A pocket brawler for you and your friends.
Normally, popular fighting games get spin-off titles. Sometimes this can be a cross-over game, like Marvel vs. Capcom, or Street Fighter X Tekken. Other times it’s a different genre entirely; such as Puzzle Fighter or Samurai Showdown RPG. I don’t remember Phantom Breaker ever becoming popular enough, to deserve a spin-off game. I’ll let it slide though, since this spin-off game is in my favorite genre, the beatemup. This game also shares ties with my favorite beatemup of all time, Guardian Heroes. It’s like the developer 5pb is after my own heart.
In the nightmare world, lives the inter-dimensional man of mystery known only as Phantom. He seeks to regain his powers of darkness, by manipulating others. His latest scheme involves the abduction of Nagi. Her older sister Waka is none too thrilled about this heinous act. With the help of Mikoto, Itsuki, and Yuzuha, Waka will fight through legions of foes in her quest to rescue Nagi. Phantom’s underlings Cocoa, M, and Infinity, will do their best to make life difficult for the heroines. This would make a lot more sense if the original Phantom Breaker saw release outside of Japan. Oh well, you’re not supposed to think too much when playing a beatemup. Your job is to run from left to right (and vice-versa) while clobbering everyone in your way.
From the outset, four playable characters are available. Each of the four girls fits their archetype and play-style well. Mikoto is the Ryu/Ken of the group. Her sword-attacks are basic yet effective. Itsuki enjoys pounding cretins with her hammer. She’s all about the raw-power, but she also has a few moves for when maneuverability matters. Yuzuha is a ninja-schoolgirl which is pretty self-explanatory. Waka the shrine-maiden is similar to Mikoto, but with some more unique attacks. Basic moves such as combos, down-stabs, and throws are available to everyone. All of the playable characters can also level up. They’ll receive points to either strengthen their stats or learn new abilities. The burst gauge is necessary for performing super moves. These can include improved versions of special moves, supers, and a mode known as overdrive. Overdrive slows all of the enemies down, while giving a dramatic boost to the player’s abilities. In a nod to titles like the aforementioned Guardian Heroes, everyone can shift between planes. This is necessary to avoid some attacks, or get a moment to breathe.
More often than not however, there’s going to be one move in every character’s arsenal that will see the most usage. For Itsuki, it’s her down + XA move. This is an EX-special that strikes the ground around her. This lifts the enemies up, then Itsuki follows with a devastating flip-attack. Even in a beatemup, balance is necessary. Having overpowered moves such as this one readily available, negatively affect this game’s level of depth. Still, there are rarely any situations, where you’ll feel forced to stick to one move exclusively. Don’t feel too bad, if you abuse the cheapest moves during the boss-fights. Chances are they’ll do the same to you, if they get the opportunity. Throws are also extremely useful, because they have a massive range and will work on any enemy, no matter their size. To add to this, enemies can also be thrown out of attacks, and even multiple foes can be grabbed at the same time.
The regular minions are varied and strange. Early on you’ll beat up otaku warriors and ganguro princesses. Afterwards you’ll face pie-throwing fatties. Then it’s demons that control the land & air, killer robots, evil shrine maidens, and even a cyclops army. While most of these grunts don’t have a wide assortment of moves, they make up for it by offering their own unique methods of attack. The lowest on the totem pole will punch or kick when you get close, while tougher foes will choose to attack from afar, or have armor to absorb your blows. Overwhelming odds are also a constant in this game. It’s important to take advantage of defensive and evasive maneuvers. The ability to create space, between you and your adversaries, can be more important than any super move.
Most of the bosses in Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds, behave similarly to the main characters. This means they’re capable of the same moves and tactics. They’re also prone to using their overdrive to ruin your day. The boss-fights are the hardest parts of this game, and they can be very frustrating when you’re under-leveled. Certain moves, such as Waka’s dashing special, are absurdly effective on bosses. I’ve defeated almost all of them solely by using Waka’s dashing throw loop. It’s a cheap method for winning, but when the alternative is getting sucked into M’s spinning vortex, or Cocoa’s berserker barrage, I’m alright with being cheap.
Another way to even the odds, without relying on unblockables, is to call for the help of some friends. Whether it’s on the couch or around the world, this game supports up to four players. There are a few unfortunate caveats however. In co-op mode, players don’t get the opportunity to improve their stats, in-between stages or after a game over. More distressingly, the net-code isn’t good. It’s fine on great connections, but if somebody with a sub-par connection is hosting, there’s very noticeable input lag. At least this game doesn’t require difficult commands; practically all of the moves are a single directional input and button-press away. Also, when playing cooperatively, players can revive their fallen comrades. This game can also be played competitively in four-player brawls. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to participate in a match though. This is taking into account all of the abusable and overpowered moves, as well as the possibility of host advantage.
Rounding out the feature-set is the arcade mode, unlockable characters, and additional difficulties. The arcade mode is targeted towards the hi-score players. There are no continues, and players fight through the game solely for that coveted leaderboard position. Getting the high score is almost entirely combo-centric. As the hits pile up, enemies cough up more valuable coins. The additional playable characters are very nice. These rivals enjoy all of the same characteristics as the main cast, while also enjoying their own move-sets. The harder difficulties don’t really change the game much, aside from giving higher-level players more of a challenge. There aren’t any new enemies, nor are there situations where stronger enemies are fought earlier on. Instead it’s more like everyone got a stat-boost and slightly better reaction-time, which is a little disappointing.
Recently, DLC was made available for this game. This package includes a new playable character by the name of Kurisu. She researches neurology. Naturally she fights using lasers, flame-throwers, and explosives. Her most devastating move is the dash n grab special. This is an ultra-powerful throw, which obliterates anyone unlucky enough to be trapped in the corner. She’ll also toss banana peels for her enemies to slip on. I suppose if it works, it works. The DLC also boosts the level cap to 99, so that everyone can max out their stats and abilities. This is another reason why I’d avoid the competitive mode, since maxed out characters have a distinct advantage. Plus the level cap boost reeks of “pay to win”, a gaming philosophy I’ll have nothing to do with. Still, Kurisu is fun to play as, and the DLC gives everyone more of a reason to play the nightmare difficulty, so it’s not too bad.
Overall, Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds is one of the strongest entries in the beatemup genre, as far as XBLA is concerned. It lacks the refinement of a classic from the 90s, but it offers enough content and replay-value, to satisfy anyone who can appreciate a good brawler.