Fans love self-insertion. There’s something exciting about being part of a story we’re familiar with, or getting to be a part of a fictional world we’ve come to know and love. For example, one of the smartest things ever done with the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise was to give their fans the ability to put their own characters into the spotlight. For all of the shortcomings found within Sonic Forces, it’s hard to deny the enjoyment of seeing your little furry persona become best friends with Sonic himself, as you work together to beat the tar out of a magically-charged übermensch jackal merc and endless robot armies.

With this in mind, it’s kind of strange when one considers that there aren’t many self-insert themed anime games.

Well, non-visual novel ones, at least.

Of the few we did receive, one was Bleach: The 3rd Phantom, a handheld title, which hit the market in 2008. The game was a follow-up to two Bleach fighting games that had previously launched on the DS in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Rather than continue the trend with another fighter, the team decided that it would be best to reuse the sprites they had on-hand to create a strategy RPG. The title featured an original cast, as well as an all-new story by Bleach creator Tite Kubo.

The title made its way to North America in 2009 and brought the requisite hype train with it. Reviews at the time were middling but still trended a bit higher than typical licensed fare. At the time, Spider-Man 2 was still the uncontested high water mark for licensed games. In this light, Bleach’s seven out of ten from IGN was nothing to sneeze at.

On a base mechanics level, Bleach: The 3rd Phantom is serviceable. Like a simplified Fire Emblem, it featured a turn-based, grid battle system and an easy-to-understand attribute setup that played like a game of rock-paper-scissors. What makes 3rd Phantom stand out, though, is that it treats the world of Bleach like a giant toy box for fans. It lets players live out their most nerdy Bleach fantasies, including becoming a Soul Reaper and embarking on a personal journey with the entire cast.

The end result was a huge departure from the vast majority of Bleach games that were released up to that point. Many, like the PlayStation 3’s Bleach: Soul Resurrection, failed to elevate themselves beyond “flavor of the month” status. The 3rd Phantom, though, is something special, and that has allowed it to linger in the minds of Bleach fans. Personally speaking, it’s one of my favorite games ever, even among the most played on my trusty old DS, alongside classics like The World Ends With You.

[Bleach:] The 3rd Phantom […] is something special, and that has allowed it to linger in the minds of Bleach fans.

Bleach: The 3rd Phantom begins roughly a hundred years before the events of the main series. The story focuses on a pair of twins from the Soul Society’s impoverished Rukon district: Matsuri and Fujimaru Kudo. After being attacked by a Hollow, the two children are saved by a Soul Reaper captain who later adopts them into his family.

From there, the story explores a dark twist in their lives caused by an invading Arrancar and a mysterious mirror. From there, the plot jumps to the present after the Kudo twins have become Soul Reapers, themselves. This serves as a springboard to a new take on the series’ Arrancar Arc, which accounts for the new heroes. The Kudos and their family troubles are placed front-and-center and eventually play into the ultimate fate of the Soul Society, itself.

Unlike some other self-insert titles, the team didn’t skimp on the individuality of a player’s main character choice. Matsuri and Fujimaru’s shared dialogues are given different contexts via their character portraits. The effect, while simple on paper, allows the player to feel like a part of the Bleach universe. Through these avatars, players are given an adventure with weighty arcs, unique villains to vanquish and rivals to surpass. Adding even more to immersion, players can decide on their attack attribute upon earning their shikai zanpakutō, granting a finer degree of customization. Like Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard or Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen, the Kudo twins have their own past and story, but it’s up to the player to determine how they change and fight.

The mechanics push customization further through the Bonds and Team Attack systems. The more a player fights alongside a character, the more affinity they gain with them. As affinity grows, players are able to use support attacks or assist guards, or even unleash devastating team attacks when they’re next to each other. While everyone on the team has possible Bonds based on the greater Bleach continuity (like Ichigo and Rukia), the Kudo twins have no such limits and can form bonds with anyone.

The affinity system has a strategic element to it, but more important is that it allows the player to pick their battle buddies. For many later chapters, players have complete control over who will be fighting on their side. As a result, this is a game where even minor characters like Momo can be brought into the squad for the final battle.

Because of this, The 3rd Phantom becomes more about the player’s personal journey and relationships, instead of a vehicle for an existing relationship template. The more independent each player’s own Kudo becomes, the more they’re allowed to make personal decisions instead of following orders from a captain or more experienced character.

Then there’s the Free Time board game, which is typically played between major story segments. Players are able to visit various characters they’ve met and play events which increase affinity, give stat boosts, and grant new items. The real joy of this mode comes from receiving a fun little side story with someone you’ve connected with during the main plot.

Free Time lets players help a young Soifon make her first friends, side with Rukia or Orihime on a debate over preferred dessert, or spy on a confused Ichigo and Renji in a hot springs while they’re puzzled over Byakuya’s obsession with a silly seaweed mascot (I’m a Bleach fan and even I don’t get that running gag…).

It’s this deep level of involvement with Bleach lore that really helps The 3rd Phantom to stand out, whether players actively participate, or merely watch events unfold. The fact that the development team added a side scene where players can help Kaien track down his constantly-moving family and their weird fist-shaped house really shows how much love the writing staff had for the franchise’s minutiae. From minor character background details to comedic filler, nothing is too minor to mine for fun.

Free Time is also when players are able to run through a late-game sidequest, which allows them to train and earn their Bankai. Bankai the strongest form of a Soul Reaper’s zanpakutō, and the greatest power that they can ever achieve. Like in the anime series, Soul Reapers are not guaranteed to be able to wield it. They must have both the skill and training to complete the transformation of their zanpakuto. It’s an immersive bit of the game that taps into an aspect of fandom many licensed games tend to ignore.

The weakest points of The 3rd Phantom occur when the game’s narrative overlaps with the anime’s main canon. For example, during the game’s most difficult battle, the narrative is dominated by Ichigo and friends’ crushing defeat after facing their first Arrancar. The game’s story also includes the Vizard, which is baffling because they vanish from it almost as quickly as they appear.

As fans, we love seeing the universes we adore grow and expand through side works like video games. There’s something childishly enthralling, though, that comes from the agency of self-insertion. Like Sonic Forces, which lets players be a hero alongside the Blue Blur, himself, Bleach: The 3rd Phantom allows whoever is holding the controller to be the protagonist of their own story, alongside dozens of characters they’ve come to know and love. It’s fanfiction made real, and the fun of toying with the familiar to make something new will never get old. Games like Bleach: The 3rd Phantom offer their own framework to make that fantasy become a reality, and it’s something that’s drawn me to it time and again over the past ten years.

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