Brandish 2 continues the noble Falcom tradition of having their brave heroes fall flat on their faces in unfortunate circumstances as the only flimsy excuse needed to drag them into another adventure. The first game’s distinctive “world-turning” system makes a functionally identical comeback here (as do many other features), which means our protagonist Ares always faces the top of the screen and to turn to the side snaps the landscape underneath his feet in 90° increments to match. It may sound odd on paper but in practise it works much the same as the first person view in any old dungeon crawler – Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Master, Falcom’s own Dinosaur – just from a more overhead view. What this means for us is that we can only ever see what Ares can see, and from the angles he can see things at, providing a balance between the practical need to have a decent view of his surroundings (as enemies stalk the game’s dungeons in real time this prevents him from unfairly dying to sudden unseen attacks from the sides/rear) and the immersion of having to manually scan nearby nooks and crannies for small details and tucked-away items.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here because Ares doesn’t begin the game as a well-equipped wanderer roaming the land but as a prisoner in a featureless cave with nothing but the clothes on his back. If you’re reading this then there’s a good chance you’ve seen this scenario play out before: You either have to walk around the room until you’re rescued by someone else, spot a ridiculously tiny secret button, or wait for a guard to come in and then beat them up before making your escape – unless you happen to be playing Brandish 2. The usual options exhausted, there was nothing else I could do other than try to make Ares punch down his own cell door, which couldn’t possibly wo-it worked. This is now my favourite gaming jailbreak of all time. Drunk with power, I burst through the now empty aperture and started to assault the nearest spider with my door breaking fists… and immediately died, because in my excitement I hadn’t noticed that Ares begins his incarceration with just one of his starting maximum of twenty hit points (and I hadn’t read the hint section at the back of the manual warning about this before I started playing either). Ah. But it turned out to be just the sort of unforgettable reminder I needed that Brandish games are methodical dungeon crawlers with all the usual trimmings – obtuse clues scrawled on walls (sometimes in blood), treasure chests (and the odd toothy impostor), door-unlocking pressure plates, and resting to recover HP – even if the quick pace of the roaming enemies and the viewpoint appears to be from a typical action-orientated RPG.
And just like those old titles (and later ones, such as From Software’s King’s Field series) there’s a strong survival aspect to Brandish 2’s design: Most weapons will break quickly with standard use, items will run out with no guarantee of a replacement, and if a shield would really help right now but you haven’t found one in a chest or bought one from the game’s infrequent shops then you’ll just have to manage without. Making careful use of whatever’s lying around is always the best way to go, weighing up the benefit of easily crushing a whole floor’s worth of common enemies with a powerful sword (perhaps your only sword, if you’re unlucky) against a potential boss or imagined tough spot in your future, or deciding if it’s worth guzzling down an instant-fix health potion now for safety’s sake or saving it and risking having a rest in what you hope is a quiet corner, praying none of the constantly respawning monsters attack Ares while he sleeps.
The save system itself emphasises Brandish 2’s “Cope with what’s at hand and the decisions you make because of it” idea by offering just a single save slot – and it’s a save slot the game will merrily overwrite without asking whenever you change floors (this includes accidentally falling through a hole into a lower level). You can update this bookmark in your adventure whenever you like – even in the middle of a boss battle – which gives it the flexibility of allowing players to avoid re-doing a tricky section or a long walk (you can also reload your lone save at any time with just a few clicks) but you can never revert to any other earlier point in time. And that means there’s a good chance either you or the game will unwittingly save Ares into an impossible corner – or it would, if the game didn’t have an emergency warp function built in. Any time you die you have the ability to place Ares anywhere on the (uncovered) map at full health, at the cost of a whole level’s worth of power. It’s enough of a punishment to make you not want to use it, but not so severe the option isn’t worth taking if you ever get really stuck.
Which is Brandish 2’s approach to difficulty as a whole, really. It wants to be challenging – and it always is – but it doesn’t delight in making players suffer. It’ll always feel like there aren’t enough healing potions but they are found in a relatively steady supply so long as you’re thorough in your explorations as are replacement weapons, bunches of generic keys, better shields, and everything else Ares needs to survive. Limited use offensive magic rings are soon replaced by infinitely spammable scrolls (MP willing) even for people like me who never go out of their way to look for anything, and basic weaponry has unbreakable alternatives to be found as well – the game wants to dangle the fear of being unable to make it past the next zone in front of you, but never goes so far that skill, patience, and a little bit of luck won’t see you prove it wrong.
Although no matter what equipment you’re… brandishing (I’m a little sorry) – whether that looks like a conventional sword and shield, a dual-handed axe or hammer, to my impractical favourite, twin swords – hitting things hard is never quite as important as learning how to block incoming damage. You see in Brandish 2 blocking doesn’t need any demanding timing or cause so much chip damage it’s better to shuffle out of the way; here blocking with a shield automatically creates an impenetrable barrier against all physical attacks whenever an enemy stands before Ares and he isn’t in the middle of a sword-bop animation and can be manually activated against distance projectiles with a single mouse click or a tap of the space bar. Even bosses can be defended against so long as they’re not doing anything magical or performing some penetrating multi-square attack. This sole technique changes Brandish 2 entirely, taking what could have been either a simplistic “hit them harder than they hit you” or an endless square dance to keep out of the way into a tense rhythmic game of observation and timing – learning when to sneak in an attack and when to stand your ground will get Ares further than any powerful weapon or stock of restorative supplies ever will.
