Back in 2011, a 2D fighting game called Phantom Breaker was released in Japan, and garnered a bit of a cult following, as many small-time fighting games tend to do. This made Phantom Breaker Battle Grounds, a 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em up, possible. That released worldwide on the Xbox Live Arcade in 2013, and now it’s coming to the Vita.
The story for Battle Grounds is typical for a beat ‘em up. Someone has been kidnapped, and you must rescue them. Nice and simple. Except from there the story gets crazy and nonsensical. In fact, no matter how much you care about the story, you won’t understand it because a lot of the dialogue that expounds the goings-on simply makes zero sense.
Thankfully, no one plays a beat ‘em up for the story, so we can kind of ignore that. However, I have to add that aside from the lack of story, there is no introduction or easing into the game. I guess that comes from the story mode being a total of 7 stages, but still, giving the player a 16-page how-to-play option on the main menu is not the way to go. It would’ve been relatively easy to have added a simple pop up text or something for the first few rooms to give you the basic information.
Now let’s talk gameplay. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by recent 16-bit-like beat ‘em ups (I’m looking at you, Scott Pilgrim), but I felt that this game was severely lacking in the gameplay department. Battle Grounds uses a simple fighting system, with square, triangle and circle being light, medium, and strong attacks, respectively. This leaves X to function as special attacks for each character.
Unfortunately, each character feels just about the same. This isn’t a terrible thing, necessarily, and the special attacks do offer variety between characters. However, the gameplay ends up being supremely repetitive, and combos are virtually non-existent. That is, your combo is essentially mashing square, then triangle, then circle, without so much as thinking about it. And while special attacks add a bit of spice, they are either enough to single-handedly destroy the game, or are virtually useless. Take your pick.
That’s not to say that the game isn’t initially entertaining. I did have fun going through the game the first time with Mikoto. But when I tried to play through it again as Waka, I found myself bored. It was practically exactly the same game, combos and all. The difference was that Waka felt like she had a slightly larger attack range. My answer to that was to build her stats differently.
Yeah, that’s right, Battle Grounds offers character progression! You can upgrade Attack, Defense, and Speed as you go, as well as pour your points into a skill tree. Before you get too excited, however, let me mention that it barely matters. Yes, upgrading your stats is nearly a necessity to tackle high level enemies, and the skill tree adds little bonuses like double jumps or lengthened combos. Except, it doesn’t improve the monotonous gameplay. Even when I built Mikoto for attack and Waka for speed, the game felt the same. I didn’t even need to change strategies.
When I got bored with the story mode, I figured I’d check out the multiplayer. I thought maybe getting some action in with other players, whether versus or co-op, would at least be different. I wasn’t wrong, per se. Multiplayer turned out to be a DMV simulator where I waited to be picked to play. For two hours. I gave up after the first 20 minutes of waiting in an empty room, but left my Vita on, just to see if I’d find something. I didn’t. Multiplayer in this game is utterly empty, so unless you get friends to play it with you, don’t expect to have fun online.
Now, for all these gripes, I have to admit the game got a number of things right. First off, it looks stunning. The throwback 16-bit style looks and runs absolutely beautifully here. The backgrounds are colorful and exciting, and the character models all have very fluid movements and are just as rich. Too, no matter how much chaos is happening on screen, you’ll never find any hiccups in frame rate or anything like that—the game runs great.
Battle Grounds also alleviated one of the biggest annoyances I’ve had with 2D beat ‘em ups. Going back to Scott Pilgrim, I distinctly remember being annoyed when I would go to hit an enemy, and be slightly off target on the up/down plane. Figuring out where the right placement on that plane was could be a pain occasionally. It was nothing game breaking, but it did annoy me.
Battle Grounds takes care of that by eliminating that plane entirely. Instead, this game works on two tracks, a front track and a back track, that you can switch between at will. The enemies operate on the tracks, too, so it’s easy to know where you need to be when you want to hit something. It streamlines that aspect. Unfortunately, the game didn’t make use of its full potential there by adding some crazy button combos. It would be easy to focus on comboing enemies if you knew they were definitely right in front of you.
All told, I wouldn’t recommend Battle Grounds as a full-on game, but it is a fun time waster. The battles get boring and repetitive too quickly to entertain you for long, and that in turn ends up meaning your time is better spent elsewhere. While the game looks and runs great, the gameplay just lacks too much.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds was reviewed using a code provided by 5pb. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.