There are always reservations that spring to life when reviewing side-scrolling beat-em ups because these are the types of games that can literally be summarized with a few words: clear every screen. The act of entering an area, pounding on baddies and being awarded points before finally moving to the right and doing it all over again is as mind-numbingly tedious as it sounds. While putting in a quarter at the local arcade to burn a few minutes on this type of game was a fun novelty in the eighties and nineties, the formula has not been a dominant cornerstone of today’s videogame foundation.
This is why it is surprising that Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds winds up being as fun as it actually is. While definitely marred by problems commonly found within the genre and far from a revolutionary entry into the 2D-beat-em-up landscape, Phantom Breaker still hints at moments of excitement thanks to robust controls, gratifying combo-laden combat and appealing retro aesthetics. With a solid catalogue of modes and options and only selling at $10, Phantom Breaker provides competent slivers of entertainment for a respectable price tag.
There is a “narrative” that is meant to serve as the driving force in the game’s brisk but enjoyable story mode, but it is all sorts of ridiculous, kooky nonsense. You pick from a roster of female warriors, and by warriors I mean Japanese teenagers clad in school uniforms and carrying weapons so big that they defy logical proportions. You are then told of a strange entity known as “The Phantom” who has opened a rift between his world and the human world and all sorts of strange creatures are flooding the streets of Japan. It is then up to you to save your kidnapped friends, invade the demonic world of the phantom and do it in for good.
It is nothing short of a lame excuse to beat up an excessive amount of bizarre looking enemies and creatures that come in all shapes and sizes. Pie-throwing bruisers, colorful-looking luchadores, two-headed dragons, robots – just about everything that comes to mind when the words “Japanese weirdness” are uttered. At the very least, the enemy designs are varied, incredibly abstract and unique and you will consistently wonder over what other odd forms of threats lie around the next corner.
The combat in the game, while lacking depth, is momentously satisfying and rhythm based. Taking cues from games like Street Fighter and Tekken, the combat system forces you to employ combos using button presses in correlation with directional movements. From the outset, you have a weak attack, a strong attack, a blocking ability and a special attack mapped onto the face buttons. Pushing the movement stick in a certain direction while initiating a sequence of button presses will likely lead to a spectacular move or combo and chaining these together can lead to some gratifying battle flourishes.
The downside is that most of the combat can quickly devolve into mindless button mashing and there are few enemies that require you to switch up your repertoire of attacks. Thankfully, the boss fights do force you to think quickly on your feet, utilize your blocking ability and pull off death-defying maneuvers or otherwise simply throw in a cog in the boss’s machinery. Playing the game on harder difficulties also forces you to take certain parameters into consideration, thus making the combat feel slightly more tactical and less focused on merely cleaning up one screen after another.
One interesting aspect about the game is its light RPG mechanics. Every time you clear a stage or mode, you’re awarded experience points and when you level up you are given two choices. You can either choose to put points in one of three attributes: strength, defense and speed or you can invest in purchasing abilities from your characters skill tree. These skills will increase the potency of certain moves, beef up defenses or cause your special attacks to dish out more damage. While these are nice touches, you will be hard-pressed to notice any dramatic changes in your characters growth – the way your character handles from one level to another, is more or less completely identical.
What you will quickly notice about the game is its colorful retro aesthetics. The game hearkens back to the 16-bit era of games with a heavily synthesized and 80’s esque-soundtrack, and stylistic use of color palettes and sprites. While this classic look has been done many, many times before within the arcade space, Phantom Breaker still does a commendable job of nailing its retro vibe, which will likely click with those who grew up during the 16-bit era of games.
Phantom Breaker, like many of its beat-em-up contemporaries, should only played in small bursts to avoid repetition. While the game uses some novel attempts to change things up, like introducing bonus stages that forces you to accumulate points under a time limit or otherwise diversify the stage backgrounds, the game sadly loses some of its luster if played in long stretches.
Of course, bringing in a buddy or three through the use of local or online co-op definitely livens up the action, but even playing the game in this form yields its own issues. To put it bluntly, squeezing in four combatants in the already busy stages and with everybody soaring about, pulling off ridiculous combos and causing a ruckus… the game simply becomes too chaotic. Playing cooperatively also mitigates the challenge a little too much, making the co-op suite best suited for no more than two players.
The game’s story mode should take you no more than a few hours to beat and you can either tackle the mode on harder difficulties and with other people or try to survive the relentless arcade mode or simply beat up other players in the battle mode. There is a good selection of both cooperative and competitive modes on offer and seeing how there is a solid roster of characters who you can invest time in getting all the way up to level 50; the $10 price tag is most definitely warranted here.
In the end, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds does not feature the seminal, tightly-crafted fighting mechanics of Street Fighter or the spectacular boss fights from Castle Crashers, but it does provide a handful of hours of side-scrolling, 2D-beat-em-up glee. In spite of a few crippling issues and ham-fisted mechanics, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds still outweighs its flaws with a competent throwback look and feel, gratifying gameplay flow and a strong selection of modes that, all things considered, justifies the asking price of merely $10.