Some of my fondest childhood memories are of collecting up as many ten pence pieces as I could find and going to the local arcades to play all of the latest games. Games like Double Dragon, Bad Dudes Vs Dragon Ninja and Final Fight (amongst many others) occupied vast amount of my childhood, as well as gobbling up plenty of money. Fast forward 30 years, and the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre is still just as popular as it was back then – even if the amount of notable releases has diminished since the rise of 3D gaming and open worlds.
While the 90s saw the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre in decline, in recent years it’s enjoyed something of a slow comeback. Nothing as pronounced as the one enjoyed by the fighting genre after Street Fighter IV‘s release, but the indie scene and the success of Xbox Live, PSN and Steam have ensured that plenty of fresh options are available to fans. Successful franchise revivals such as Double Dragon Neon have impressed, as have the retro-inspired Fist Puncher and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World: The Game. Titles like Guacamelee added a platform/ adventuring element alongside the frantic 2D brawling. All of these, and more, have contributed to breathing new life into this classic genre. Games like these endure because they’re just as fast, just as fun and often just as deceptively difficult as those games released decades ago.
Unfortunately, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, despite its wonderful presentation, can’t compete with those games. Nor is it particularly difficult. In the brief two hours it took to me to complete the story mode, I died exactly once – and this was due to my phone ringing and forgetting to pause the game. By the time I reached the end, Phantom Breaker had already outstayed its welcome.
There are other modes included: arcade, co-op, and versus modes all add a bit more meat to the slender single-player campaign; however, these serve only as slight variations on a theme and offer little real replay value – asking you to simply retread the same levels again and again. Likewise, as is fast becoming the standard in almost every genre, as you play the game you can unlock new skills, with each character having a unique skill tree. But while it’s nice enough to try out a new attack, or enjoy a bit of increased protection, none of the abilities you unlock will significantly change the way that you approach the game.
Boot up Phantom Breakers for the first time, and the initial impression is likely to be positive – it offers a full screen mode (albeit at 1280×720 max resolution), controller support and the ‘how to play’ text guide suggests a good level of combat depth. There’s a decent handful of characters to choose from, featuring different weapons and slightly different play styles (unfortunately you’ll end up playing in exactly the same way despite who you chose) and the bosses you meet along the way can be chosen as playable characters once they’re defeated.
[pullquote]Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds’ bright and colorful graphics are reminiscent of a Manga-inspired version of Scott Pilgrim Vs The World: The Game[/pullquote], which was released a few years ago on both consoles and PC. It has the same retro-pixel approach to graphics (though Phantom Breaker takes its cue from Chibi – a super-deformed artstyle popular in Japanese anime and Manga). The music follows suit, being suitably chip-tune inspired – however you’ll be muting this well before you reach the end credits as it becomes painfully repetitive, as do the very limited and overused sound effects and character squeaks.
Unfortunately most elements to Phantom Breaker either feel half-hearted or broken, whilst features that were considered industry-standard 30 years ago are nowhere to be seen. Defeated enemies drop what appear to be coins, but there’s no shop to spend them in. There are no pick-ups in sight to vary the combat, no items to use along the way, nor any hidden areas to be found.
Initially, the presentation leads you to think that you can move freely around the level, but you can’t – you jump between two separate 2D planes – so combat feels restrictive and disjointed. This is a deliberate design choice on the part of the developers, but it simply serves to further limit an already restrictive genre.
The coins and gems you collect do allow your character to level up at the end of each stage, and for each level gained you can spend experience points on new moves as well as increasing your character’s stats. Unfortunately, because the combat requires so little of the player, most of this activity amounts to nothing more than window dressing.
The combat system features plenty of options: counters, guard-breaks, high and low attacks, specials, even different strengths of attack; but because the enemy A.I. is so poorly programmed, you can simply button mash any combination of buttons to get through them. Worse still, you can actually use a single move to kill virtually every type of enemy and all the bosses – it’s all very much a case of style over substance.
I chose Waka for my first play-through – a staff-wielding girl – but changing to the sword-handling Mikoto afterwards simply revealed the same tactics could be used to succeed, regardless of character chosen. It’s a crying shame; the whole point of offering a varied playable cast is to make them distinctive from each other, and to require a different approach. Sadly, this is something that Phantom Breaker merely pays lip-service too – offering up form, but not function.
Controls for the most part are responsive, but changing lanes feels sticky. You have to wait for an animation to finish before this can be achieved, breaking up any kind of run or hit-chain you may want to accomplish. Switching to the back also zooms in on the action, causing enemies in the front lane to block the view of what is going on (meaning you’ll find you spend more time at the front just so you can actually see what you’re doing). In order to block enemy attacks you must stand completely still – again ruining any sense of rhythm or flow. This is only made worse by lengthy attack animations, which actively work against the player and make input timing feel awkward and ill-judged.
Constantly re-used enemies against generic-looking backgrounds will simply stand there waiting to be hit (think of a 2D version of Dynasty Warriors’ soldiers). The only slight challenge you’ll encounter come from the end of stage bosses which provide a faint glimmer of hope. Bosses counter, block and jump between the two lanes constantly; but these skirmishes end in disappointment as they’re all far too easy to defeat. It’s unfortunate that the option to play in hard mode is unavailable until you’ve completed the game on normal – as this does give slightly more of a challenge. But by the time you actually unlock it, persistent progression means that your original character is overpowered – so it makes little difference to the challenge.
[pullquote]With more time given to improving the enemy A.I., and more attention on developing some of the enemies and boss encounters, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds could have been a great little brawler[/pullquote]. But a beat-em-up that gives a player zero challenge is like a platformer that gives a player poor controls – both are fundamentally broken. To its credit, there is a nightmare and even a nightmare+ difficulty mode which provides more of a challenge – but this means slogging through the entire game several times in order to reach them. So your reward for completing the game is simply to experience more of the same, except with additional HP and damge output gifted to enemies.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds was originally released on the Xbox 360 in 2013, before finding its way to PlayStation Vita in 2014. Due to its ease and simplistic controls, I suspect this game would greatly benefit from being a handheld title. Bite-sized chunks of play time may lessen the repetitive nature of the combat, and there may be may be more of a willingness to beat arcade and story mode on the higher difficulty settings whilst being mobile.
On a PC however, in 2015 – home to an abundance of quality side-scrolling beat-em-ups available at a fraction of the price (including the recent re-release of Double Dragon Trilogy), there really is little reason to pick this up unless you’re a die-hard fan of the genre, and it’s disappointing to see that many of the complaints about the original version of the game haven’t been adressed. The developer had a chance to fix some of the issues which held back the original, but instead they’ve opted more for a straight port. It’s nice to look at, has some great ideas and plenty of spirit; but that’s not enough for Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds to rival its more-accomplished competition.