The release of the Sony PlayStation in North America in 1994 was an enormous and unprecedented event, one which drew a great deal of attention from both game journalists and video game players at the time. An affordable 32-bit console with excellent performance for 3D games was immediately notable as a novelty, with early titles like Wipeout and Tekken dazzling onlookers with graphics that were unprecedented on home consoles of the time.
However, the console managed to hit it big with an unexpected title when Final Fantasy VII exploded in popularity upon its launch in 1997. JRPGs, which had previously been a niche genre in North America, were suddenly in demand to a degree that had been heretofore unknown. The result was a frantic dash by developers and publishers to bring everything from Japan over to the US as well as a push to greenlight and produce more JRPGs for fans to play.
The result was a huge rush of JRPGs that is almost stunning in its riches, with Square Enix reaping much of the benefit but many other developers taking the time to bring games over. Looking at the PlayStation library reveals an almost staggering number of different titles, many of them beloved to this day, some still waiting for a sequel even years later.
But here’s the thing about any period of time in which you get a rush of games. Sometimes… some of them are wildly experimental and novel, but they don’t really work very well. And if you’re wondering why I’m spending all this time talking about the environment, well, it’s important to understand how the original Brigandine launched into this time and to understand why it hasn’t gotten a sequel until now, 22 years after its initial release.
Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia releases on Nintendo Switch worldwide on June 25th, 2020, developed by Matrix Software and published by Happinet.
Let’s start with the story. Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia… doesn’t have one. Or at least, not in the way you might expect a strategy JRPG to have one.
When the game starts, you’re treated to a bit of narration explaining that five Brigandines with powerful gems were developed and various people, called Rune Knights, gained the ability to summon magical monsters into combat and could completely decimate units of normal mortal soldiers. The end result was the five great kingdoms of Runersia, with the Kingdom of Norzaleo, the Holy Gustava Empire, the Republic of Guimole, the Mana Saleesia Theocracy, and the United Islands of Mirelva all living in relative peace with the nomadic Shinobi Tribe wandering about.
So what disrupts the peace? Well, mundane people stuff.
That’s not meant to be dismissive; the point is that this is a conflict driven first and foremost not by grand evil or bizarre accident, but by people being people and ultimately deciding that they’d like to wander over and take someone else’s territory. And the narrative… is largely done there.
See, the thing about the game’s story is that it is almost entirely based in ludonarrative in terms of where you’re going, what your order of opponents will be, and so forth. Your ultimate goal once you choose between the six kingdoms available is to conquer the entirety of Runersia, no matter what kingdom you start with. So if you start with Guimole in the southwest of the map, you can choose right away if you want to start by conquering Norzaleo, Mana Saleesia, or the Shinobi tribe… or if you want to open the front with all three of them because you’re terrible at tactics.
But the result is that you’re not really personally opposing anyone, and so this war story is mostly played out through flashbacks as you gain more territory, focusing on the cast members of importance within your nation and helping you understand your nation’s leader. There’s no real thrust to it. It’s less a story you explore and more of a separate tale being filled in as you conquer various forts.
It’s certainly a different approach to having a war story by making it all ludonarrative in terms of how the war is going. Does it work? Well… not as such, no.
Here’s the big thing that brings down Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia in my estimation: The game is just plain impenetrable at first. And it suffers all the more because it is so ludonarrative focused.
Let me explain. First and foremost, this isn’t the same as the game not having tutorials. It actually has a very elaborate tutorial that you click on right from the title screen which explains its mechanics nicely. The problem is that once you go through those tutorials, it’s done giving you any form of instruction… which is one of those things that most mechanically dense tactical RPGs subtly do over the course of several missions.
Consider Final Fantasy Tactics, for example, a game which came out not too far removed from the original Brigandine. In that game, once you start, it’s actually a while before you have to start dealing with more elaborate mechanics or jobs. The third mission introduces you to serious height advantage and what that can mean for ranged characters, but it does so gently, through play. You are steadily shown how to play by starting from simple engagements and moving on to more complex ones.
Not so for Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia. You’re taught the basic mechanics, and then it’s off to the races, full complexity right from the start, hopefully you figure it out before a game over!
In theory, this makes the game much more approachable for replay in a way; it encourages you to just start the game and go if you already know how to play. But it also means that the game isn’t just difficult to understand at first, it’s almost impossible, especially when you know that you have a time limit to unite the continent and no idea of how aggressive you need to be or even what units accomplish what.
Actual play is split between two modes. The main phase of play sees you managing your troops, moving your units of Rune Knights (a single person surrounded by a small army of monsters) between forts on the map. At any given fort you can choose to send your units on quests (which makes them unavailable for use on that turn but can gain experience, items, or new knights) or you can move them elsewhere, as well as summoning new monsters for you unit. Once you’re done with organizing, though, you can send your units to attack, with successful attacks gaining territory for your faction.
