Strategy RPGs may not be the most popular genre around in terms of sales, but their most well-known and fertile publisher is undeniably Atlus. With solid games like Kartia, Ogre Battle, and Tactics Ogre under its belt, Atlus has now flung another solid and enjoyable title at gamers known as Brigandine. (Interesting tidbit #42 -- "brigandine" is a name for a medieval suit of armor composed of scales or plates.)

   The best way to describe Brigandine's gameplay would be to compare it to the classic board game, Risk. You must mobilize your forces around your borders and attempt to take over all the other countries one territory at a time, all while defending your land. If you push too far, too fast, you won't have enough troops to protect the lands you own -- an almost certain path towards your demise. Only when you send out troops to attack, or others force you to defend your lands, does the gameplay shift to a standard grid-based battle with turn-based deployment and attacks.

Organize and plan

   I was always a big aficionado of Risk, and it's the wonderfully executed way that Brigandine builds upon this concept that's got me hooked. You begin the game by selecting one of five characters, each in control of different kingdoms. Each character and their supporting knights ("knights" is used to describe all human characters, be they fighters or magicians) varies, as do their personalities -- some will form alliances with other countries, while others incite war impetuously.

   Every month, you have an opportunity to arrange your knights before sending them out on attacks. Knights control their own individual "units," and can hold varying amounts of monsters in those units depending on their Rune power and the monster's Rune cost. Monsters are summoned at the cost of Mana points which accumulate every month. Both humans and monsters can have their classes changed with every 10 levels or so, gaining special abilities and other nifty changes. There's even some classes that you need special items to obtain. All in all, there's a lot of classes and options to choose from, which contributes massively to the variety in gameplay.

   In addition to organizing and moving your units about the world, knights may also be sent out on quests. Questing knights (and their accompanying monsters) are removed from your forces for a month or more at a time, with a brief story detailing their adventures upon their return. They may bring back items, status enhancements, equipment, or even additional knights who meet your ruling character before joining the kingdom's ranks. The varying quests can eventually get a bit repetitive (there's only a certain number of adventures, after all), but they're generally far more appealing than Final Fantasy Tactics' bar jobs (though, sadly, no one gets "a good feeling").

Clean battle layout

   Once a battle begins, you select up to three units from all those available at the battleground location. Troops are positioned and attack using a hexagonal grid system, similar to most strategy RPGs. One innovative element in battles is that monsters are dependent on their controlling knight -- knock out the knight, and the monsters disappear too. Visually, you are offered either an overhead or a 3/4 view of the sprites on the grid. Personally, I preferred the overhead view, which made the battlefield layout simpler to manage. The sprites themselves are a little bland, and although actual attacks between opponents are carried out in polygonal cutscenes similar to Shining Force III, it feels a little underdeveloped and incomplete. There are no major drawbacks, however.

   The overall story is standard and clichéd. (Did anyone else find Lance's intro particularly laughable?) Characters, while amiable, suffer from the Suikoden Factor -- far too many characters, each with their own backgrounds and stories, means your interest is spread out and weakened. Still, I found it enjoyable to try and discover secret quests that certain characters have, and pre-battle chest-pounding dialogue between key combinations of characters adds a nice touch. One must also keep in mind that Brigandine is a gameplay-driven game, and the plot certainly doesn't detract in the end.

   Perhaps the most disappointing aspect in Brigandine is the music. While the rulers each have their own, varied tunes for battles and the overworld map, the melodies are listless, banal, and trite. They're tolerable, but they hardly inject any kind of appreciable mood into the game.

   Gameplay details aside, I found Brigandine to be immersive and incredibly addicting. "Just one more castle..." I'd think, only to find myself plotting and playing for times far longer than any medical doctor would consider healthy. Not only is the entire concept and execution solid and excellently done despite a few minor flaws mentioned above, but Brigandine is easily one of the hardest games I've played in a long time. There are three modes of difficulty, but even the "Easy" setting was challenging enough to easily reduce my untold years of video game skills to an insignificant, bumbling effort. Even after I finished the game, I immediately started with another character, and a more difficult level -- many games boast that they're "never the same game twice," but this one unequivocally delivers. There may not be lots of glitz or glamour, but the sheer addictive fun in gameplay easily places Brigandine as one of my all-time favorite strategy RPGs. It's a bit saddening that a title like this will inevitably be looked over, overshadowed by other games in the Christmas rush.

Review by Brian Glick.
Developer Irista / Heartyrobin
Publisher Atlus
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date  N/A
Assorted screens and movies
Mounds of character artwork