Nowadays, a lot of gamers are salivating for the past. They want games to be like they used to be, while being fresh and new at the same time. While that is all good and well, it is also a double-edged sword. It sometimes works out, but you can’t always have the best of both worlds without losing a little in translation. Thus is the story of Division2’s new Phantom Breaker spin-off for XBLA, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds. The game is entertaining and true to the traditional arcade side-scroller style, but ultimately misses the mark of its acclaimed predecessors.
Battle Grounds is a side-scrolling beat ’em up in the same vein as Streets of Rage, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade, and the more recent Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. The game doesn’t deviate much from the beat ’em up formula. You choose from a selection of 4 characters adapted from the original Phantom Breaker and move through the levels beating up android-like pedestrians as you ultimately approach a boss fight at the end.
The game does succeed in making gameplay exhilarating…..for the first few hours. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely enjoyed the combat, but with nothing to mix-up the formula, it soon became stale and repetitive. The only noticeable difference from level to level was the size and number of enemies. This just made the screen more crowed and didn’t really add anything new.
On the subject of enemy AI, they were almost all pushovers. There were times when it felt like I was driving a tank through a blanket fort. I was clearing out 20-30 enemies in just a few seconds. I felt that this was one factor in the staleness of the gameplay. There didn’t seem to be a lot of challenge, and in a game with a premise as simple as this one, there needs to be some sort of challenge. Now when I say add a challenge, I don’t mean just throw in a boss battle with a massively overpowered enemy at the end of every stage to compensate for the overall simplicity of the rest of the game. Did that seem overly specific? Well, that may be because that’s exactly what Battle Grounds does. As soon as the second stage, I reached the boss at the end only to be completely obliterated within seconds. Now I admit I am not the best at fighting-style games, but this was not as simple as a lack of player skill. This was a matter of my character, having only just gained the ability to double jump, facing a character who could freeze time at will and deliver a beatdown at normal speed, leaving me helpless to defend myself. I like a challenge as much as the next player, but overpowered AI is more of a game-breaker than a challenge.
Controls are also a bit of a mess. Buttons are not at all clear about what they do. Some even do different things at random times. For example, the left bumper is used to switch between the foreground and background, but it doesn’t always respond, and sometimes pressing down on the control stick will make you switch. The same is true for jumping. There are times when pushing up on the control stick will make you jump, and sometimes pressing the A button will make you jump. This doesn’t really ruin the gameplay, but it does become very frustrating in those complicated battles.
The final gameplay element that had its ups and downs, was the leveling system. I appreciated the rapid level advancement because it added a lot to the combat and movement aspect of the gameplay, but I had a problem with the level-tree itself. I know that Division2 didn’t have to give us a leveling system at all, but requiring movement through 2 branches just to gain the ability to double jump or slide seems a little ridiculous, especially when bosses can freeze time at will. It’s a small complaint, but a complaint nonetheless.
This is short and sweet. The story revolves around 4 main characters from the original Phantom Breaker (Mikoto, Waka, Itsuki, and Yuzuha), and sends them on a journey to save their friend from the evil Phantom. Each stage adds information about the Phantom and his servants. The story gets a little farfetched at times, like when you are transported randomly to an alternate dimension without your powers. It is interesting, but didn’t really add to the overall story arch. The ninja-like schoolgirl heroines were likable and fierce and the bosses had interesting characteristics, but it was a forgettable story overall.
Remember that overpowered time-freezer? Yeah, she is is the actual worst...
Visuals and Soundtrack
The traditional arcade elements are all here from the very start. From the 8-bit title screen and menu to the classic “Continue?” screen, gamers who loved hanging out at the arcade with their quarters until closing time will feel right at home. It is not as pixel-happy as Scott Pilgrim or as polished as Castle Crashers, but it finds the happy medium that is quite appealing to the eye.
The soundtrack, though, is chiptune paradise. Just like Scott Pilgrim, the NES-style bleeps and bloops are arranged in poppy, driving melodies that make you want to hack ‘n’ slash the night away. The soundtrack does tend to feel a little “sugary” at times, which is understandable since the game revolves around an all-female cast, but it never becomes so sugary that it makes your taste buds, or ear drums, bleed. It will keep you bouncing no matter how many times you are frozen by a boss and obliterated with a demon claw.
When it comes right down to it, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a fan service. It’s a service to fans of the original Phantom Breaker, definitely, and a service to the lovers of arcade side-scrollers and the like. Fans of the original with feel right at home. The characters are faithful to the original and the whole thing fells fairly similar. Fans of arcade side-scrollers will like the familiarity. Some will love the visuals and some will adore the chiptune soundtrack. That being said, many will pass on this title. It is not a mind-blowingly awesome title, but it isn’t horrible either. The little things just seem to add up over time and change this title from a must-play to a “Eh, if I have time” choice.
I can't even pretend to know what's going on here.