The tale of Phantom Breaker is interesting, if also unfortunate.
Phantom Breaker was originally an anime-styled fighting game — a la BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena — with innovative mechanics, slated to come out last year. However, publishing issues have kept it in limbo to the point where nearly all hope has been lost. These complications have not held back its digitally released spinoff, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, which transplants some of the original fighting game's systems into a 2-D side-scrolling brawler, with mixed results.
The first thing players will notice is that Battle Grounds has a highly stylized, faux-8-bit aesthetic, much like Scott Pilgrim: The Game. Pixels abound, all of the characters are cute, well-designed female avatars hailing from Phantom Breaker proper, and the enemies are comical in their appearance and animations. The music is unabashedly chiptune and just as bouncy as the visuals. There's also a simple and cheesy anime story line about getting back a kidnapped girl and protecting the world from an evil phantom of darkness. While each character has a story that plays out as they go through the stages, it never intrudes too much into the core action, and the plots range from lighthearted to mildly melodramatic.
As a game, though, Batlegrounds is a lot more complicated than its appearance and story let on. Note that I said "complicated" rather than "deep" — there's a difference that we'll get to later. This game boasts experience, level-up and upgrade systems, and multiple characters with varied move sets. It also requires frequent usage of advanced techniques that rely on timed button presses, yielding either ultimate defense or carnage-dealing attacks to crowds of enemies at once. Due to the involvement of Guardian Heroes alumni in the development process, there is also a mechanic where your character jumps between three horizontal planes instead of utilizing standard vertical movement, which better accommodates the fighting-game-style inputs of Phantom Breaker.
With these systems in place, players can take full advantage of the differing play styles inherent to a fast ninja girl, a hammer-wielding maid, a gun-wielding time-traveler (if you bought the DLC), and more. The aforementioned level-up system allows for gradual upgrades of base attack/defensive stats, acrobatic maneuvers and special moves, so in time, that ninja girl will be able to double-jump from a super-powered stance, teleport across the screen, and combo a crowd of enemies into oblivion.
So far, so good. For people who are into straightforward retro-styled brawlers, Battle Grounds proves to be incredibly inviting at first glance. On paper, this title seems to have everything a well-designed brawler should have in 2013. Unfortunately, once one starts actually playing it, things feel a little off.
The character-development experience I described a couple of paragraphs ago pretty much only applies to the single-player mode. If you're playing co-op, things get even more complicated. You can't level up without finishing a stage or dying. You can't upgrade your characters without backing out of the game entirely, and then passing around a single controller. This completely breaks the flow of the game if you have a party going, and in the face of titles like Scott Pilgrim: The Game for which this is a non-issue, we're already in "unacceptable" territory.
However, regardless of modes, there's the problem of the mechanics. Go into the instructions, and you'll find that there are just too many of them, and they've been documented haphazardly in Engrish and requiring obscure, overlapping inputs. Furthermore, even when memorized, none of the rewards gained by following the game's mechanics feel as if they're worth the trouble. They're required to barely survive, but they're not very appealing or flashy. They're not fun. They're work.
This also wreaks havoc on the learning curve, especially in co-op. Bring a few neophytes into the game, and you'll all wonder why the first boss is kicking your butts over and over again. Even after we learned how to deal with her by using the defensive systems at our disposal, never has a gaming party been deflated so fast, or to such an extent. We were too tired from fighting the game to have fun fighting enemies anymore.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a serviceable beat-'em-up, which is always welcome. However, it bears the cruel irony of being far more fun in single-player than multiplayer — a backward design for its chosen genre. If you plan to go solo, by all means, pick this up, level up your characters, have fun with their stories, and have a grand old time. If you want to play co-op, though, exercise caution; multiplayer brings to light far too many unfortunate flaws that will exercise the patience of most players. There are better, more accessible and more fun brawlers on Xbox Live Arcade, but once you're done with those, it still wouldn't hurt to give this a shot, so long as you know what you're getting into.
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