Reviews

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Review – I Have No Idea What’s Going On, But It’s Fun

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Platforms: Xbox 360, PS Vita, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Mages
Publisher: Degica
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Local 4-player co-op, Local 4-player vs

The first thing I did when offered review code for Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds was begin researching what Phantom Breaker actually was using the magical powers of Google. As it turns out Phantom Breaker is a Japanese fighter released back in 2011 which doesn’t seem to have ever made it to our shores in anything other than import form. It’s a little strange that this spin-off has arrived before its own parent, but then the world can be odd like that. What’s odder is that Battlegrounds, which takes the shape of a side-scrolling brawler, actually arrived on Xbox Live Arcade back in February of 2013 and Vita a few months and has only now just gotten to PC.

The narrative is, quite bluntly put, bollox. Whichever character you opt to play as you are tasked with saving the sister of Mikato from a group of kidnappers. Along the way you’ll be transported to a different realm and have to stop the evil Phantom, who commits the irritating videogame design sin of taking away on your cool powers after the very first level. The plot is minimal, and for someone like myself with no knowledge of the franchise, baffling due to the strange characters and concepts it throws around with impunity. Nothing is ever explained or even justified with the story, so expect to feel confused as big-bad Phantom simply exists without any semblance of context and characters appear to have encountered your chosen avatar before. Meanwhile the dialogue is often laughable, but it must be kept it mind that it was written for an entirely different culture than ours.  Ultimately the narrative serves as nothing more than a paper-thin reason to drive the gameplay, and it seems almost inevitable that players will skip through dialogue in order to get back to the action.

There’s several characters you can play as with more to unlock along the way, with each of them having separate skill tree and a level cap of 50. Toss in the fact that a play through of story mode takes a mere few hours and there’s five different difficulties and you’ve got a game clearly meant to be replayed numerous times, which is why it’s disappointing that each character plays largely just like the others, lessening the desire to replay levels. It would have been nice to see more variation in combat style.

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Obviously as a brawler it’s the combat mechanics that matter, the story taking a back seat to beating up baddies. The basics of combat are formed through light, medium and heavy attacks which can be combined to create simple combos, while a SP button is used to unleash several types of special move. Many of those special moves will have to be unlocked as you progress through the game, as will the most powerful attacks such as the Phantom Breaker. Incoming strikes can be blocked by pressing the appropriate directional key toward the foe, and low attacks are blocked by holding down. A deflect can be done by tapping the special attack button just before an incoming strike connects, while Emergency Mode repels the enemy if you hit the SP button just after you get hit, consuming a portion of the health bar in the process. You can even get some basic air juggles and cancels going on.

The problem is that while the mechanics themselves have depth the style of gameplay on offer rarely presents you with the opportunity to explore that depth, and instead you’ll find yourself button mashing like mad because it’s equally as effective and more suitable. Rather than going up against one or two enemies at a time you face crowds of them who act purely as push-over cannon-fodder. With so many enemies onscreen at any given time attempting to deliberately block an opponents attack is nigh on impossible amidst the flashes of colors and flailing limbs, as is using Reflect. Indeed it’s more likely that you’ll accidentally activate Emergency Mode while trying to fend off attacks, sacrificing a portion of health because it was impossible to differentiate an individual attack within the swirling mass of combat. Special moves and combos can be unleashed with more certainty.

Other frustrations arise from within the combat systems when certain enemies begin to stun-lock you, forcing you into simply sitting there while they continue to deal damage. Certain special moves seem a tad hard to pull off, refusing to work during key moments. Much of the annoyance stems from using the special attack button for not only offensive maneuvers but also defensive ones also which can lead to problems when trying to frantically dispatch a horde of bad guys. The end result is that in combat against  groups button mashing is the strategy of choice, and it proves consistently effective at taking down the hordes.

Everything changes once you enter into a boss fight. Here the one-on-one action allows you to truly use the game’s fighting mechanics to their full potential. Stun locks and insane combos that cannot be stopped mid-flow continue to irritate, but at least you can more fully utilise the different tricks at your disposal. In these moments the game shines and moves from being just an enjoyable button masher to a true brawler, but sadly those moments just aren’t frequent enough to elevate the overall quality.

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You can always take those mechanics and pit them against another person, though. There’s still problems with moves sometimes not registering properly owing to the choice to play offensive and defensive abilities on a single button, but you can get a nice back and forth going. The game supports up to four players locally which is absolutely great to see as brawlers like this are naturally suited to having a few friends round, but it does come with a caveat; online play from the original game hasn’t made it into the port. Sadly this also extends to co-op which can also be played locally with four people, but not online. The developers have stated that cutting the multiplayer was a hard choice but that their was some trouble crafting stable net code. They are “considering” adding multiplayer at a later date, which is PR code for only if the game sells well enough.

Coins, gems and other goodies picked up during a stage are all fed into a surprisingly solid levelling system that lets you spend points on picking up new attacks, such as the powerful Phantom Breaker, and improving your base attributes of speed, strength and defense. Your hard work gets kept, too, so you can play through again on harder difficulties with all your newfound skills intact, or head into another mode like Arcade which strips out all of the story features in favor of just letting you bash bad guys in the face.

Although it is fast becoming stagnant there’s no denying that Phantom Breaker’s retro inspired 16-bit pixellated art-style looks glorious, sporting lovely backgrounds and characters. The music fades into the background which is really what you want with a game of this type, letting you stay focused on the action and hopefully develop a good rhythm.

As a PC port this is a barebones offering in every sense with no graphical options aside from windowed/fullscreen mode. In theory due to the design of the game it should always scale pixel perfectly, meaning that it should look the same at 4k as it does at 720p, but it’s still a strange omission. As for the windowed/fullscreen selection it doesn’t work correctly as the game always launched in windowed mode. But by far the biggest issue is how the developers seemingly have no interest in people playing Phantom Breaker with a keyboard; visit the controls menu and regardless of whether you have a game pad plugged in and you’ll be greeted with a layout of commands for controller, and none for the keyboard, leaving you to aimlessly bang on keys until you eventually figure out what does what. here’s also absolutely no way to rebind the keyboard controls There’s other oddly anti-PC things going on, like how menus must be navigated using the WASD keys and pressing ESC on certain menus doesn’t take you out of them. None of these things are game-breaking, but c’mon, no keyboard controls layout? Really? That’s just lazy.

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Ultimately Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds boils down to a solid, quite fun side-scrolling brawler with flashes of something even better hiding among its crowds of enemies.  With more variety in both the move set of the playable characters and in the enemies themselves, who all mostly feel exactly the same to fight, this could have been even better. As a PC port it’s a let-down, lacking the online play of the original and proper keyboard support.

The Good:
+ Looks pretty.
+ Some great mechanics.
+ Nice levelling system.

The Bad:
– No way to rebind keyboard controls, or even see them.
– Combat mechanics get covered up by masses of enemies.
– Very little character variation.

The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
Absolutely worth playing. The mindless carnage is a hoot, and when you get stretch your combat skills it becomes even better. Just go in with suitable expectations.

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