If just the name 'Phantom Breaker' is familiar to you, you must really follow Japanese video games. You may have even been one of the hopefuls for this beautifully animated 2D fighter, when scheduled for North American release in 2012 (we all import sometimes after all). Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds however, is an Xbox Live Arcade spin-off to it's predecessor; created no doubt, following the success of the original in Japan and profiting from an expectant following in other countries. Behind this rather generic and unassuming name however, is simplicity personified, in the form of a pure retro 2D beat 'em-up that wholly integrates its chosen theme and pays homage to the brawler genre of old.
The story coincides with that of Phantom Breaker but is stand-alone, as you'd expect with the previous title still unreleased outside of Japan. Unlike the original Phantom Breaker, where characters proceed individually through a tournament, in Battle Grounds the main characters work together, to take down the mysterious hooded figure 'Phantom'. Plotting to regain his sealed powers, Phantom bestows powerful weapons called F.A. (Fu-mantion Artifacts) to worthy young fighters with the lure of granting wishes to those who are victorious in battle. Violent clashes between these weapons however, created a distortion in space-time and also a rift between worlds, which has now broken the seal on Phantom's dark powers.
Set in urban Tokyo, the main story revolves around four young female fighters, intent on stopping Phantom's plan: Waka, a shrine maiden and daughter of the Kumon clan who wage war on evil; Mikoto, her support and a sword master; Yuzuha, a high school ninja unpersuaded by Phantom's lure; lastly Itsuki, a maid and self-proclaimed ally of justice. Upon his escape from the four fighters, Phantom kidnaps Waka's younger sister Nagi, and we follow the heroes in their pursuit to rescue her. Depending on which of the four characters you play as, you follow the same story arc but from each character's own perspective. The enemies you fight range from strange monsters to stereotyped society groups like Japanese business men with golf clubs and 'ganguro' girls. On completion of the story (or co-op) mode, you also unlock four additional characters to use, including Nagi and the three main bosses 'M', 'Cocoa' and 'Infinity'. Further play unlocks 'White Mikoto' and 'L', who are alternate versions of Mikoto and M. Every character has their own fighting style with individual abilities and, in most cases, a weapon unique to them. More details about each character and their complexities are learned while playing through the story mode, so I won't spoil it.
The gameplay consists of simple four-button beat 'em-up action, ideally suited and compatible with a classic arcade style control pad. Using the 360 controller instead, you gain the additional (optional) use of the trigger and shoulder buttons in place of some A,B,X,Y button combinations. Players use low, medium, strong and SP basic moves and combine these with the directional pad to access variations and combos. Activating more powerful attacks is done by using the 'burst gauge' (the bar under your health), which fills to 100% as enemies are hit and can also be refilled again to a maximum of 200%, for implementing the more devastating moves, such as 'Phantom Break'.
When you defeat enemies you gain coins and gems that build your EXP to increase your level; there are also breakable objects like bins and crates that also contain food items to refill your health bar. As your levels increase you're given skill points to assign freely in your characters' skill set menu. You can improve attack, defence and speed, and use their skill tree to open up and improve other moves, such as 'double jump' and 'counter burst'; these improvements progressively require a higher number of skill points to upgrade. The game also adopts the rarely used system of 'fighting planes', which will be familiar to anyone who's played the infamously popular Sega Saturn title 'Guardian Heroes'.
Instead of moving your character up and down from foreground to distance, as is more common with most side-scrolling beat 'em-ups, this fighting-plane system essentially consists of lanes, that you and enemies can fight along and jump between freely. In Battle Grounds you use two lanes, which are both flooded with enemies from both ends with each new wave that enters, so it allows for strategic avoidance by switching between lanes when enemies attack. There are five difficulty settings: easy, normal, hard, nightmare and nightmare+; the last three settings are unlocked on completion of the previous before it, so it's all about steady progression with a fairly gradual learning curve. It'd be fair to say you can progress as a cheeky button basher but you'll end up relying more on luck, eventually; it pays to be strategic with your moves in this game and bosses in particular are not forgiving if they can get you into a corner. Overall gameplay is divided into four modes of play:
Story mode – Pretty self explanatory, as this is the only mode where you can play through the story in Battle Grounds. As you progress through each level you're rewarded with an additional piece of plot through character conversations, centred around each stage's end boss fight. This mode can only be played with the original four starting characters.
Arcade mode – This mode allows you to set high scores and clear times, to share on leaderboards. On completion of all stages under the previous difficulty setting (excluding easy, which is already unlocked) you are then able to set competitive scores and times on the next higher difficulty setting. You only have a one-life run though, to complete every stage for the best chance at a high score, and no option of accessing your skill set to improve between stages.
Co-op mode – This is essentially arcade mode but where an additional three players can participate. You can set high scores and clear times on the co-op leaderboards through the same means and, like arcade mode, there is no voice acting or text to communicate any of the story between stages.
Battleground mode: This is the game's versus mode, available to all ten playable characters, once unlocked. Using a fixed camera point, up to four players can compete against each other on one screen in a battle royal. Battleground also registers leaderboard scores but needs a minimum of two players to access.
