Back in the early days of video games, conventional side-scrolling brawler games like Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe and Final Fight were all the rage. The reason being was that they were easy to learn and fun as all get out to play. The gameplay was simple; just brawl your way through the stages while collecting food items for health and loot items to boost your score. If you are feeling nostalgic and are looking for something that has all of the fun and action of the early days of video games with an updated design, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds from Mages and 5pb Games has all that and some. Offering a multitude of loot drops, fast-paced brawler action and a very deep character skills set upgrade system, this brawler will pummel your senses like nothing else available on a hand-held console. It’s been almost two years since its release on the Xbox 360 and it has finally made it’s way over to the VITA.
The story in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is your typical fare consisting of a stereotypical bad guy, Phantom, who is trying to reclaim his powers of darkness by kidnapping the younger sister of your friend and the journey to rescue her begins. The gameplay, however, is anything but typical. Stages are side-scrolling affairs with the battle action taking place in the foreground and the mid-ground with the background being filled with amazing locations such as shopping centers, sewers, forests and office buildings. You can play as one of four female protagonists initially but there are other characters that you can find during the journey as well as some DLC characters that you can download. The enemies come at you in waves as you use all available real estate to dispatch them and claim the spoils of their demise all while earning skill points to level up your character, power up items to boost your attacks and coins and jewels to boost your score.
During gameplay, you can use the D-Pad or the left joystick for movement as well as to perform certain attacks. The square, triangle and circle buttons are used for the weak, medium and strong attacks, respectively while the X button is reserved for your special attacks. Attack combos can be pulled off by using a combination of taps on the D-Pad and button presses. Each character has their own signature attacks to compliment the standard attacks like punches and kicks. There are also special attacks that can be done once the Burst Gauge has filled to a certain amount or all the way. Of course, waiting until the Burst Gauge is completely filled will open up the largest can of whoop-ass available. In addition, the left shoulder button is used to jump between fore- and mid-ground in order to maneuver around the stage and to get in the best possible attack position.
The battle system in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is surprisingly robust and really helps to add a new twist on a once overabundant video gaming staple. The addition of a Burst Gauge and the corresponding D-Pad taps and button presses to perform certain attacks are a gameplay mechanic from fighting games so it should be familiar right from the start. Having battles take place on two different planes isn’t an altogether new idea for brawlers but having them stuck to one plane or the other is. In games like Double Dragon, your movement is not restricted to two planes but you can in fact move your character freely from one plane to the other or anywhere in between. In the case of Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, being that there is only so much screen space to work with on the VITA, it helps to allow the player to keep track of their character. The one drawback to having to jump back and forth is that if you are in the mid-ground and a larger enemy is in the foreground, the larger enemies can actually obscure your view of the battlefield and can totally block out your character altogether.
The artwork in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds immediately grabbed my attention. While the opening intro is done in an anime styled montage, the game itself is done in this really unique stylized pixelated technique. It has a very retro feel to it while at the same time setting itself apart from how most games in this genre from other Indie studios are doing their artwork. Colors are bright and playful in the outside areas and dark and dank in the indoor or underground areas. The character designs for the heroins are very cutesy and unique. The enemy designs are also a sight to behold with many of them sporting retro ‘80s styled outfits like acid wash jeans, bright pink wigs, studded denim jackets and pencil ties. There are also a few demon types that will show up and help to round out an eclectic, if not downright colorful, cast of fleshy punching bags.
The soundtrack in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is the icing on this tasty brawler cake. Tracks are done in a cool chip-tune style that really takes you back to the time of 8/16 bit consoles. The tunes are very catchy and serve the onscreen action very well. 5pb games has done an awesome job of getting the feel of the era just right and the soundtrack is what makes it all happen. It was also a nice surprise to see that the voice overs are all in their original Japanese glory with English subtitles. I think that this helped to maintain the distinctly Eastern feel of the game.
Those individuals that say that they can’t get on the bandwagon because the VITA doesn’t have any games need to come up with a new excuse. To that I say, in my best Patton Oswalt voice: “No Games!? Aw, come on, you’re not even trying!” This year has seen some really good games released for this platform and even though Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds has been around for a couple years, it is still a very welcomed addition to the VITA library. The structure of the game is perfect for on the go action and/or short gaming sessions. There are no deep story lines that you have to keep track of in order to understand what is going on. Just balls-to-the-wall brawler action with a soupcon (a slight flavor) of certain RPG elements. If you are still on the fence about the VITA I can guarantee that if you play this game, you will be hooked.