Simple, yet so complex...
While in some games, like fighters and platformers, gameplay is the supreme factor for determining a game's worth, RPGs and strategy games have always been judged, at least in part, by the quality of their story. Even games with less than innovative fighting systems, such as the Final Fantasy series, have become recognized as great RPGs because of their stories, while some games with more innovative systems, such as Breath of Fire III, have been doomed to failure because of their bad plots. Brigandine, the latest strategy-RPG from Atlus, has some of the best gameplay I've ever seen, but it also has one of the worst, most incomplete stories that exists in the genre.
The continent of Forsena contains 6 countries: Norgard in the north, New Almekia in the west, Caerleon in the southwest, Iscalio in the southeast, Leonia in the east, and the Esgares Empire in the center. All of the countries except for Esgares are playable (unless you want to cheat...), each with their own strengths and weaknesses, adding all kinds of replay value to the game. The game begins when Admiral Zemeckis assassinates the King of Almekia, establishes the Esgares Empire, proclaims himself Emperor, and sets out to conquer the continent. You, as the leader of one of the 5 other countries, set out to defend yourself from Esgares and later conquer the continent for a more benevolent ruler... yourself.
You begin the game with a handful of castles, some Mana for summoning monsters, a few monsters, and some Rune Knights. Rune Knights are humans with the ability to control monsters, essentially your generals. Each Rune Knight has a certain amount of Rune Power, which determines how many monsters he can control and how powerful they can be. For example, while a dragon can eat a giant scorpion for lunch, a dragon takes up 75 rune power while a giant scorpion only takes up 20, meaning that you can have 4 scorpions for about the cost of a dragon. There are 19 basic monster classes in all, and monsters can transform into more powerful beasts every 10 levels they gain (dragon turns in to red or white dragon, centaur turns into high centaur, etc.). Between all of the different types of monsters, not to mention the individual Rune Knight's abilities, there's a tremendous amount of flexibility in building your army.
The game itself is totally nonlinear. Any castle adjacent to a castle you control is fair game for an attack, but since you have a limited number of Rune Knights, you have to be careful not to over-extend your forces. Another important aspect of the game is questing. You can send any of the Rune Knights you control on a quest. Although you can't use the Knight for the duration of the quest, the results of the quest generally make his absence worth it, like finding a new item, getting your stats increased, or even finding a new Rune Knight. However, the non-linearity of the game leads to its greatest problem, the story.
Over the years, there have been some RPGs with pretty damn bad stories, including Breath of Fire III, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, Wizardry V and The 7th Saga. As terrible as they might have been, none are worse than Brigandine. Brigandine's "story" consists of short sequences of dialogue that occasionally pop up after every turn on the world map. Rarely are they interesting, even more rarely do they pertain to the game. Often, with seemingly important events, the matter is either totally ignored after the "story sequence" or resolved a few turns later, and THEN ignored. Although I can appreciate the difficulty of writing a good story for such a non-linear game, I really expected more from Atlus, makers of Kartia and Persona, both of which had great stories.
Graphically, the game's best aspect is also it's greatest problem. Tactical battles are fought on a hex based, polygonal battlefield with armies consisting of sprite characters with simple two or three frame animations. When monsters or Rune Knights attack each other, however, the game switches to a fully polygonal fight sequence between the two units. All of the Rune Knights look great in 3D, especially the samurais and the mages, and most of the monsters look pretty good too. What is really striking about the 3D fights, however, is how the monsters were actually drawn to scale. A pixie looks suitably pathetic when compared to a white dragon, and a battle between a tiamat and a bahamut is truly climactic.
However, the problem with the polygonal fight sequences is that each and every one of them takes upwards of 30 seconds apiece, meaning you need a calendar to time some of the fights. Although you can turn off the 3D fights, the game just feels like it's missing something without them. All that happens without the 3D animation is a dull thwack and a number pops up from the monster indicating damage. It's really a shame Atlus didn't put in a button to cancel the 3D animation so you could choose the fights you want to watch
If Atlus had put some more effort in to the story corrected a few easy to fix errors, Brigandine could have been an absolutely spectacular game. However, as it is, we're left with a reasonably good game with so much potential for greatness. If you're looking for a game with complex, involving gameplay, look no further than Brigandine, but if you're looking for something with more story, skip this one and pick up Final Fantasy Tactics or Kartia.