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February 2023

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Mages Inc.
Release Date: July 23, 2015

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PS4 Review - 'Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive'

by Brian Dumlao on Jan. 12, 2016 @ 2:30 a.m. PST

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a cooperative action game for up to four players. Dash around the screen, defeat enemies, raise your levels, assign skills and enjoy head-to-head fights.

Phantom Breaker originally started in Japan as a fighting game for the Xbox 360 in 2011. It was also released in arcades with an updated version in 2013, and an even more updated version of that game hit both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 that same year. For one reason or another, it never left the country. The beat-'em-up spin-off, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, did make it out on Xbox Live Arcade that year before arriving a year later on the PS Vita. After the title showed up on the PC in early 2015, PS4 owners got a chance at the brawler with an updated version titled Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive.

There exists a parallel world where demons rule the land. Led by a being only known as Phantom, they invade the human world. However, a quartet of female warriors led by the-sword wielding Mikoto has come to stop them. To turn the tide in their favor, Phantom kidnapped Mikoto's sister and took her to his dimension. Even at the risk of losing their powers, Mikoto and her friends — the Naginata-bearing priestess Waka, the maid Itsuki with her hammer of justice and the ninja Yuzuha — travel to the parallel world to rescue the girl.

At first glance, Battle Grounds Overdrive follows the genre basics. You walk left and right across environments beating up anyone who gets in your way. The enemies vary a bit as far as attacks go; some throw projectiles and other can grab you, but for the most part, lots of them act as fodder for your weapons. Though the game is missing some standard things like enemy weapons that you can pick up and temporarily use, it does allow you to pick up random food items for health, and you can beat up some environmental objects (e.g., trash cans) to get them. In short, if you're familiar with how beat-'em-ups function, you'll immediately be at home here.

The first notable thing about the mechanics is how it borrows heavily from its fighting game source. You have three different attack buttons that cover the light, medium and heavy types that fighting games typically employ. You also have a button dedicated to special moves, which can be used in conjunction with directional movements. You can duck, which no brawler lets you do; you can block moves; and you can dash to advance and retreat. Parrying is also in the game, as are guard breaks, so you can punish those who constantly block. There's a considerable amount of depth to the fighting system that makes this exciting enough that even button mashers will appreciate it.

The next thing you'll notice is how the game handles the action. A typical brawler usually gives you some free range in movement as you and enemies move up and down a tilted plane. Here, the game is almost like a pure side-scroller since you only have two planes to move from, with a button press handling the switching between them. It may seem limiting at first, but there are a few benefits. For starters, the fighting mechanics work well in this system, since you can't mess up by accidentally moving to other planes. The containment of entities in each plane also means that strikes are sure to hit their targets instead of whiffing due to a slight change in positioning. As such, the action is more concentrated since you don't have to worry about getting in the right place before attacking. Despite this, the game still gives enemies the opportunity to trap you with endless projectiles or surrounding you by stronger foes, so it's super difficult to move to the other plane.

Finally, Battle Grounds Overdrive uses a nice little leveling up system to give your character a sense of progress. XP is gained differently here, as the act of beating up enemies and bosses actually nets you nothing. Instead, their bodies spout red gems that need to be collected to gain XP. Each level you gain is translated into points, which can be applied to your character in a few ways. You can use them to increase stats like attack power, defense and speed. You can also use them to fill up a skill tree to give you more moves, like higher jumps, more powerful special attacks and more combos. Both sections are completely malleable in that you can move points around even after you commit them, and you can completely re-spec your character without penalty. One good thing about the leveling system is that it also transfers to other modes and playthroughs, so you can finish the Story in easy or normal mode and take on higher difficulty levels with your skills intact.

