Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds PC Review
I have a soft spot for scrolling beat ’em ups, so I’ll aimlessly jump into any game that offers the chance to bring the glory days of the genre into the current generation. Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is an entry in the genre that just popped up on Steam, a scrolling beat ’em up that brings sprite-based visuals – think the Scott Pilgrim game – to PC by porting last year’s Vita release to Valve’s platform. Battle Grounds is a spinoff of the main Phantom Breaker series by developer 5pb, which is a fighting game that never had a chance to release in English, even though it was due to come a couple of years ago. Those characters from the fighting game are brought into Battle Grounds in a cute chibi art style for some mindless afternoon button mashing.
Battle Grounds is split into three modes. The first mode is story, which is written no different than any other scrolling beat ’em up’s plot, i.e. pretty rubbish. There’s a bundle of text with Japanese voice overs, but it’s all rambling nonsense that, to be honest, you will probably not care about after one playthrough and will instead continue to play Arcade mode, which are the same eight stages, but the mode is focused on scoring high and completing fast, removing all the dialogue and other interruptions that happen in Story mode. The gist of the plot is that Nagi, the younger sister of Waka, has been kidnapped by some evil dude called Phantom, and it’s down to the four central characters, Mikoto, Yazuhi, Itsuki and Waka, to make their way to the boss’ hideout by kicking everyone’s butt who oppose these girls. Yep, that’s a beat ’em up plot all right!
Fighting is extremely easy to get to grips with, since the game follows a four button layout (a pad is extremely recommended for comfort play), with a button for light, medium and heavy attacks that can be strung together to create a small combo. The strength of the attack alters the speed, but all three offer combos, so you can get simply button mash various attack buttons to look cool. The last button is for special moves, which can cast a different special attack depending which direction is held when the button is pressed. The special moves are distinctive for each character, more so than their basic moves, because no matter which character you play (there are four at the start, with six more to unlock), there’s a sense of repetition in their moves that makes each character come across feeling similar to play, even if one is using kunai and the other is a polearm.
While the game’s story only lasts about an hour and a half, the game is made for repeated playthroughs, since the inclusion of experience points and a skill point system means that the more time spent with a character the stronger they get. Skills include the ability to double jump, power up special moves, air throws and perform dash attacks. Skill points can also be used to increase attack, speed or defence stats. The first three difficulties of easy, normal and hard were easy to beat, since I kept to my levelled up character and effortlessly made it through the levels without thinking. Unlike traditional beat ’em ups, Battle Grounds uses lanes, where the player can switch between the top and bottom lane instantly with a button press. This means you cannot miss enemies with an attack, unless they are on the other plane, making it easier to just go wild when a bunch of enemies stand in front of you.
The last two difficulties of Nightmare and Nightmare+ require a bit more thinking and the use of the game’s advance mechanics, which sound like they are taken from the fighting game. There are guard breaks (a character’s guard will crack if they excessively block attacks), counter attacks, outrage and enhanced outrage attacks (uses burst gauge to send homing lightning balls to the enemies, even strong when the gauge is 100%), quick recovery, and the last one, emergency mode, which is great when surrounded by hard hitting enemies, as it will exchange health for a burst that pushes enemies away and gets you out of those sticky situations. While the game has come from a fighting background, the addition of these moves make getting through the harder difficulties manageable, adding a layer of depth, but there isn’t enough to shake off all the button mashing that happens. The developers have tried to add a deeper combat system, but it isn’t blended into the attacking combat, so you end up smashing those attack buttons for most of the game, and since most enemies stick very close to a routine attack pattern, apart from a couple that block a lot, you feel tired of bashing that button to mash through enemies, even if it isn’t the most efficient way of keeping health.
Disappointingly, the online from the Xbox Live Arcade version is nowhere to be seen in this PC release. The developers have said that the lag issues that were in the console release was the factor behind the decision, so they didn’t want to release the game featuring a lagging online mode. There is a slight hope, as on the Steam forums, the developers did mention that they might look into bringing the game online in the future, but currently all you can do is play locally, a bummer if a lot of your cooperative friends are often playing online.
As far as ports go, Battle Grounds is barebones. The game runs at 720p, but there is no option to increase the resolution. All you can do is blow it up to full screen mode, which doesn’t look that bad because of the game’s stylish sprite work that tries to capture the look of the genre’s masterpieces from the 16bit era. Battle Grounds is extremely colourful, and its visuals are backed with well animated the sprites. I also dig the environment selection, ranging from the streets of Akihabara, where you see Club Sega and a sale sign for the newly released 4DS, to jumping through teleports in an alternate dimension maze. The level design is mostly going straight, but the backgrounds are pumped with character. The soundtrack is full of chiptune tracks that are catchy, but above all, fits the tone of the anime action on screen.
Going for a pocket friendly price that won’t burn holes in anyone’s wallet, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds on PC is a mixture of good and bad implantations blended into a very nice and colourful scrolling beat ’em up that some fans of the genre will enjoy. As PC ports go, it’s pretty mundane in features, and the lack of online cooperative play hurts it, but the game, despite some of the shortcomings with its combat, is fun and charming that scratches an itch for people who like levelling up characters to take them through the difficulties, and as for what is available on the platform, you can do much worse than Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds.