Developer: Division 2
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Release Date: February 27 2013
ESRB: E for Everyone
It seems like the 360-exclusive fighter Phantom Breaker has had the unfortunate luck of constant delays and set-backs to hinder an overseas release. In almost complete disregard of that, the Xbox live arcade spin-off Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds arrives seemingly without a hitch and what feels like out of nowhere. Unlike the former title, this game features a very different beat 'em up gameplay style and retro-styled 2D aesthetic from its fighting game brethren. Without a source material to compare it to overseas, this offshoot will/should be judged on its on merits.
The preface of the game is pretty minimal, as it involves a certain evil figure by the name of â€œPhantom Plotsâ€ out to throw the world into disarray. After Phantom's, erm, plot comes to an abrupt halt and he is defeated by the four main heroines, he escapes to another dimension and kidnaps a girl named Nagi in the process. For some reason or another, Nagi is important to the the game“s four super-powered main heroines: Mikoto, Waka, Yuzuha, and Itsuki, who are driven to go off and save her. There is a bit more involving magical weapons, parallel worlds, and distortions that warp Japanese inhabitants into monsters, like mechanical dancing cat-earned men, but that would be paying more tribute to the narrative than would necessary.
What may be immediately tempting to do is to compare Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds to 2010“s Scott Pilgrim vs the World beat ”em up based on visuals alone, but actually it would be more accurate to compare the game with Treasure“s Guardian Heroes, from a mechanical standpoint. Like Guardian Heroes, Battle Grounds has a faster flow than most beat ”em ups, where players can move between the background/foreground as well as allocate stats and skills by player preference during leveling. In contrast to most beat ”em ups and where I think this game differentiates itself is by the surprising amount of depth to its mechanics and character moveset, reminiscent of something you“d get out of a 2D anime fighter.
Control schematics of Battle Grounds utilize the four face buttons for varied heavy, medium, weak, and SP attacks, as well more advanced defensive tools like multiple countering/dodging/blocking techniques. In addition, players can use skills like homing projectiles and as well as the signature Phantom Breaker, which comes in the form of several special attacks for characters. I don“t mean to make the game sound intimidating, since it really isn“t, but I'm just pointing out that the game gives you more than a suitable toolset to take down your foes for the technical players as well as the button-mashers. What is also nice about the game, in addition to being very fun to play, is that most of the 10+ characters, including the unlockable ones, play pretty noticeably different with the exception of one or two.
Battle Grounds has three main modes: which are Story Mode, Arcade, and Battleground, with the latter two having online and local multiplayer variations for up to four players. Story mode is recommended for the 1st playthrough due to the forgiving continue system it allows, despite only being confined to the four main heroines and single-player only. That said, the player will unfortunately have to put up with the throwaway narrative scenes which, while brief in length, are still unskippable and can be annoying if you are stuck on a boss. Arcade is basically a more straightforward story mode without being bogged down cutscenes, ability to use every character, and even has a few extra bonus stages.
I wish I could recommend playing arcade mode as the go-to place for most players, but unfortunately, outside of a multiplayer environment it can be pretty unforgiving since it is a one stock life structure and no continues for each stage, more so on higher difficulties (though, you can revive other player in multi mid-stage). Also, unlike story mode, you can't change or level-up skills before each stage (or after a game-over like story mode), which can lead to a very odd break in the game's flow, since leveling means a lot for a character's combat effectiveness. This makes playing online with others significantly less practical for low-leveled characters if you want to play arcade mode for any extended duration, like any more than a stage or two. Though, in local multiplayer, I'm sure you could convince your group to go back to exit the game after finishing a stage to change stats/skills, but that is needlessly clunky and throws off the pacing, which shouldn't be the case.
Despite my qualms with Arcade's structure, especially in a multiplayer environment, the game is still a lot of fun by yourself and others even being aware of these shortcomings. I did encounter some lag while playing online, but considering how the guy I was playing co-op with was from Japan, and I reside in the States, I'm really surprised it ran as well as it did, and it seemed more reasonable when I did shorter battleground and co-op sessions.
The last mode to mention is Battleground, which, contrary to the game“s subtitle, is probably the least noteworthy inclusion overall. Since Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a beat em up at heart with a leveling structure, the 4-player free-for-all mode doesn“t feel particularly balanced, especially if characters aren't similarly leveled, but I suppose it is fun enough for short-lived excursions.
Going back to the game's aesthetic, Battle Grounds sports an intentionally stylized 2D old-school pixelated presentation. As a whole, it generally runs smoothly, and the 2D character models and their attacks show off a fair bit more fluidity than one would be lead to believe from a casual glance. If I were to complain about the presentation to any serious effect, it would be that the larger enemy character models can easily obscure the player's vision if not outright block the players vision. This isn't very often thankfully, and can be immediately remidied based on positioning, but is quite noticeable when it does happen.
From an audio side, the 8-bit styled chiptune soundtrack is generally catchy and even has multiple remixes of songs from the original Phantom Breaker fighter. In addition, the game contains a decent enough Japanese dub, but it will hardly be part of the player's concern when playing through the various modes.
In any event, and despite my various nitpicks, I would highly recommend Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds considering the fair default asking price of 800 Microsoft points. I may go so far as to say it may very well be the most enjoyable beat ”em up I“ve played in recent memory. It has some shortcomings primarily due to some mishaps with the interface/presentation (particularly with the arcade mode) but I think it would be silly to overlook the grander scope of what the game presents. At the end of the day, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a very enjoyable and deep beat 'em up which is plenty of fun to play alone and even more so with a group, both online and off.
+ Surprisingly deep, enjoyable, and fast-paced beat 'em up gameplay
+ Catchy chiptune musical score
+ Many varied playable and unlockable characters
+ Fun co-op multiplayer
- Inane narrative with unskippable cutscenes in story mode
- Larger enemies can obscure vision
- Arcade mode can be unforgiving, more so on higher difficulties
Overall Score: 8.0 (out of 10)
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a very fun hidden gem of the beat 'em up ilk. With some deep fighting mechanics and an enjoyable fast-pace, it comes highly recommended despite some noticeable shortcomings.