And while you’re busy doing all of this his stats – on permanent display on the left hand side of the screen – will level up based on your own fighting style and experiences: Hit lots of things and Ares’ physical strength goes up. Get zapped by magic (and survive) often enough and he’ll become more resilient to mystical attacks. By itself this is nothing new or even all that unusual for the genre, but the Brandish difference is the way these bars fill up in real time, per hit (dished out or received), giving them a direct and obvious link to your own actions. The same clear line of cause and effect equally applies to Brandish 2’s various “zones”, as it likes to call its locations/areas/places to die in, too. All of the maps are relatively compact even when later ones sometimes span multiple floors or are split into several pieces: This is partly to do with technical size limitations (every “chunk” is at maximum a grid of 32×32 squares, and Falcom often make areas smaller if doing so would improve the design or if it better suits the setting), but a lot of it’s as much to do with the high quality of the game’s puzzles too – examining a door always reveals whether it needs a plain old key or some sort of special puzzling solving to open it, and if you need a tool to do something integral to your progress then the dungeon will make sure that item’s lying around for you to find – you might need to do more legwork than if you’d bought a spare back at the last shop, but there will always be enough of whatever you need, even if you’re like me and happy to not explore anywhere that feels like too much work. Illusory walls and weak spots begging to have a hammer taken to them are clearly marked on vertical surfaces once you know what you’re looking for, and even invisible pitfalls have a dedicated item to allow cautious players to test surrounding squares for safety before moving ahead. It all feels very tactile – leaping around, bashing things, stepping on pressure plates and opening chests – which in turn makes it feel like you’ve personally had a positive and proactive impact on the game as you plough on ahead.
This good design is assisted by an ever-present auto map, helpfully marking off not just walls and empty spaces but doorways (once you’ve opened them) and impassable objects too. On its own I found this was more than enough to keep me on the right track but for those that need more detail there’s the option to manually add extra coloured boxes to the map at any time, so if you want filled blue squares to represent shops and outlined green ones to indicate treasure chests then Brandish 2 will allow you to mark those and any other points of interest you like on the map. There’s even an auto move option in the main menu: Clicking on that then on any previously discovered spot on the map will see Ares scoot off there by himself, giving your worn puzzle-solving fingers a well-earned break in the process. He will stop dead and await your input if his path crosses any hazards or enemies – and there’s plenty of those – so it’s effectiveness depends somewhat on the zone you’re in, but it’s a helpful feature to have and it does always do its best to get you where you need to go (unlike certain other games).
And it’s worth pressing on just to see where Ares ends up next: For a genre where scenery tends to start and end with large stone bricks Brandish 2 dares to flaunt dungeons decorated with ice, sand, streams, vast carpets of flowers, and plenty of the kind of mildly disturbing forbidden organic-tech mashup eighties/nineties Japanese artists do so well – there’s no point in trying to guess what’s coming up next because it honestly could be anything. Enemies are equally inventive, surprising not only with their physical form but their behaviour too: Skeletons can (and frequently will) block your attacks, so if you want to make one collapse into a pile of bones you’ll have to learn to time your sword slashes well. Ice golems collapse into a pile of, well, ice and will reform if you don’t melt their remains with a fireball. Bats are always on the move and deal a potentially lethal stream of low damage bites. Statues of minotaurs spring to life when you get close. Man-eating fish leap out of the water. And all of that’s just in the first half of the game – later on there are phantoms, ninjas, and all sorts of unpleasant combinations of teeth and tentacles to contend with.
The story that ties all of this monster-bashing and cavern-mapping together is strong enough to give your exploration purpose and direction but not so overbearing it prevents the threatening spike-filled pits, deadly fiends, and your own fraught steps into the dark from becoming the main event. There’s a real skilful balance at work here: Ares is always left by himself long enough for it to really feel like he’s fighting for his life at the bottom of some creature-infested pit, but never so abandoned that when he finds himself stumbling back into human habitation your mind starts asking awkward questions like “Where were all these people when I needed a hand five minutes ago?”. It certainly helps that when the game does decide to speak for itself you’re not getting a plain textual explanation of the magnificent pixel art on display but some real scene-setting flavour – the sun blocked by lead-coloured clouds, damp caves, and musty old books – these carefully worded snippets coupled with the beautiful graphics set your imagination to work in the silence that follows, creating a rich adventure that goes far beyond any clever individual mechanic or intimidating enemy sprite.
The only real downside to Brandish 2 is when you realise the most easily accessible versions of the game – Koei’s Super Famicom ports – aren’t just lacking in some snooty “Well I prefer the PC-98’s colour palette” way but missing a significant quantity of individual levels and even the entire Green and Ice Zone areas. I’m normally the first to cheer when there’s less work to do, but in all honesty Falcom’s original layouts are short and sharp enough even for someone with my low, low, levels of patience, so for whatever reason these areas were cut it’s more like the console releases aren’t a case of thoughtfully trimming the fat but sadly losing out on perfectly acceptable content. The good news is the PC-98 release I’ve been blabbing on about is readily available for a small sum on Japanese digital download service, Project EGG (yes, they do accept international Paypal payments): https://www.amusement-center.com/project/egg/cgi/ecatalog-detail.cgi?contcode=7&product_id=1434