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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds - A chibi review

Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds is a recently released addition to the plethora of beat’em’ups currently available at the Xbox Live Arcade.  With magnificent Pixel Art visuals and good chiptune music, he delivers a lot of fun for a small price. Apparently the game is a sequel/spinoff to Phantom Breaker, a title currently on hold on the American market and in risk of being cancelled, so it’s good that we at least get to see a bit of this new franchise in this game. 

From the very moment you enter the game you will see that comparisons with Scott Pilgrimvs the World will be unavoidable, as the game offers the same high quality pixel art, and the menus and HUD look practically the same. What sets aside both games? Well, both have their highs and lows, and while they look tailored to the same audience, you will feel that having one won’t necessarily set you appart from playing the other.


Phantom Break is set in a hypothetical Japan where young ones have received powers and weapons from an unknown entity called Phantom, urging them to fight with promises of various wishes. The use of those powers affects the space-time fabric, causing Phantom to release itself into the world. Battlegrounds is set after the events of that game, where Nagi, the sister of one of the protagonists is kidnapped and the team needs to rescue them facing Phantom’s minions on an alternate mirror dimension of Japan.


Unlike Scott Pilgrim, gameplay in Phantom Break is based mainly on combos and special abilities. No items to grab and throw through the screen. Instead all characters have a weak, medium and strong attack button commands, plus a special attack command. Combining those leads to insane combos that can be button mashed or tailored to your needs depending on how you feel like playing. 

Punching through enemies is fast and furious... specially if you play Cocoa.

Button combinations will also trigger special abilities like ranged attacks, blocks, counter attacks… Doing defensive abilities is easy as usually involves pressing an attack button at the moment of the hit, which probably you would be doing anyway, so overall the game feels more accessible to players all ages and doesn’t feel as technical and punishing as Scott Pilgrim once you know the tricks of the trade. 

The stage is set in two depth levels where you and enemies can switch back and forth during gameplay. This helps minimize the frustrating feeling of pixel-guessing while trying to hit an enemy that is not in the same plane as yours as it happens in some free movement classics like Streets of Rage. The system has his flaws though, and it does not exempt all cases: Flying enemies do not vary enough in size when switching as to know when they are in the front or later row, so you will see yourself jumping like an idiot a lot on some stages. Also, as the game goes on and enemies grow in size, the front row can virtually blackout the back row vision witch can leave you helpless to enemies ganging on you from unexpected sides. 

If you go to the back line when facing big enemies you are pretty much blindfighting.

Story and Game Pace

While the story is not the main point of the game it helps the game moving forward with a nice pace, and helps alleviate some other faults of the game. Humor is always present and various emotion animations created especially for the characters during their story interludes are  nice and help build up a bit on the characters personalities in a game that has not much room for that.

Sadly, some internal jokes or info on the series seems to have been lost in translation and you will see yourself wandering why Cocoa doesn’t want a random demon egg smashed, so far as to sell her allegiance, or some puns impossible to translate like the “Panda Cocoa” joke late in game.

The four starters feature different playstyles and a lot of Moe!.

The game also suffers from a very weird plot decision that lead to a completely anticlimactic development:  Somewhere near the end of the game you will face Phantom, M and Cocoa together in a rooftop, in a very climatic scene that could have been a nice game ender, to be then thrown into a labyrintic maze that lags down the game pace, and later into a monotonous background cave with an easy final boss never before introduced during the game plot (still being a major antagonist on the main series).  This makes the last stages a bit of a disappointing ending for a game that was really fun and engaging.

Character Design and Progression

With 4 starting characters, plus 6 unlockables and some crossover DLC characters coming in next days, the game offers quite a lot of variety when choosing your chibi maiden in distress. Every one of the girls (and guy) features 10 color schemes to choose from can be switched later on.
All of them look distinctly different both in design and gameplay, especially once they start to unlock their special abilities. Thus you will have some fast hit and runners like the shuriken throwing Yuzuha, some who prefer grabs and rush-down tactics like Cocoa, or range-keepers like Waka and her sister Nagi.  

Characters will level up based on the amount of red drops of experience they catch while fighting. This will allow more points to be distributed on their character sheet, with 3 stats and an ability progression tree that, while being the same for everyone, will perform very different on every character, depending if he favors combo or special abilities. The best of it is that the skill tree and stats are customizable between stages, so if a certain configuration didn’t suit your needs you can just redo it for the next game.

Let's see... how I'd like to mince my enemies today?
This gives the game a lot of replayability and a more distinct feeling to the characters so changing characters does not just feel like switching skins, but actually a gameplay style decision.

Visuals and Music

The game visuals are stunning, without doubt. While the menus are simple, the characters and backgrounds have a lot of detail and personality, especially on the city stages, where you can lose yourself admiring all the pretty details in the background. On the other side though, some of the last the stages do not have as much variety and charisma in their backgrounds (yet are still impressive to behold as a pixelart masterwork). 

Look at that store in the background!! It looks so good you´ll actually want to be there!

Enemies are pretty varied as well offering a range of various variations in each of the designs, not just a pallet swap. While the first monsters modeled after nerds and ganguro girls are somewhat strange, the evangelion-esque demons or the shrine maidens appearing later on are very cool.

Music is good old chiptune, it plays nice and gets you into the atmosphere, but by any means manages to rival the awesome music that Anamanaguchi composed for Scott Pilgrim vs the World. I don’t particularly remember any stage music, what pretty much says that the music isn’t that memorable.

Closing Comments

Overall, Phantom Breaker is a great game for his price. Though it feels somewhat shorter than his most direct counterpart, the amount of variety in characters and customization totally makes up for it.

You will like it:
If you are an old school gamer or have a passion for anime graphics.
If you enjoy cooperative games, be it couch or online.

You won’t like it:
If you are expecting a long and entwining story.
If you are too young to understand the beauty of pixelart and chiptunes.

A DLC is set to be released this month featuring...  Kurisu Makise!! A treat for Steins Gate fans!