As a single-player game, this works very well. Stages are long enough with barely any sections where nothing is happening, providing constant opportunities to mash buttons and thoughtfully execute attacks. Even with the new moves, the regular enemies and bosses provide a good challenge, so you may need to spend some time grinding to level up and conquer the more difficult fights. The game itself is a decent length for a brawler, but the inclusion of multiple difficulty levels and loads of extra characters to unlock and level up means that fans will have plenty to do before they can say they've completed it all. Though this iteration doesn't have new characters or stages, it does have an increased enemy count that  is significant enough to affect leveling in a positive way; you'll reach a much higher character level when you beat the Story mode than if you had done the same on other systems.

Multiplayer is where brawlers like this usually shine, and for the most part, that rings true. With four players, the game can get absolutely chaotic as bodies are flying everywhere and the spoils litter the screen. There is no friendly fire option available, so you won't beat up your allies, which would be an all-too-common occurrence considering the on-screen mayhem. You have the benefit of resurrecting your fallen allies at any time, so that's always a bonus, especially once you get further into the game or decide to try it on the higher difficulty levels.

Having said that, the move to multiplayer brings up some odd game design choices. The story is completely absent here, so if you start multiplayer with friends before going through Story mode, you'll have no context for some of the stuff that's happening in the game. Also, unlike Story mode, you'll start the game at level one instead of being fully powered up, so the prologue stage is much tougher than expected unless you choose to level up characters prior to entering co-op. The enemy count also doesn't get scaled up when you stack the game with more players, so leveling up can take longer than when playing solo, forcing you to grind as a team to have a fighting chance as the game progresses. As for distributing perks related to XP, only the first player controls this, so the controller has to be passed around if everyone wants to make their own decisions on how their character should evolve.

Arcade mode simply lets you go through Story mode again but with a bigger emphasis on points instead of progress. Cut scenes are gone from this mode, so it can go by at a faster clip. In addition to the aforementioned co-op mode, there's also Battleground mode, which allows up to four people the ability to fight against one another. The two planes of movement and addition of fighting game principles in a beat-'em-up make this more engaging than other brawlers, but it still can't match the fun of other four-player versus titles on the system.

Battle Grounds Overdrive features online play for Battleground and Co-op modes, but the experience is wildly different. If you're looking for online games for the former, you're completely out of luck since no one seems to run them. There are players running a few co-op sessions, but the community is so small that you're better off scheduling friends to meet online instead of relying on strangers. Unless you happen to find the server when it's still in the lobby, you can't jump in to a game that's in progress, and with so few games running during the review session, we can't judge the title's online performance.

Graphically, the game will charm those in love with pixel art. The characters, both enemy and ally alike, are rendered in a style that can be best described as a higher-resolution version of a Sega Saturn 2D game, with black lines outlining lots of detail and a distinct color gradient to each pixel. The animation, however, is extremely fluid to the point where even the idle animations are mesmerizing. Elsewhere, the backgrounds have received more attention. There's a bit of light bloom on some of the ground objects, and the backdrops look much cleaner than the previous version. The increase in enemy density is impressive simply because performance isn't impacted.

From a sound perspective, it matches the aesthetic well. The enhanced 16-bit chiptune soundtrack perfectly evokes the vibe of classic brawlers with a high tempo beat. It isn't quite at the level of something like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but it is very pleasing to the ears. Sound effects hit with the right amount of oomph, and nothing in the arsenal sounds weak. Voices are minimal outside of cut scenes, but they're rather good. They're all in Japanese, so the lines sound fine even if some of them can be a bit goofy to read.

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive is a solid brawler that gets a little bit of a boost on the PS4 simply because the system doesn't yet have a comparable brawler. Though it can be more technical due to the inclusion of some fighting game mechanics, the brawler is simple enough for button mashers to grasp. The increased enemy count ensures that action is constant, and the leveling system makes you want to play through the story multiple times. It stands better as a single-player game than a multiplayer one, and it is certainly a better couch co-op game than an online one because of the almost-absent community. If you want classic brawling action, this is a good one to check out.

Score: 7.5/10

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