A little over a week ago, I’d never heard of Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds. And—I’ll be honest here—with a name that utterly generic, I would’ve just assumed it to be some sort of budget action/fighting game where random anime-inspired characters fly around attacking each other with paranormal powers. (Maybe some sort of hybrid of Psychic Force and Senko no Ronde, for those of you up on your semi-obscure Japanese games.)
To be fair, I wasn’t completely wrong. Battle Grounds is a spin-off of 5pb’s Phantom Breaker, which is a 2D fighter and is filled with anime archetypes. So, hey.
Thankfully, one of the benefits of this job–which, in part, entails writing these reviews for EGM and EGMNOW—is putting me in situations where I play games I might otherwise pass up. It’s for that reason that I ended up giving Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds a chance to show me what it actually was, and I’m glad it did.
Diverging from its full-priced sibling, Battle Grounds keeps some aspects of traditional fighting games but then morphs into a side-scrolling beat-em-up reminiscent of those you’d find in arcades from a bygone era. Something has happened at the hands of a mysterious character called Phantom, and the result is that you’ll need to fight your way through eight stages in order to put a stop to it. Even after beating the game, I’m still not fully clear as to what the entire story was, what role each of its players truly held, or what tragic fate was avoided thanks to my skills at pummeling wave after wave of brainwashed mutant slaves into submission.
Really, though, it doesn’t matter. When brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee watched their, um, mutual girlfriend Marian get kidnapped, we knew that we had to help the twins get her back. By the time we got to Streets of Rage, we didn’t exactly demand to know what Axel’s motivations were, or if Blaze would be able to sleep at night knowing the pain she’d caused those poor street ruffians. All we needed was this simple mantra: Put a gang of street punks in front of us, and we’d kick the crap out of them.
What’s important is that that activity—engaging in fisticuffs with computer-controlled fodder over and over and over again—actually be fun. It’s easy to make a game like Battle Grounds, but it’s also easy to get it wrong and end up with a boring mess.
Thankfully, that isn’t the case here. Right off the bat, we’re given a chance to feel what each of the four main characters feel like at their strongest. We tear through the streets of Chapter 0’s rendition of Tokyo electronics mecca Akihabara knowing that our heroine of choice can dole out some kickass punishments—even if we don’t fully appreciate the relationship between all of our button presses and what’s happening onscreen.
After defeating the first boss, the game takes all of your high-level abilities away; regaining them comes about via an XP-based upgrade system. Such concepts can be a bit controversial in games along these lines—I remember the complaints leveled against similar ideas in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game—but I actually like the way it’s done here. Gaining levels comes pretty quickly, you can redistribute spent points at any time, and the balance between using earned points for either stat upgrades or unlocking lost moves means there’s a lot of room for personalizing character builds.
What also made that grind bearable is that the characters are still fun to play even when they’re at their weakest. Battle Grounds’ gameplay system is just tons of fun. Landed attacks have a tremendously satisfying feel to them, and all the individual characters’ movesets offer some real potential for combos, juggles, and effective crowd control. Guardian Heroes alumnus Masaki Ukyo helped out with the programming on Battle Grounds, and while I’m not sure I’d place what’s going on here above that Saturn classic, I would say I enjoyed it more than another similar project he had a hand in, Code of Princess.
That fantastic gameplay is backed up by an obvious level of effort put into the game’s stages and sprite artwork. For those players who’ve been to Japan—or who may be experts on its otaku culture—every level offers plenty of opportunities for noticing little nods or jokes to Japanese traditions both new and old. The stages themselves are incredibly detailed, to the point where I’d often take a moment to stop running forward and appreciate the effort that had gone into the current backdrop.
Battle Grounds also includes an arena-based all-out battle mode, and it’s—well, it’s OK. I didn’t find a huge amount of opponents the times I went searching, and those matches I did find weren’t terrible, but they also weren’t terribly enthralling. Really, that competitive multiplayer option is just that: an option. The reason you’re going to buy Battle Grounds is for its 1-to-4-player storyline (or story-free arcade) mode, and that portion alone is absolutely worth the 800 Microsoft Points you’ll spend. Once you’ve gotten through the game on Normal, two more difficulty levels await, and even when teamed up with friends, you’ll find plenty of challenge to overcome.
Unfortunately, teaming up is one of the two moments when I felt disappointed with my Battle Grounds experience. Specifically, online play seemed spotty in nearly every instance that I tried. If I was connecting to somebody else who was hosting a game, I ran into noticeable lag issues. If I was hosting, everything was fine and dandy for me—but not for my companions. Reading up on the experience of others, it doesn’t seem like that’s always the result; still, if your time spent with this game would strictly be online, it’s something you should definitely be aware of. At worst, I look at Battle Grounds as the type of experience meant for having with friends when everybody’s in the same room together.
You know—how we used to play games before the Internet made us all antisocial.
That other moment that gave me pause during my time with Battle Grounds? The game’s next-to-last stage, which has to go down as one of the most hilariously bad ideas I’ve seen in some time. The stage plays out as a sort of maze, where you’re asked to clear out all of the enemies before being allowed to make further progression. That idea wouldn’t be so bad, were it not coupled with the fact that pretty much every portion of the maze looks exactly the same (minus one or two variations of the standard color palette). While most of Battle Grounds’ stages offer a rich balance of variety and pacing, this level brings both of those to a screeching halt.
Even with its faults, however, I walked away thoroughly impressed with Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds. For me, its mix of old-school style and current-era gameplay jelled together fabulously—and even though I had no idea the game even existed shortly before writing this review, I can see myself going back for more playthroughs long after my words here are published.
|Developer: Division2 • Publisher: 5pb. • ESRB: E10 – Everyone 10+ • Release Date: 02.27.2013|
Though a few flaws do mar the overall experience, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is an extremely enjoyable mix of retro beat-em-up design and modern fighting-game-inspired combat depth that offers far more satisfaction than its $10 price tag might initially suggest.
|The Good||An extremely enjoyable battle system that keeps an old genre feeling fresh.|
|The Bad||Online play can be flaky.|
|The Ugly||The intentions of whoever designed Battle Grounds’ labyrinth stage.|
|Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is available exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade.|