The 3rd Phantom is the latest Bleach game on the DS and also the first to depart from the fighting game genre. Instead, Sega have produced a tactical RPG resembling Nintendo's Fire Emblem or Sega's own Shining Force games, with players moving characters like pieces on a chessboard in turn-based combat, whilst a storyline is used to glue the combat sections together into a coherent narrative.
If you don't know anything about Bleach, this game probably isn't going to change that. The manual has a brief outline that is repeated in an opening text crawl in the game, but neither of these really do anything other than throw a lot of terms at you without explaining what it all means. For the uninitiated, Bleach tells the story of the Soul Reapers – essentially a warrior caste version of the Grim Reaper of Western mythology, who defend the realm of the dead known as the "Soul Society" from evil spirits called "hollows." The Soul Reapers periodically cross over into the Human World to defend it from these same evil spirits and the manga starts out with the story of a young man who can see the recently deceased and becomes a Soul Reaper himself. The cast of characters and history of the world has grown over the years and it remains one of the more popular manga and anime series to this day.
Though fans of the manga/anime will likely be regarded as the target audience of this game, they'll probably be put off by the fact that the story doesn't fit into the existing continuity; despite being plotted by the series creator, Tite Kubo. You'll find familiar characters making appearances, but some of the cast and sequence of events conflicts with what's appeared in the manga, which can be annoying to longtime fans. Continuity aside, the story is a pretty good one – even if it does take time to get going – and was enough to get us interested in the manga proper. Players choose to play as one of two twins introduced in the beginning as children from the outer Rukon region of Soul Society who are rescued and taken in by the head of the Fifth Guard, Lord Seigin, with the rest of the game following their story. The main issues with the game aren't narrative, but rather the interface and gameplay.
As with the story you aren't going to learn much about the rules from the game itself. There's no tutorial of any kind; just some informational text which is displayed before battles and can be viewed from the pause menu – not a friendly introduction to the genre for players who may never have played this kind of game. Newcomers will be glad to know that the tactical aspect is quite light and generally boils down to moving characters into spaces adjacent to enemies and attacking those enemies. Strategic choices when defending amount to deciding whether to counter attack or take up a "guard" stance to minimise damage from any enemy blows that manage to connect with your character. If no enemies are in range you can choose to charge up your "spiritual pressure" to increase the odds of pulling off a special attack in battle, use equipment (if you have any), use a skill (generally another form of attack or the ability to heal other characters in your party) or move adjacent to other characters to provide support or set up team attacks, but the more complex aspects of games like Fire Emblem are completely absent.
The interface is a big disappointment due to the failure to take advantage of the DS' touchscreen, which would be perfect for this kind of game, but there's no stylus support at all. This is made more annoying due to the presence of icons for characters and game options which fairly scream out to be tapped, but unfortunately you're left with pressing L/R to toggle through characters and using the D-Pad and A/X buttons for pretty much everything else.
The bottom screen is used for the playfield whilst the top screen displays a map of the area (necessary due to the lack of a controllable camera and isometric perspective with 2D sprites) and animated cut scenes. The battle sequences get a bit tiresome since they're unskippable and repetitive, though we'll warrant there's some nice artwork and animation displayed. Even more annoying is the fact that "guest" characters – which aren't controlled by the player – require confirmation button presses prior to going into battle as well as viewing their battle sequences just like player battles, which is completely unnecessary and simply drags combat out further. Battles can become quite tedious with small groups of characters given the same unskippable guitar sting and text scroll being used to announce player and enemy turns, but overall the battle system is decent, if basic.
Between the battle sequences you'll have "Free Time" in which to build relationships with various characters by having little chats with them, using a mini-game structure where the toy lion character from the series, Kon, walks along a path towards a set goal with little bonus items to grab for boosting stats and such on the way. The number of spaces Kon moves depends upon the number of dots visible under the photo of the character you choose to speak to; you'll get special items depending on where Kon lands following the conversation. It's a clever idea and means on subsequent plays you can have different conversations and change some aspects of the game, though Kon's little announcements of "Hey Hey!" and "Let's Go!" gets old rather quickly.
Once you've played through the 20+ chapters of the story you can replay any battle stage you like with a custom-built team – good for a quick bit of pick-up tactical action. If you have friends who are also into the series you can play a head-to-head match via local WiFi play, though they'll need their own copy of the game. A cool aspect to this mode is the option to load save data so players can use leveled-up versions of the characters from the solo game to make the game a bit more interesting or give more experienced players a handicap.
The 3rd Phantom isn't a bad game, but it's hampered by controls that should have taken advantage of the DS' strengths more fully and provided more options to speed up gameplay if desired. If you give it a chance the story will certainly draw you in, though unless you're willing to do a bit of outside research you'll probably be lost as to the whys and wheres of what's happening.
If you're open to the possibility of enjoying the storyline, are already a committed Bleach fan (and not so obsessed with continuity details that you can accept some new characters that don't jibe well with the existing stories) or someone looking for a gentle introduction to tactical RPGs you might want to check this out.