If you aren't pulled into this game by it's graphics alone, find another game to play. This is one for the old school crowd and they didn't hold back on the style to prove it. Apart from in-game backgrounds and a few fleeting, simply animated cut-scenes, everything in this game is built in pixels made to be seen. Sprites, text, borders, menus, all straight out of the by-gone days of 8 and 16-bit. Each character is a super-deformed (or 'chibi') version of their animated counterpart in the original Phantom Breaker fighting game. Every character has eight different colour customisations to choose from, to avoid confusion between players using the same characters, and always adds a nice personal touch. Fighting visuals are smooth but also pretty stunning, as you get a real sense of intensity when special moves light up the screen and nice lighting effects in darker areas. Backgrounds are simple but have a deep depth of field and contain nice touches of detail in their urban settings, like posters, signs and items in shops and windows. I especially loved spotting the Nintendo ''4DS'' sign, the Club Sega arcade, and a ''Master Donut'' (a reference to the Mister Donut food chain, popular in Japan).
As soon as the opening titles play in this game, you know exactly what you're getting with regards to the sound. The retro theme follows through to the music and incorporates a full chiptune soundtrack throughout. Sound effects during fighting and menu navigation also use tones straight out of 80's gaming and are enjoyable to hear, as you try and remember which old games they remind you of. The overall soundtrack suits this game perfectly and fits every environment you traverse. I even caught myself humming the game's catchy opening theme whilst brushing my teeth a few times. It's the main menu screen tune particularly though, that tugs on the nostalgia strings; with it's sorrowful yet mysterious tone, you could almost be in an old fantasy RPG. Every character has their own voice actor who fully narrates the on-screen text, there are never parts when you are reading without any on-going dialogue. In-keeping with its very evident Japanese animated look, the character voices and narration have all been left in their original Japanese language, with subtitled text. Thankfully no cheesy American dubbing to be heard, for a change!
As previously mentioned, Battle Grounds has local co-op and versus modes for up to four players. These modes are also available for online play and connect to worldwide leaderboards, which you can also filter to just view friends. Leaderboards are filed into three categories for highest scores in arcade, co-op and battleground modes, with further divisions in each for best weekly scores and clear times. There is also an additional downloadable content pack available for 400MP, called the 'Kurisu Pack'. This adds the character Kurisu Makise from the animé, manga and game series Steins;Gate to your roster. This makes her a playable character you can set high scores with in all modes except story, adds an additional 8 achievements (100 gamerscore) and raises the level cap from 50 to 99 for all characters. If you're unsure of purchasing the game without seeing more of it, Live Arcade currently offers free downloads of two trailers, as well as the DLC trailer and the game's animated opening movie to view. More importantly you have the free downloadable demo, which is always the best way for getting a taste of a game and always recommended before purchase.
Negatives first, as these quite drastically changed my rating from what could have initially been a near perfect score (based on my personal tastes). There was one major disappointment I couldn't overlook in this game – no co-op story mode. The real frustration is that it would have been so simple to add, and would have tied-in with the game's story of the four main characters setting off to take down Phantom together. It would have allowed anyone who wanted to play cooperatively and understand what was going on, to do so without playing through the story mode alone first. An in-game tutorial would have also been a welcome addition, instead of just 26 pages of (albeit brief) descriptive how-to-play text; as too would an AI system for a potential single player battleground mode.
A small irritation is the inability to access your skill set between stages in co-op mode, which happens automatically in the story mode, without having to exit to the main menu. The lane system also has it's downside, when huge enemies are in the foreground they obscure the action in the back lane, this makes it especially difficult in co-op, for players to constantly cover the back lane. As is common with most Live Arcade titles, there are no additional save slots on a profile; this can mean a committed solo player who assigns skill points methodically, may become frustrated having to frequently clear them to allow for an even playing field with other participants (unless all character levels are constantly kept the same). The Kurisu Pack also changes the NET version of the game, making a small online community even smaller with those who have it and those who don't – if you want to play online with a friend who's bought it, you have to buy it too, otherwise tough monkeys! Overall the game is much of the same because of the genre, and not everyone is going to commit to it with that level of repetition. However, it's better suited to short bursts of play rather than grinding, as it's an easy game to pick up and therefore return to on occasion; some extra mini-games or challenges would have added a little refreshment is all.
For 800MP (£6.80-ish) this game is well worth it's weight in excellent gameplay though, with heaped helpings of nostalgia and adorable! Also, despite the detail I go into in writing, it has to be clarified that this game radiates simplicity. Everything is easy to understand and navigate, with no infinite button combinations to memorise for every character, that I know puts a lot of people off some fighting games. In fact, tight, responsive controls mean you never feel hindered by delays or convoluted mechanics. The RPG element of upgrading your characters could not be more basic, and skills assigned can be ''released'' at any time to undo or adjust any regretful decisions. The versus mode, online play and leaderboards give this game a fair amount of replay value after completing the story, not forgetting the achieves! I don't think anything can beat the joy though, of fighting waves of insane enemies and challenging boss fights, with cute little chibi sprites.
War changes, but is it worth the price tag?
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