often found myself thinking that I had spent a long time executing the most efficient and tactical of battle plans…only to realize during the Attack Phase that I had exposed a critical castle to attack by forgetting to correctly place one of my dozens of troops in Such-and-Such position. Because of this, I initially found myself preferring the game's Easy Difficulty, since it does not limit the number of Seasons that you have to conquer the entire map of Runersia. More battle-hardened players can then move on to the Normal and Hard difficulties, which place increasingly strict Season limits on your nation's campaign to victory, on top of making enemy AI tougher all-around.

Whether you're invading an enemy castle or defending one of your own, the Attack Phase of the Season is when the game's turn-based battles take center stage. On a purely mechanical level, I like a lot of what Brigandine is doing. In addition to the usual breakdowns of unit classes, magical and physical skills, and so on, there's a whole system of elemental weaknesses and strengths that feels right at home in a game like this, and it adds an extra layer of strategy to which units you use in any given situation. Unit movement can also be limited and routed based on where allied and enemy units are positioned, which helped keep me from falling into my usual routine of just pushing my entire army forward in a straight line to act as a wall of death.

However, the battles are also where Brigandine's biggest flaws start to rear their heads, both in terms of gameplay and presentation. For one, these skirmishes can take a long time to see through, and they especially drag when you're taking on multiple enemy castles in a given Season, completing one battle after another. I found that I needed to play almost exclusively in fast-forward mode just to keep my momentum up. There are pacing speed bumps all over Brigandine's battles, to be honest, from the fact that it can take multiple turns just to get your armies close enough together to get any fighting done, to how empty and featureless all of the maps are, which takes a lot of the fun out of positioning your units. Yes, there are bonuses and debuffs that units will get whether they're fighting in swamps or forests or fields and the like, but they don't do much to break up the monotony of getting through each encounter.

Unfortunately, Brigandine isn't going to be winning any awards for its graphics, either. While the character designs and artwork are consistently gorgeous to look at, the models and environments used in the battles themselves…aren't. Granted, I wasn't expecting much from a mid-budget game that started life as a Nintendo Switch title, especially since developer Matrix Software is mostly known for their mobile ports of Professor Layton titles and old Squaresoft RPGs. That said, while I can imagine that the 3D models and animations look better on the small screen of a Switch, they don't hold up great on a PS4 hooked up to an HD TV. Monster designs vary mostly based on palette swaps, and Rune Knights are all largely reduced to blurry looking, generic class-sprites. The maps are mostly barren, and magic and Skill effects are nothing special either, which means that most of the excitement you'll be getting out of any of these battles will come from all the different health bars stat numbers going up and down, accordingly.

All of these issues aside, Matrix Software has clearly put a lot of love into reviving this franchise, and they're continuing to support it based on player feedback, too. The PS4 version of the game released with the “Titans and the Iron Front” patch, which the Switch also received. In addition to adding a small handful of new monsters to summon, this free update fixes a lot of the quality-of-life frustrations that I experienced in my first ten or so hours of playing the pre-patched game. Item management across all of your bases can be handled via a single menu now; you can more easily distinguish between enemy and ally units by highlighting their opposing color schemes with a single button press; it is easier to know which equipment will be useful for each monster and Rune Knight; and players can further customize numerous difficulty parameters, making for a much more enjoyable game overall. If you go into Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia with tempered expectations, it's a perfectly entertaining little game that offers a lot of bang for its buck. While I suspect that the Switch remains the ideal home for this kind of game, PS4 owners that need some more SRPG goodness in their lives should definitely consider giving it a shot.

Overall : B-
Graphics : C
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : B
Presentation : B+

+ Lovely art style and presentation for character sprites and 2-D cutscenes; multiple campaign options and complex SRPG systems will keep you busy for a very long time
Lackluster story/character development, mediocre in-game graphics, pacing can sometimes be sluggish and inconsistent

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