Modern Review: Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds (Xbox 360)

It's been a while since RetroCollect's seen some good ol' fashioned fisticuffs, so here comes Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds for the 360. Cute 2D sprites! Violent fighting action! What more could you want?

Developed by Division2 and published by Mages/5pb, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a side-scrolling brawler for Xbox Live Arcade (800 Points) that's a spin-off of a one-on-one fighter (called. funnily enough, Phantom Breaker) that you probably haven't played simply because the US version is currently trapped in the 7th circle of Localisation Hell (there's a demo on the Japanese Xbox Live Marketplace, if you're really curious). This might be why the game's story makes absolutely no sense- Mikoto (sword-master), Waka (shrine maiden), Itsuki (violent maid) and Yuhuza (high-school ninja) must beat up every last one of Phantom's forces to stop him doing, uh, bad things (?) and, along the way, knock seven bells out of his apparent lackeys Cocoa (back-up maid), M (no idea what her costume is, sorry) and Infinity (another pass). Phantom's underlings include corrupted cyborg humans, cake-throwing guys, and what seem to be small-scale rip-offs of the EVA-01 unit from Neon Genesis Evangelion (no, really) and appear in a variety of fetching palette and head swaps. Defeat them all and save the world from, er, bad guys, I guess?

Justice always triumphs!

If PB:BG is an homage to any other scrolling brawler, it's Treasure's well-revered Guardian Heroes, and from the combat alone, it does a pretty good job of it. Similar to GH, the action is divided into 'planes' (in this case, the foreground and background) which you flit between with a button press, and the general fighting mechanics are closer to a one-on-one fighter- you even press Up to jump, and many of the boss battles (mostly against other playable characters) oddly feel like a standard fighting game because it's usually one-on-one, which is unique in this genre! You've got weak, medium and strong attacks that can be chained, a 'Special' button used to counter and reflect attacks, perform special attacks when combined with a direction (such as Mikoto's rising sword slash or Yuhuza's ninja stars), and activate Emergency Mode (the game's equivalent of a crowd-control attack that saps your health). Beyond that, you have a special meter that builds up as you wallop enemies, and you can use it up for EX specials (more powerful special moves), Overdrive (increases health, speed and power temporarily), a homing bullet attack (handy for flying enemies) and your character's ultimate attack, the Phantom Break which usually murders everything on screen in a fantastically over-the-top fashion.

That's just skimming the surface, really- there's a lot you can do to your poor enemies with the moves you've got available, and chaining them together or coming up with your own strategies (one of my favourites is dashing into a crowd of enemies and linking air-throws together, or using the counter attack to slam enemies into walls) feels really satisfying. The action is fast and fluid, and enemy waves are always in very large numbers, so when the game's doing its job well- not all the time, as we'll find out- it is a lot of fun, with enough move variety to hook you in. It can get a bit too chaotic at certain times, especially when the massive enemy monsters start showing up, and in solo mode, the last enemy in a section can annoy you by constantly changing planes, but this doesn't happen too often. It helps that the game looks and sounds the part too- the chip tune-esque soundtrack has some good tunes (especially Stage 2) and aside from a few backgrounds it's all sprite-based with slick animation, especially on the main characters. As with all brawlers, it works better with friends, and as well as local play, there's online co-op which, admittedly, is a bit hit-and-miss- I got a few good games going but experienced a lot of connection problems, The game even takes advantage of its fighting game pedigree by including a player-vs-player mode, Battle Grounds Mode. It actually works pretty well, as modes like this in brawlers often feel like an afterthought- not so here.

Don't gank me! Troll!

Now, all those moves at your disposal are fine and dandy... But there's a level-up system to go through first, the bane of all modern brawlers, and this is an odd one. Personally, I can't stand level-up systems in brawlers, especially if they boil down to locking moves away from you, limiting your attack options. Especially in 2D brawlers, most of the best in the genre give you an entire toolkit of moves from the off, and rarely feel like you can't win because 'you ain't strong enough'. Only a few games can get away with it (Guardian Heroes does) and, if you just play Story Mode, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is almost one of them, in the most round-about way possibe. Start Story Mode with a Level 0 character on any difficulty and you start Stage 0 with all the powers explained above and high stats. This is a pretty good way of breaking you into how the controls work... But at the end of the stage, your powers are taken away. However, you earn EXP in the opening stage by collecting red crystals, so you essentially get a head start on levelling. Furthermore, rather than just see numbers go up, every level you gain gives you more skill points to spend on the screen to your right- this appears between stages and when you die, so you can use those points to boost Power, Defense and Speed stats or use them on the skill tree to get abilities like dash attacks, air throws and EX moves.

