Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is comfortable in its own skin. The side-scrolling beat-’em-up from Mages and 5pb knows it’s going to come across as very Japanese, so it just embraces it. The result is a game akin to a sugar rush; there’s not a whole lot of nutrient-rich depth here, but it’s certainly fun as a complement to a healthy gaming diet.
Battle Grounds is actually a spin-off of a game called Phantom Breaker, but that title has been in localization limbo for a while now, so we’re getting this game first. It’s fine, as the premise isn’t so crucial. You play as one of four anime-stereotype warrior girls, trying to stop a big evil powerful phantom from being all big and evil.
The original fighting game, Phantom Breaker, was set for release last February from publisher 7sixty, but was delayed. And delayed again. Its fate is still up in the air, but 7sixty has been fairly honest about how it doesn’t see a retail release as favorable. In the meantime, Mages/5pb is putting out Battle Grounds on its own.
Mages clearly holds some affinity for the Saturn classic Guardian Heroes (which itself got an XBLA port recently), as Battle Grounds uses a very similar line-based system. You hit the left bumper (or down twice) to switch back and forth between the two to take on enemies in both. With games like this, it works best to move with the D-pad, and… this is an Xbox 360 game, so just be prepared for the controller-dependent consequences.
The game also uses similarly-detailed sprites (though with a “cute” aesthetic) for most of the characters and opponents. All the foreground elements use sprites, and are combined with backgrounds that seem to use a hybrid of pixel styling, cel shading and three-dimensional surfaces. The bright colors and cel shading give it just a hint of The Simpsons, but with the layered action, it has a feel all its own.
Okay, here goes: there’s the Phantom, who is evil, but also gave the girls their powers. Each girl has somewhat different motivations for fighting back, but all get stripped of the power after the first level and sent to an alternate world, and have to regain strength on the way to get to the evil boss, take him down and get home.
The audio is similarly retro-loving. Chiptunes are the order of the day, and characters use short voice clips for all actions. (Thankfully, voices, sound effects and music all get separate volume sliders in the menu, so you can tone down the yells when they get grating.) It all feels very saccharine, and works well to tie together Battle Grounds‘ aesthetic.
The levels are, for the most part, set in versions of actual Japanese locations. The first is based on the geek-haven Akihabara district of Tokyo, and it recreates many of the notable landmarks in a recognizable, but spoof-laden, way. Eventually, you do get to weirder locations, but all the while, Mages is embracing genre tropes. Want a time-based bonus challenge between levels? Want a segment in which you’re falling through the air and just moving back and forth to collect things? Want an elevator sequence? You’ll get all three.
Each character collects experience to gain levels and earn points to spend on abilities. These skill trees aren’t particularly varied between characters, but there’s still some choice to be made. You can raise your three stats (attack, defense and speed), or you can spend points to get more abilities, like combo moves, dash attacks and extra jumps.
In addition to the four main characters, you can unlock four others for play in most games (seemingly everything but single-player Story Mode). Among them? The lone playable male. Each has to be leveled up again, though some may see that as a nice excuse for more playthroughs.
Battle Grounds supports up to four players online or off for its Co-Op mode, which essentially strips out the storytelling and pits players through the stages in order. This mode also unlocks stages and difficulty levels, if you’d rather have your whole experience to be with friends. That said, we found that the balance definitely favors fewer players; with four, there are definitely large segments of time in which you have one person at each corner, swiping away at the foes that are almost entering the screen.
Even with four, the best part of Battle Grounds is the boss battles. As you’d expect from a game with a fighter legacy, it has foes with many moves and techniques, and generally stays away from the sorts of bosses that are just big and evil. You’ll still have to fend off minions while the battle’s going, but sometimes it works out best to just take out the leader and watch as the rest fall automatically.
In that vein, there’s a head-to-head arena mode, which also plays up to four online or off. Since each character sports many basic moves and a few different specials, there’s enough depth in the combat to warrant this inclusion, and fighting game fans will probably want to check it out. There’s another few characters to unlock, and these can be used in most modes and feature comparable move sets. Once you get them, there’s a bit more variety for versus play.
If you’re a fan of geeky Japanese things like anime and retro games, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds does all it can to make you happy. It breaks down a bit with more players, and it doesn’t have a crazy amount of replay value if you don’t like scoreboard-chasing, but those won’t stop you from having a bit of slashing fun.
Pros: Fun retro-happy aesthetic, self-aware story, large move sets
Cons: D-pad heavy on the wrong console, lots of button mashing