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Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Review: A Hidden Brawler Gem
What happens when an indie studio makes an arcade-style spin-off game to a popular title that was never released in North America? You end up with Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up featuring four Japanese girls on a quest through Tokyo to save their friend from a sinister foe.
It’s clear that developer Division2 was going for a very niche market when creating the story and characters of Battle Grounds. The four protagonists are all typical anime girls complete with Japanese voice acting over text boxes, and the story is full of anime tropes, but if that doesn’t bother you, you’ll have a fun time with this crazy tale of cyborg businessmen, the Demonsphere, and a schoolgirl-kidnapping villain.
But it’s not the strange story that stands out. The action is this game’s strong point. Featuring fun and fluid (and sometimes confusing) combat, Battle Grounds shines strictly as a 2D brawler. The mechanics and style feel a lot like other arcade hits like Castle Crashers, Scott Pilgrim, and Guardian Heroes. What separates this game is that the fighting takes place on two different horizontal planes or “lines,” as the game likes to call them. With a quick button press, players can switch between lines to fight different enemies. However, as fast and fun as the combat is, it often felt like a button-masher to me. The lack of in-game tutorials (learning how to play is left to a 26-page text guide in the Options menu) made mastering the combat difficult, especially when characters’ skill trees come into play.
After dying or completing any of the eight short stages in the game, your character will level up. After leveling, you’re allowed to spend earned points to give yourself new abilities or up your attack, defense, or speed stats. By the time you reach the cap at level 50, you still have to choose between expanding your skill tree or upping your stats; there’s no way to max out everything on one character, which is where I think Division2 dropped the ball. After completing the campaign (which only took me three hours at most), I was already nearly at level 50, giving me no incentive to replay the game on a harder difficulty with the same character. By the time you get the most powerful moves the game has to offer, your character is capped and you’ll feel no need to continue using her. Allowing characters to become maxed out in terms of power and skills would have added much more to Battle Grounds’ replay value. At least the game provides the option to redistribute your points at any time at no penalty, allowing for quick customization and experimentation.
Another problem I faced is that when I was choosing new skills for my character, I often found myself not knowing what the skills I was purchasing actually did, only that by buying them I was slowly becoming more powerful. By the end of the game, I had gotten the hang of some moves, but others I wasn’t even sure I was activating. Had the developers added short tutorials for any newly purchased skills, this problem could have been easily avoided.
Despite the minor setbacks of a lack of in-game tutorials, confusing skill trees, and an incredibly short story, the game is still very fun to play. What adds to the entertainment is that other modes are available besides the regular campaign, such as an arcade mode that tasks players with beating high scores on stages, a co-op mode that allows four players to team up online or locally, and a versus option appropriately called Battle Grounds. The arcade and co-op modes particularly add a good amount of replay value to the game, and the option to go head-to-head with other players is available to those who want it. Unfortunately, players who purchase the optional DLC character cannot play online with those who haven’t. In my time with the game, I couldn’t even find a single person through matchmaking to play online with. Either no one is playing Battle Grounds, or I’m the only one without the DLC.
Further adding to the replayability is the ability to unlock hidden characters. After beating the game on the Hard difficulty, players can unlock a plethora of new characters to play with, most of them being bosses you face throughout the campaign. Each one is more than just a palette swap, featuring his or her own style of combat and even unique dialogue throughout the story. To max out every character, players will have to beat the game plenty of times. Besides that, players can also try their hand at the intimidating Nightmare and Nightmare+ difficulties, sure to give more hardcore players a run for their money.
What Battle Grounds attempts to do, it does well. Division2 has created a charming and entertaining brawler with a story as strange and interesting as its name implies, but it fails in places a game such as this should not. Casual players may be turned off not far into the game simply because they don’t know how to play the game, and even more seasoned gamers will likely take to Internet forums and message boards in an attempt to master the controls, something a game like this doesn’t call for. The inability to play online with others depending on whether or not they have the DLC is a bummer as well, but couch co-op is just as great for a game like this. If you enjoy solid beat-‘em-ups and aren’t turned off by a silly narrative or slow learning curve, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is worth a look.