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  1. Developer: Division 2 Publisher: 5pb 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 “Phantom Plots” 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. Pros: + Surprisingly deep, enjoyable, and fast-paced beat 'em up gameplay + Catchy chiptune musical score + Many varied playable and unlockable characters + Fun co-op multiplayer Cons: - 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) Great 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.
  2. Developer: 5pb Publisher: XSEED Games Platform: PSN (PSP, Vita) Release Date: January 15, 2013 ESRB: M for Mature A download code was supplied by the publisher for this review It looks like our unfortunate crew from the original Corpse Party has become trapped in the cursed and hellish Heavenly Host Elementary again. That“s okay, though, because now we get more of the delicious horror that the Corpse Party series has to offer! But is Corpse Party: Book of Shadows worth the expense of having our high school crew experience the terrors of Sachiko and the elementary school a second time? Book of Shadows isn“t a prequel or a sequel. Rather, it“s a handful of short stories that take place in an alternative universe or set before, during, or after the events of the previous game. And in those chapters containing alternate universe experiences, our protagonists have an inkling of knowledge as to what“s in store for them. Maybe some of them will be able to prevent their grisly and unfortunate fates this time… As such, it is highly recommended that you have played the original Corpse Party through to the end before getting your hands on Book of Shadows. There are immense amounts of references made to the previous game that would go unnoticed to a newbie of Corpse Party. There“s also that valuable knowledge you would need from the original Corpse Party in order to understand much of Book of Shadows, such as who Sachiko is and why she“s in Heavenly Host Elementary. Nonetheless, does Book of Shadows even add anything of worth to the Corpse Party universe? Sure, it gives us more of that horror, violence, and gore that we all love so much. The writing is also superb as usual and adds even more to that with sickeningly wonderful descriptions and whatnot. However, I think I preferred the original Corpse Party“s story a bit more to Book of Shadows“. The alternate universe tales in Book of Shadows feel pointless at times and they“re pretty much left without any sort of conclusion. The chapters that offer points-of-view from minor characters of the previous game are pretty fun, though. Book of Shadows also offers an unlockable extra chapter that shines light onto what happens approximately two weeks after the events of the original game. You“ll be able to unlock it either by importing a beaten save file from the first game or by seeing every single wrong and clear end in Book of Shadows. It is very much worth putting effort into getting and playing through this chapter (even if the conclusion to it is very… weird). As you may have figured, Book of Shadows puts a lot into its story. Thus, it“s a game that is more suited for visual novel enthusiasts. There are some long stretches of pure text and reading, so it can be pretty tedious during these parts with no important decisions popping up and no exploring to do. A big step up from the original Corpse Party includes the options to skip previously seen text and the ability to save at any time (even during important decisions). The lack of both of these made getting all the wrong ends in the previous game an absolute chore. Now that Book of Shadows does feature such integral visual novel elements, it makes completing the game 100% much easier and more satisfactory. When Book of Shadows isn“t playing its part as a visual novel, it acts out as a point-and-click adventure game. That means there“s no more of the little pixel sprites walking around that you may have become accustomed to in the original game. I somewhat miss those retro-looking graphics, but this new style is just as fine. It also means there“s no more of those irritating chase scenes from the previous game. Now, onto the audio… Oh, the beautiful audio. As in the original Corpse Party, it“s as good as ever and undoubtedly the best element of Book of Shadows. Since the game uses 3D binaural audio effects, it“d be a grave mistake to play without headphones. With headphones on, you“ll hear terrifying sounds and voices from seemingly all around you. It's absolutely realistic and adds so much to the experience, especially at moments like when the evil little Sachiko is whispering and cackling in your ear. The audio itself without the help of the binaural effects is still perfection. I personally prefer English dubs in my games (and therefore usually won“t throw a fit when a game is localized without an option for the original Japanese voice-acting), but the original voice work for this game is top-notch. The voice actors do an impeccable job in capturing emotions such as fear, pain, or malice. It“s as believable as it can get. The rest of the sound work, too, is just as great. You“ll definitely squirm and wince at some of the sound effects that the game will throw at you. Maybe even gag and vomit. As for bonus content, Book of Shadows offers a bit of that for completionists out there. Nametags of dead students that are scattered around Heavenly Host Elementary are once again collectable throughout the game. You are also able to view all the beautiful (and sometimes disgusting) CG artwork and listen to music tracks that you“ve come across in your playthrough. Wonder what the voice actors have to say about Book of Shadows? Well, lucky you, because voice actor interviews are unlockable in here! And last, but not least, is a mode where you can construct your own custom conversations from a selection of the game“s voiced lines. Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a bloody good time. The scares and violence will please any horror fan, and the visual novel fanatics out there will surely love its story and writing. The audio and voice work is so, so good – some of the best out there! Sure, Book of Shadows has some of its own little issues and some pointless moments, but it“s still pretty sick and very much worth playing through. Pros: + Voice-acting and sound work is phenomenal and amplifies the experience + Well-done writing that does a fantastic job at describing scenes + Neat unlockables such as voice actor interviews and a custom conversation-constructing mode Cons: - Newcomers that have not played the original Corpse Party may feel incredibly lost - The alternate universe stories don“t add much to the series“ overall story/mythos and feel somewhat pointless Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a must-have for anyone that enjoys horror and visual novels. Play the previous game before this, though!