What makes this system work is you're free to 'release' skill points, so you can configure your character to your liking. Critically, without the DLC that ups the level cap to 99 you can't have both max stats and all the advanced moves, so you can balance it out, go for a full moveset with lower stats, or max your stats and reduce combat options (which can help at times). Additionally, levelling-up is quick, and you'll hit the level cap either near the end (Normal) or barely 3 stages in (Nightmare, totally beatable starting from Level 0). The fact that you have to choose what to specialise in and that you can't have everything with the skill points are nice ideas. and let PB:BG just about get away with it... However, I can't shake the feeling that it's a bit pointless, and that giving the player a set number of skill points from the start to freely customise would've been better.

To demonstrate, the secret characters- including DLC character Kurisu Makise from the 5pb-published Steins;Gate- can't play through Story Mode, so they can only play the main game in Arcade (one life) or Co-Op Mode, neither of which give you that temporary power boost or EXP head-start. Without them, every time I tried to play as a secret character I found myself grinding a bit on Easy and Normal to make the game 'fun' again with a more robust move set. It's hard to play the game well when you don't have your specials, or even a dash attack. Even worse, Co-Op and Arcade don't let you reconfigure your skill point settings between stages! If you want to take advantage of any levelling-up you've done, you have to quit, go to a separate menu, then continue from the next stage. Admittedly, this only affects the secret characters, but for me it highlighted a feeling of pointlessness with the level-up system, and some of the secret characters are really fun to play as (Cocoa is a great rushdown fighter, and Kurisu can use flamethrowers and drop satellites on her foes)... You just have to go through hoops before they start being usable. Not great for a pick-up-and-play genre like a brawler, eh? Especially not for multiplayer!

I cannot sit by quietly and overlook this!

The other problem is the level design. Not their appearance, mind- there's some nice touches like the Akihabara stage being based on the real-life city, even including Club Sega and Hey Arcade! I'm on about the enemies and the length. Although enemy groups are always huge, the first couple of stages don't really mix up enemy groupings too much, so you'll be fighting a lot of the same enemies (albeit with some of the best and wackiest head-swaps I've seen since SNK's Mutation Nation). Eventually the game starts throwing different, more varied enemies at you (the evil shrine maidens and robots that populate Stage 5 are a good example), but it can get tiresome, and as fun as it is, it can start to drag a little too much. Some areas, such as the second visit to the sewers in Stage 3, feel like unnecessary padding and could've been removed. Sounds like nitpicking, but keeping the pace going is critical in a scrolling brawler, as if you get it wrong and drag things out, the player gets bored too easily. The worst offender, by far, is Stage 6, the Demonsphere, where it's a maze. Every room has multiple exits, each leading to the a palette-swapped version of the same room (good luck not getting lost) and there's many dead ends. Fortunately, beating every enemy in a room means you don't have to fight them if you go back, but it absolutely murders the pacing of the game- I found myself pausing and taking a break a lot in this stage because it dragged so much- and is especially infuriating in multiplayer. The scrolling brawler is the last place a maze stage belongs! When it isn't dragged out too long, though, it's entertaining- the combat system sees to that. I just wish the level design was a bit tighter.

Game Trailer:

Who's a mole? I'm not going to die from the mold. Stop it.

In the end, I got a lot of enjoyment out of Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, but not without some gripes along the way. The fighting itself is solid and really fun to get into, especially since you eventually get a load of great moves and attacks to play around with. Any game that lets me perform an Izuna Drop on a giant missile-launching robot then pummel its face in with flame-spewing knives is automatically going to be at least good, if not great. It also has a lot of charm with its cute visuals, unusual character roster (seriously, Cocoa is a maid with a giant claw hand what the hell) and soundtrack. It's just that these neat combat mechanics are stuck in a game with an odd, unnecessary-feeling level-up system, half-OK half-dull levels, and a bad sense of pace in certain parts. Had these elements been tightened up a bit, PB:BG would've been an easy recommendation to anyone, especially those with some co-op buddies. As it is, I'd recommend it for fans of the genre (and Guardian Heroes) to try out, but with the proviso that it's not going to be without issues, especially if you can't stand level-up systems in brawlers either!

... At the very least, the game knows its roots. There's a lift sequence. Of course there is.

Please note: Screenshots taken from The DLC for the game, which increases the level cap from 50 to 99 and adds Kurisu Makise as a playable character, is available to download for 400 Microsoft Points. Players who have the DLC cannot play online with those who have't downloaded it!

Last Updated ( 21 March 2013 )  

Tepid Snake

Wait, what do I put in this box again? Oh, it's about me. I like playing weird and unusual games- the sort you're likely to forget about- and I hope you like reading about them because they're what I write about. And game trivia too. Please look forward to it!

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