Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds – Mommy, Japan is being bizarre again

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I am decently familiar with the Beat ’em up genre, but I am by no means an expert. Therefore, it’s possible that some points I make regarding Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds may be prevalent in the genre as a whole. This is merely my opinion and observations of the game, but feel free to take some points with a grain of salt. Before I started writing this review, I made sure to play as many different characters as possible, and also level one of the characters to the max. Different difficulties were also tried out, and I played several times in co-op as well with a friend of mine. This game was played on Steam with an Xbox 360 controller, but the game is also available on PlayStation Vita, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. The version of the game for the latter two systems are slightly different (improved), and not covered in this review.

Phantom Breaker: Battle Ground is a game I’ve actually owned for quite a while. How, when and why… that’s something I can’t remember. Well, the when was 2015 according to my purchase history–back in a time where I just purchased anything that looked cool and that also had a nice discount. I’ve never played it before though, even with it ending up in my list of ”play this game next” that Steam automatically makes in the library based on what else you’ve played recently. Of course, I never listened like the rebel I am. But I figured that when I started streaming on Twitch again, I would ask my friends and viewers what they would like to see me stream. After all, my list of games is pretty much endless and I could pick a lot from there, but it’s more interesting to see what the public wants. Phantom Breaker was the first game that got recommended to me by a friend, so I figured I would finally give it a shot!

Phantom Breaker is a series developed by 5pb., consisting of two fighting games with a third on the horizon called Phantom Breaker: Omnia, currently scheduled for a worldwide release in 2021. Phantom Breaker: Battle Ground is a spin-off, falling into the Beat ’em up genre. Funnily enough however, this spin-off is also the first game in the franchise to make it to the west. With this spin-off, 5pb. also got help from studio MAGES. for the Steam release, which led to a collaboration between the two companies. Purchasable as DLC, both Kurisu from Steins;Gate and Frau Kojiro from Robotics;Note make their appearance as playable characters. The game takes inspirations from multiple other games, such as Guardian Heroes for the “lane”-based gameplay, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for artistic purposes. Fans have therefore also nicknamed this game as “Phantom Breaker vs. The World”.

I don’t remember for what reason, but I felt the need to check out the settings first before playing the actual game. And there I saw a tutorial… a tutorial consisting of 25 pages. And it uses fighting stick controls as button inputs as well, instead of showing what buttons I actually need to press. This is a trend in fighting games where instead of showing the X button for a heavy attack, the button is displayed as a capital H in a coloured circle. I’m not a die-hard fighting game fan, and I generally find that to be an inexcusable flaw because not everyone is a fighting game expert; this technically isn’t even a fighting game to begin with. Therefore, I wasn’t really in the mood to read the 25-page-long tutorial and just figured I’d either learn by playing, or hope that the game would have a tutorial stage or something. Spoiler alert, I was bound to my own knowledge and just messed around with buttons. I guess you could make the argument that I’m at fault here because there is a specific section dedicated to a tutorial, but I’m of the opinion that this is not the way to handle it.

Granted, the first stage is kind of a tutorial stage. It doesn’t really teach you anything, but your stats are maxed and you have access to all skills. Which does bring me to the reason as to why the tutorial is so long to begin with, because the battle system here is more in-depth than you might expect. I’ve already spoiled it a bit, but Battle Grounds plays more similar to a fighting game than a regular brawler–specifically a Japanese anime-styled fighting game. There are a lot of combos to execute, ranging from light to heavy attacks that also change depending on when they appear in the combo, and also what direction you’re holding the joystick in. If that wasn’t enough, you can also dash quickly through the screen, and switch between two lanes to fight on. And of course, since we’re playing a flashy Japanese game, there are powerful special moves to execute. The combat system is definitely the game’s strongest asset, and what makes it stand out from similar games in the genre. However, there is a catch.

Phantom Breaker Ex Attack
Always nice to see Itsuki’s screen-clearing bullet EX attack

After giving the boss of the first stage a good whopping, all your skills are taken away from you, leaving you in a fragile, weakened state. Getting your skills back requires a long investment in the skill tree, done by gaining exp from killing enemies and picking up red gems. I’m kind of mixed on this however, placing an emphasis on the words ”long investment”. There are two separate trees to work on that both use the same experience points, one being designated to the character’s stats and the other to abilities such as combos and the flashy special moves that I mentioned earlier. Given that you can only get to level 50 without buying DLC, you can only max out one of the trees while leaving yourself weak in the other. If you buy the DLC you can get to level 99 and max out both skill trees, but this DLC isn’t exactly cheap. Besides, it should never have been locked behind DLC anyway.

My problem however, lies in that you’ll be playing pretty much the entire game without being able to use the combat system to its fullest. Getting the combos back isn’t too bad, but don’t expect to get any flashy moves for a very, very long while. Of course, these are not a necessity, but it does limit you in how you’re able to play. I would slightly understand it if there was a whole lot of content beyond the main campaign but there isn’t, unless you like to keep replaying the campaign over and over but on a higher difficulty. The grind for experience is extensive beyond 50, and I personally didn’t really see a reason to go beyond that level aside from an achievement because once I was done with the character’s campaign, I truly was done.

