Review: Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds (PS Vita)
This review series is dedicated to new games with a retro look and/or feel. It has become a popular trend to develop games with 2D pixelated graphics and chiptune music in hopes of recapturing and reproducing the look, feel, and sound of the games we are so nostalgic for today. Some of these games take the best of the past and fuse it with the gameplay improvements we have grown accustomed to today, while others have simply attempted to cash in on that same nostalgia that keeps us playing retro games in the present. The goal of these reviews is to identify the retro inspired games being released today that are worth your time and money.
- Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds
- Platform Reviewed on: PS Vita
- Developer: Division2
- Publisher: 5pbGames
- Price: $11.99
- How the Game Was Acquired: Review Download Code from the Publisher
Two games hit the PS Vita marketplace this week that take place in Japan and feature iconic locations of the country in the form of “Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds” (PB:BG) and “Akiba’s Trip.” While I had pre-ordered, “Akiba’s Trip” a while back, I was intrigued by the art style of a game I noticed on the “New Releases” section of the PlayStation Store. As a big PS Vita fan I am usually aware of everything that is coming to the platform. For me PB:BG simply came out of no where. The moment I saw the screen shots, I knew it would be the perfect first candidate for this review series I had been contemplating the last few months.
From a quick glance PB:BG looks like another new 2D side scrolling “beat ’em up” created with current generation technology aside the likes of “Castle Crashers” and “Double Dragon Neon.” But, as soon as you enter Stage 0 (yes, you have a prologue) it will immediately be clear that PB:BG is a unique take on the genre.
You begin the game with all abilities unlocked and at Level Infinity. It doesn’t take long for someone to come along and strip you of all that power after you see how awesome it is.
PB:BG’s retro game references and inspirations come from a laundry list of classic games. From the “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” (among others), “abilitease,” to the multiplanar side scrolling action setup from games like “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” “Guardian Heroes,” and many others. This is less of a surprise when you learn the designers and music composer of PB:BG have been making games in Japan since the 1980’s.
The most important aspect of any 2D side scrolling beat’em up is the combat, and PB:BG almost nails it. There is always a ton of enemies on the screen to fight with a combination of your standard light/medium/heavy attacks (mapped to SQUARE, TRIANGLE, and CIRCLE) as well as magic abilities and special moves (just check out the video I made to see how chaotic it can get). With the right combination of these abilities you will find yourself racking up crazy, over the top 300 hit combos while coins, magic orbs, and XP crystals explode from the remains of beaten enemies.
At the end of every stage the XP you picked up is tallied and used to regain the levels stolen at the start of the game. XP will also be your currency to regain the stolen abilities your character had when the game began. The process is simple, straight forward, and even allows you to undo and reorganize your abilities at the end of every stage, or if you die.
Speaking of death, beat’em ups can be notoriously brutal when it comes to difficulty and having to restart the game without anything to show for all the effort you just put in before meeting your death. While I found the “Normal” difficulty to be just about perfect for my ability, I did die 5 or 6 times throughout the game. My first death came at the hands of the Stage 3 boss. As soon as it happened the dread set in. Did I just lose all of my progress? I was relieved to see how forgiving the game was (one of the evolutions of game design featured). Instead of just getting a “Game Over” I was sent back to the “Skill Set” modification screen and I even kept all the XP earned in that level (similar to how some games like Rogue Legacy work with death). When I reentered the game I was right at the start of the boss battle ready for a rematch.
PB:BG contains many common themes from classic 2D side scrolling beat’em ups you grew up with like, “Streets of Rage,” “Double Dragon,” “Guardian Heroes,” and the Konami series of licensed games. In terms of level design you will start in the city streets, go down into the sewers, take a never ending elevator ride with an army of enemies, trek in the woods, and enter a small village containing historic temples. While familiar, the environments are beautifully produced, very detailed, and visually appealing. For example in Level 0, you fight your way through the streets of Akihabara, Japan’s “Electric Town,” where I have spent many hours in person. By recreating places like “Club Sega” and “Trader,” one of my favorite used game shops, the experience is made even more enjoyable for people that have roamed the streets of the town. It took me about 15-minutes to complete each stage making your first play through around 90-minutes long.
The level of detail matched with the 8-bit inspired graphics is a visual pleasure
Every good 2D action game needs a variety of enemies with diverse attack patterns and abilities. How about a businessman with a golf driver, a cosplaying otaku, old men in giant mech suits, cyborgs, and huge dragons? I would say that is pretty diverse. Just as fun as they are to fight, it is equally entertaining to see who the next new set of enemies will be after completing a stage.
From having traveled there 5 times, I attest that this is a pretty accurate interpretation of Japan (in a parallel world). Dancing Otakus and men in suits swinging golf clubs
While I enjoyed the combat for the most part, my biggest issue with the game is when there are so many enemies on the screen, you can simply get lost or be constantly juggled back and forth by enemy attacks. You are given plenty of magic to utilize your special attacks which help with crowd control, but towards the end I felt like I had to spam it to land anything. Crowd control is just as vital in PB:BG as it was in Double Dragon and Streets of Rage, and it was a lot of fun jumping from plane to plane and setting up combos at the right time. If it weren’t for the times it became unmanageable, the play through of the game would have been non-stop fun.
You can play through the game cooperatively with up to three other players online. While I did experience some consistent lag (about 1/2 second from button press to action), it was still an just as enjoyable and an accelerated experience thanks to having some help. These same The setup of the game is built quite well to support 4-players as there are always plenty of enemies on screen for everyone to fight and with my experience on line everyone seemed to take one of the 4-quadrants of the screen and attack the enemies around them. I never felt like people were “stealing” my XP or pickups like in some classic games in the genre. It is also worth noting that all XP and levels gained in online matches gets contributed to your selected character’s overall level. Personally, I look forward to playing through the game a few more times cooperatively to tackle the other difficulty levels.
I saved the best for last. Composer Abo Takeshi delivers an 8-bit inspired soundtrack that will get you amped up for a fight while you throw on a nice pair of headphones. I liked the soundtrack so much that I went into the settings and turned down the effect and voice sounds so it could dominate my ear canal. I am even considering importing the soundtrack CD. Loved it top to bottom. Make sure to check out the video in the review to check out some of it.
The over-the-top action and story (including multiple parallel worlds), beautifully detailed environments, flexible leveling mechanics, and head nodding 8-bit soundtrack come together to mold a very good game that would be perfect if not for a few gameplay issues. The game encourages multiple play-throughs with its extensive roster of selectable characters, an XP system that allows you to level up your character in any mode of the game, and the need to beat the game on multiple difficulty levels (which unlock after the game is completed on the previous difficulty) to see the real ending. Even after completing the game the first time, I was eager to jump back in with another character to explore their abilities and individual weapon attacks. Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds is a game that every PS Vita owner should check out if you find 2D brawlers enjoyable.
- Great 8-bit inspired graphics and environment
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Over the top beat ’em up action on the go
- Right at home on the PS Vita
- Combat can get frustrating when overwhelmed with enemies and projectiles