Review: Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds (PS Vita)

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a conventional side-scrolling brawler in the mold of Streets of Rage, Castle Crashers and Golden Axe. In that, this 2D beat-em-up has its roots in a type of bygone era of gaming, adhering to genre fundamentals that make it feel like a throwback title of sorts. Although it has one foot in the past, it nevertheless is a forward-thinking endeavor that manages to implement newfangled ideas, as well. By doing this, in addition to implementing a zany backdrop, overall story and aesthetical presentation, it truly carves out a niche of its own. But is that in and of itself enough to warrant a purchase?

Battle Grounds pits players in the role of saving ensemble cast star Mikoto’s sister from her kidnappers, as well as the world at large, from a maniacal figure named the Phantom. Initially starting players out in the wonderfully Otaku world of Japan’s Akihabara District, Battle Grounds’ tale feels very manga-esque, with usual over-the-top dramatics and plenty of unique characters. Although Phantom Breaker has a story, it never is anything more than a vehicle to drive home the action. That shouldn’t be seen through a off-putting lens, though, since this is the style of game that folks are jumping into for the combat, not a heroic tale. Even still, there is a narrative to at least care about, but the plot is done in such a minimalistic manner with small dialogue exchanges only at the beginning and end of a stage, that it never impedes on the core gameplay.

Gameplay is king in Battle Grounds. While other Phantom Breaker installments are conventional fighters, a la King of Fighters or BlazBlue, BG is purely a beat-em-up. There are almost a dozen combatants to choose from, all of which come complete with their own move-sets too. While each gal is privy to dishing out exclusive combos, none of them play wildly differently. This will be seen as something of a disappointment for players wanting to experience the game via different mechanical approaches; and at the same time, there’s something comforting to know that folks can jump from one brawler to the next without there being some kind of learning curve to which to adjust. Not to mention, this method is par for the course in this genre, so one can’t be too critical of developer Mages opting to maintain status quo. That being said, each character does in fact have a bevy of moves to execute, doing much to keep a single playthrough, which has a run time of a few hours, interesting and entertaining. This, coupled with the fast-pace nature of combat, and Battle Grounds’ tendency to just throw a plethora of baddies at players at any given time, means the enjoyment endures from start to finish.

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Battle Grounds is a triumphant game, though, because of how tight and nuanced its combat is, while also being intuitive. There are some brawlers out there that feel plodding, uninspired and/or overly complex; fortunately, Phantom Breaker avoids that pitfall through its extensive move list, variety of enemies and level of challenge. With three difficulties from which to select, there’s a degree of contest for practically all types of gamers. The flashy combat isn’t all that is done to keep folks going forward. The gameutilizes an RPG-lite system between stages that allow for leveling up, attribute distribution as well as learning new skills and enhancing older ones. The included skill tree looks different for each fighter, and with the points needed for allocation coming from the results of one’s efforts on a previous stage, folks are rewarded for performance and intelligent skill-planning. Since there is rarely the chance to learn a skill and improve stats (broken down into: strength, defense, and speed), it is up to each person to strategize how they will spend their points. Moreover, with a level cap of 50, Battle Grounds provides an added incentive other than just completing stages/finishing the game with all characters. These RPG tropes, like the story, never interfere with the overall experience, and are balanced enough so that players won’t spend too much time plotting their character development. There’s just enough decision-making to be had before realizing it’s time to get back into the fray.

There’s also an abundance to do in Battle Grounds to boot. There is a swarm of modes to work through, consisting of a single-player story option, PVP arena entitled “Battleground Mode” and a simple arcade offering meant for those who like to best high scores, and fancy online play. We add this into the mix with the level-chasing aspect of building characters and it’s easy to see that the game will keep players busy for a while.

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To supplement the experience, controls are responsive and user-friendly. We never felt left in a lurch due to a slip in response-time from a button-press or time spent trying to understand some kind of convoluted control scheme. It’s mapped out well, though never overtly explained to the player when jumping into the arcade mode, but players will grasp it all fairly quickly. For a beat’em up, this all is of critical significane too, since so much of the game is based around how well it controls; so it’s nice to see the title hit the mark in that regard.

There’s also the visual representation to speak of here. Initially, players will draw an aesthetic link between its art style and 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Characters are presented in chibi fashion and made up of large pixels that are vibrant as can be. The 16-bit reminiscent graphical fidelity will be undoubtedly pleasing for folks who like the style, or grew up in the 90s, because of how stated its imaginative style is. Character models are specifically adorable, with enemy designs varied and lush in their appearances. The sprite-work placed against the hand-drawn backgrounds and battle animations do much to bring Phantom Breaker to life. The marvelously 90s Japanese soundtrack only complements the presentation effort as well.

Battle Grounds does have flaws, though. Most apparent is the fact that button-mashing is just as effectual as delivering learned combinations. This does much for the concept of pick-up-and-play, but the underemphasized need for sequenced combos feels substandard. This does not help the title’s biggest culprit: the repetitiveness. Since the only mode of operation is to beat bad guys up, the title can turn into a bit of a grind. Clearly, this isn’t a game designed for long play sessions; it seems most pleasing when engaged in short-bursts, but it’s a barrier to entry all the same. Furthermore, the lag experienced while playing online was also frustrating. Sadly, it doesn’t appear improved since the original XBLA version – and we tried it in various settings, to ensure it wasn’t strictly on our end, and alas still found it present. Since a beat-em-up necessitates some manner of timing and precision, lag makes that task rather difficult to pull off consistently.

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Closing Comments
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Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a splendid brawler. It radiates personality and has evidently been treated with care by its developers. Comprised of solid combat mechanics, an effective blend of customization, gameplay modes, and a supporting narrative, in addition to charming hand-drawn aesthetics, this old-school beat’em up is a game that can be enjoyed by practically anyone.  Thus it seems safe to say that nothing has been lost in the move from console to handheld as this adventure is just as fun-filled and challenging as the original; if anything, this is the definitive version.
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 Version Reviewed: PS Vita