You’ll be playing pretty much the entire game without being able to use the combat system to its fullest.

Actually, if I wasn’t playing with a friend, I probably would have been done after 2 or 3 campaign runs in general. The campaign never changes, and the only difference when playing as another character is a minuscule change in dialogue. It’s the exact same over, and over, and over again. The only enjoyable thing about the campaigns beyond the first few, was experimenting with the different characters. They aren’t too different from each other in terms of combos, but all their attacks and specials are unique. Because I didn’t feel the game had much else to offer me, I didn’t try all of them out. However, since the combat system is fun in general, I can safely say that it was fun playing as all of these different characters.

Phantom Breaker Kurisu
Kurisu is, of course, one of my mains

How is the campaign in and of itself when just playing through it once though? I would say… good overall. Despite my complaints so far, I did have a lot of fun going through the campaign for the first time. I could not make any sense of the story in general so I just ignored that part of the game and made fun of it, but there is a very nice amount of different enemies to fight with. Some may be just different skins pasted on the same enemy sure, but it felt consistently fresh. And the stages themselves also look very nice, all designed after sightseeing spots in Tokyo and… hell. That escalated quickly. Every stage also ends with a boss, but I didn’t really care for them too much. Some also end with a minigame though, and I enjoyed those more.

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds had the great idea to combine Fighting game mechanics with the Beat ’em up genre and it worked very well. Combos feel satisfying to execute, and it looks flashy all around with a good amount of different characters to play as. However, it does suck that half of the in-depth combat is something you most likely won’t experience during a single playthrough due to two separate skill trees that desire a long investment (and also having levels above 50 locked behind DLC which is stupid). This would have been fine, but the game doesn’t have much content to offer beyond the campaign and harder difficulties. I definitely enjoyed going through these colourful stages with a wide variety of different enemies the first time, but I could not be bothered to do it more than once simply because nothing changes… ever. And since this is a review specifically of the Steam version, I’m also very disappointed that the developers have not bothered to update the game with features from the new releases.

Note: This score is based on the Steam version.

7.0

Nepiki's Rating

Overall rating

Game Score
7.0
Fun Score
7.0
Positives
  • Characters all feel different and fun to play as.
  • Colourful stages and enemies with a touch of Japan's weirdness.
  • The game plays like a fighting game.
Negatives
  • Skill tree limits the player a lot, resulting in the player not being able to use the fighting system completely.
  • Replayability is very low for a game that wants you to grind.
  • Levelling up past level 50 is locked behind DLC.

Thank you for reading! I hope I wasn’t too harsh on this game, since replayability has never been the strongest point of Beat ’em ups in general. But unlike most Beat ’em ups, this game wants you to replay it multiple times for the skill tree and higher difficulties. Or well, want… it’s still your own decision of course. For one playthrough, I definitely had a good amount of fun with the game. I’m still not okay with the Steam version basically being the worst though.

Slowly catching up on my backlog of reviews! I’m still far from done and I’m finishing games a bit too fast for my taste, but we’re getting closer every time! The next review should be for Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, so look forward to it!

If you could combine any two genres together to create a unique game, what genres would you choose? Or is there already a game that exists that combines the two genres you would choose?

I’m not 100% sure if it exists yet, but I would like to see a turn-based RPG where the combat system is several different puzzles or minigames. For example, doing damage by making Tetris lines or solving one of those box-pushing puzzles. Or maybe playing Pong as a battle system? I do know two games that combine Pong with RPG elements but that’s not exactly what I mean… though I might take a look at them soon enough since the concept intrigues me for sure!


Does this genre interest you? If so, I have multiple other Beat ’em up reviews ready for you!

About author

Nepiki

A gamer and writer at heart who wants to combine his hobbies into one. I am 25 years old and I'm from the Netherlands. Having played many games over the years, I wanted to express my love for them, however obscure they may be!

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Alphaxel (@Alphaxelking)

I hate it so much when a game lets you invest in several skills trees but doesn’t give you enough resource to do more than max one of them and force you to choose one if you want to be efficient. Either tell me to choose one from the getgo or let me makes both of them at least more than mediocre :V

Your question is kinda hard to answer since my favorite genre is rpg, and it’s already been mixed with about every existing genres xD. While musous often have rpg elements, i’m curious to see how one more rpg oriented than the usual would go (if it doesn’t already exist) . Or a turn based rpg metroidvania? I’m not sure but i think Monster Sanctuary does something like that.

nooberstubeadmin

Cute game, really, and very well written.

[…] was quickly followed up by two reviews: Road Redemption and Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds. Games that, surprisingly, had issues with replayability in games that want you to replay them. […]