You've probably played this before...
Are you familiar with 2D side-scrolling beat-'em-ups? If you've played even five minutes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Simpsons in the arcade, then your answer to that question should be a resounding "yes", but usually after a very short time with a game in this genre, you've seen virtually everything there is to see. Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is no different, featuring a traditional side-scrolling, button-mashing experience that may be endearing for the first few minutes, but once the redundancy sets in and the nostalgia slips away all too quickly, you're left with an experience that feels like it was made twenty years ago.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is an action-based spin-off to the Japanese fighting game Phantom Breaker. Both games feature a suite of cutesy anime girls who wield colorful weapons and possess magical abilities. Sadly, Battle Grounds is a massive step down in quality when compared to its fighting-centric counterpart. The menus are bland and downright juvenile, the character models and backgrounds are overly pixelated, and the sound design leaves much to be desired.
And then there's the story. How do I put this? It's quite possibly the weirdest, most convoluted premise I have ever seen in a video game. Thankfully, story doesn't play a major role in these types of titles anyway, and the bulk of that content is dished out through a massive wall of scrolling text while it is read to you in Japanese. If anything, it's clear that very little time and effort was spent in localizing this game for the Western audience.
Fortunately, the gameplay isn't a total bust. Battle Grounds features a number of different modes, though the differences between the arcade, story, and cooperative options are extremely minimal. The levels are the same across the various modes, but how you approach them is slightly different.
I enjoy some quality couch co-op action from time to time, so I sat down with my brother and we played through several of the game's levels together. After a half-hour or so, we already got sick of the experience. The controls just didn't feel tight or responsive enough to provide any real level of satisfaction. Heavy, mid, and light attacks are mapped to the face buttons and the triggers allow you to unleash more powerful "magic" attacks when your meter at the top of the screen is full. It's hardly original, but functional at the very least.
You can plough through the game with up to four players locally or connect with other gamers over Xbox Live. I had trouble finding a match over Live (go figure), but playing co-op was easy enough, though I wish there was a way for additional players to jump in mid-game with the press of a button. Not only that, but if my brother wanted to level up his character, I needed to give him my controller sine only player one can alter stats. Little missteps like this really hurt the overall experience.
I do have to applaud the game for at least trying to layer in a level of customizability. Players can select from a handful of different characters, each with their own unique weapons. As you progress through the game, the character you select will level up, allowing you to improve their attack, speed, and defense. In addition, there's a talent tree of sorts that allows you to unlock new moves. While this might sound cool on paper, having to grind your way through the game just to get a varied move set is a bit frustrating.
There's also a battle mode that plays basically like any 2D fighter, except the unenjoyable controls from the rest of the game are here as well. You can have four-way brawls, which at the very least may serve as a fun distraction should you and your buddies be looking for a good laugh and a way to kill a few minutes. That said, if you're looking for a compelling fighter, this certainly is not it.
I have a hard time recommending Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds to anyone. If you're obsessed with 2D brawlers and love Japanese animé, I strongly recommend you give the demo a try before shelling out any cash. The redundant and dated gameplay, coupled with weak production values, make this a forgettable experience that won't keep you entertained for very long.