The actual attacks are where the top-down strategy portion of the game come into play, and… yeah, this is a whole other mess that doesn’t feel like it works very well.
For one thing, in most tactical games, you actually have a consideration of tactics about who moves, when, and what ground you’re trying to cover. Here, basically every fight tends to quickly devolve into both forces running into one another full-tilt, followed by slogging it out in hex-based maps that always feel more tedious than anything.
This isn’t helped by the fact that every unit very rigidly must follow a move-then-act order, and many things such as spells can’t be used after moving, meaning that spellcasters just have to wait and wind up turning the fight into even more of a slog. Things get even more tedious with each unit having a field of control you can’t move past; instead of bodily blocking off enemies, you have to think about overlapping fields of control.
And then there are the number of units that feel just plain useless; most of your durable monsters have all the accuracy of an open umbrella thrown in a windstorm, good for soaking up hits and not much else. Other units are status casters who do not seem to actually cast any useful debuffs, or healers who have enough MP for two or three casts and then they can do nothing useful for the rest of the engagement.
It’s not truly dire. The battles aren’t buggy or anything, and the forked promotion paths for monsters are interesting. But the whole thing always just feels tedious. There don’t seem to be many tactics beyond “have more raw strength than the other side,” and it’s compounded by enemy factions attacking or not based on really weird criteria.
I don’t mean that in the sense of “the AI is dumb.” Let me give you an example. On one turn, I saved before sending all of my units in one fort on quests, leaving the fort entirely undefended, then I passed my attack phase without doing anything. I reloaded this file four times, and each time, an enemy faction attacked the unoccupied fort and claimed it. (I wanted to see if it was just totally random.)
Then, I reloaded again, but this time I attacked a different nation in an easy fight… and then the enemy nation ignored my unoccupied fort and attacked the same nation I had just struck, losing two fights. Equally vulnerable both times, but for some reason the AI changed its mind.
In other words, it’s a game almost entirely running via the ludonarrative, but the actual play of the game never delivers that satisfying tactical meat. There’s definitely some interesting mechanics here, but the lack of a path to knowledge makes finding it… much more annoying than it has any right to be, let’s say.
One thing you can’t fault the game for is voice acting; there’s a lot of voice samples, including for the random knights you recruit who seem to have only a couple lines of story dialogue, and while it’s all in Japanese it’s definitely elaborate. There’s also a nice panoply of strange monster noises as your various creatures march across the battlefield, rather than generic roars or the like.
Graphically, my wife said half-jokingly that the game feels like a free-to-play mobile title, and I have to admit that she’s got a point. The character and monster art is elaborate and nice, but it’s also very limited; characters do not have a variety of poses at all, simply popping up in static poses without so much as different expressions. The 3D models are rather functional but bland, and the actual maps have that procedural-generation feel even though every given battle map is (as near as I can tell) a bespoke product.
The game is also shot through with weird command decisions, like how if you want to move multiple units you have to select each of them with L and then confirm, a control scheme that kept tripping me up when there’s no good reason for it in the first place.
The music, meanwhile, is… catchy, but fairly flat and generic. Since there are no real sudden story scenes that require much in the way of dramatic battle music, most of it is just kind of generic and wouldn’t sound out of place in any random JRPG. I do like that you have different themes playing for different nations taking their turns, that part was kind of nice.
Now… full disclosure here, I am not a fan of the original Brigandine. That’s not to say that I dislike it, but just that I never played it and thus don’t have memories of working my way through its systems. And it’s quite possible that people who did love it are going to be over the moon about the fact that the game has gotten a sequel that is, by all accounts, as full-featured as its predecessor.
At the same time, Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia is not from the original developers, which dampens some of that sequel. Indeed, it’s a completely separate thing from its predecessor and seems to mostly be doing the same things as the first game, but with a new map and different monsters.
But gosh, this one was a disappointment for me.
The fact of the matter is that I really like the ideas on display here. I like the idea of a strategy game focused on its play experience, with a much more open structure. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had by that kind of gameplay, and I’m even fairly sure there’s a firm set of tactical rules underpinning everything that you can enjoy once you suss it out.
Yet therein lies the problem. It’s a game that makes it difficult to figure out how to play it, not because it has to, but because the developers chose to make a game catering primarily to people who already know how to play it. And if there’s one reaction I shouldn’t be having when getting into a fight in a tactical RPG, it’s “ugh, not another one of these.”
Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia isn’t a truly dire or bad title, but it’s the sort of thing that you’re either going to love or hate, and that feels like a pretty big ask for the game. It was a title I found very exciting in concept, but found myself increasingly disappointed by the more I played it. Be fairly warned before you try it – but also don’t be surprised if it becomes something that some people just will not stop talking about, even with its flaws.
Review copy provided by Happinet for Switch. All screenshots courtesy of Happinet.