A REVIEW BY HYPERDUEL
Perhaps you can remember back to that golden era of arcade gaming when side-scrolling beat’em’ups were very much in vogue for a while. And the reason being, is that they were so incredibly exhilarating to play. You were essentially on a long journey to somewhere unknown as you kept walking forward while clearing the screen of countless formidable & varied enemies. These were the kind of games that were so easy to get into and start playing, yet nonetheless difficult to master – in other words the perfect kind of challenge!
And challenging is just what Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is, a 2015 title developed by MAGES and published by Degica. It’s essentially a modern 2.5D take on the beat’em’up but with a unique twist: all of the characters are adorably anime-styled and oozing cuteness which you simply won’t believe until you behold it with your very own eyes. Who knew that such a fusion of these disparate styles could work so well together, especially when combined in an exceptional manner to produce this mesmerizing game now before us.
But what is it about Phantom Breaker, exactly, that has me so excited about playing it? Let’s find out below.
Upon first loading it up, I was immediately awash in a very much Japanese feeling game…something that felt exotic and fresh in a very palpable yet pleasing manner…complete with voice-acting in this language (with English subs). What then quickly drew me in further was its distinctly whimsical presentation & art style. The selectable characters and enemies are so impossibly cute & quirky, and are respectively a blend of both sweet & ghoulishly menacing…but in a very light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek way. It’s a game that doesn’t want you to take it too seriously – rather it just wants you to sit back and enjoy many hours of this blast from the past…pressing lots & lots of buttons while doing so. And in that regard, it excels wonderfully.
In no time at all, I was surrounded by all kinds of weirdo baddies…the kind that make you laugh out loud instantly since they’re just too freakish to even exist anywhere outside of this pixel trip. Creatively inspired from some unfathomable B-grade horror movie, they offer up rather amusing dialogue between stages to help push the story along for you. And that story consists of you having to battle against the evil wizard “Phantom” and his many minions. Why exactly? I haven’t the faintest idea, but I do know that you’ll be traveling around Tokyo and its many scenic pixel-art background locations as you do so, trying your absolute best to chain together impressively powerful hit combos against this unrelenting horde of varied enemies…some of which even include dragons & robots!
Also on the plus side, is that the gameplay combat itself is quite fast & furious…you truly need to keep on your toes at all times from the sheer number of enemies attacking you from both sides. And there is even a depth element present where you can hop back & forth at will to fight them off between the foreground plane and the background one (via a button press)…which further adds to the strategy of it all.
Attacks include: weak, medium, and strong…whose buttons can also be combined in different ways to create additional special attacks which are unique to each character, one of which is quite powerful I might add. Basically, the strength of your primary special attack is dependent upon how many normal attacks you fill your bar with first.
You may select between 4 different customizable characters to start with, with 6 unlockable ones to be had as well. And all characters can unlock extra abilities as they progress further into the game via a skill tree. What’s especially nice is that you get to keep your level between playthroughs as well…encouraging you to continue in trying to constantly raise it through sheer practice & determination.
As an added bonus, there is no shortage of bosses to battle either, and they are as tough as nails! Thankfully the game provides an entire range of difficulty settings to select from though, from Easy all the way up to Nightmare+ which is something that only the hardest of the hardcore would even attempt, because just the Normal difficulty alone was plenty challenging for me personally…especially pertaining to the boss battles which were significantly more formidable than the regular enemy swarms. It took me several attempts to beat the majority of ’em.
Phantom Breaker’s retro themed background music ranges from soothing to upbeat, yet is always arcade’esque and sound-chippy in nature, enhancing rather than distracting from the gameplay experience. It’s a nice li’l soundtrack all around for what it is trying to accomplish. Whereas sound effects were quite punchy as well.
Now as far as controls go, it’s strongly recommended to use an X-Box controller as that’s what it’s tailored around in the options menu. Keyboard can be used as well, but to be perfectly blunt, it just wouldn’t be very ideal for such a game where split-second reflexes are required. Speaking of which, some people are having issues rebinding their controller buttons in the menu, and the trick to it as I’ve discovered after some experimentation, is that you have to hold down the controller button which you wish to change its move for, and then while holding it down you then cycle through the available moves with the left stick, then release after acquiring the desired one. This is admittedly quite unintuitive, and I am not very surprised that some are having issues in figuring it out. Overall, I’d recommend to the developer further improvements in this one area as it relates to rebinding keys/buttons, so as to make it easier for the player to accomplish doing so.
Lastly, there is also available an additional character + increased level cap DLC which can be purchased separately (Kurisu Makise), as well as even a soundtrack DLC if you find yourself helplessly hooked in by this game and just can’t get enough of its unique charm. It’s all very much optional however as the base game itself is more than robust enough to suffice here.
It isn’t very often that I find myself pleasantly surprised by just how much darn fun a particular game actually is, since I can usually deduce this by the screenshots & videos of it before-hand. But yet, I must readily admit that this one was even more of a blast to play than I was anticipating going in. And I’m not even a particularly big anime fanatic by any stretch of the imagination, yet the way in which it was all assembled together was done so incredibly well I thought…and you’d be hard-pressed to find any other similarly styled beat’em’up game on Steam which offers as many hours of addictive & challenging old-school gameplay as Phantom Breaker. It’s the kind of rush that effortlessly keeps you coming back for more in no time at all if you’re even remotely a fan of retro arcade games. I’ve only played part way through it for this review so far, but quite honestly, I am now very eager to finish up the rest of it as soon as possible. I just hope my fingers are up for the challenge, because many heads will be smashed and many buttons will be mashed!
I’ll readily rate this one a very cutesy 4.5 out of 5 stars
- Adorably cute anime-style characters
- Truly fun yet challenging gameplay
- Fast-paced & addictive combat action with chained combos
- Multiple customizable characters with skill trees to choose from and unlock
- Retro-style 80’s arcade sprite graphics
- Numerous bosses to battle
- Both story & arcade modes
- Full controller support
- Glitch-free & plays very optimized
- Steam achievements + trading cards
- Local co-op / Online multiplayer (in beta)
- Leader boards
- The controller / key rebinding system is both limited & not very intuitive