Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive can be one heck of a fun beat-'em-up on PlayStation 4, but only under the right conditions. This is a downloadable title that's seemingly got plenty going for it, from its attractive sprite-based art style to its over-the-top combat, but it struggles all too often to fulfil its potential.
Side-scrolling brawlers are obviously nothing new, but it's Phantom Breaker's great visuals that make it stand out from the crowd – at least initially. The whole thing's bright, colourful, and retro-tinged. It's undoubtedly cool to watch in motion, and the character designs – when it comes to both the playable cast and the enemies – are top notch. Similarly, the animations are fluid and satisfying, and the visual effects that accompany most attacks have a real kick to them.
As hinted, it's this art direction that'll draw you in, but the game sadly seems intent on throwing you back out. Its first sin is the fact that there's no decent tutorial, and despite its chaotic hack and slash sensibilities, this isn't a simple button masher. There are numerous technical moves that you can pull off, and none of them are explained outside of a text-based 'how to play' section on the main menu.
It's really a crying shame, because the title can be a lot of fun when you've eventually wrapped your head around all of the available techniques, but without a dedicated tutorial, it'll just end up feeling far too inaccessible to the average player. It's probably because of the franchise's fighting game roots, but at times, it almost seems like the release wants to be taken as seriously as something like Street Fighter, offering numerous tricky nuances for you to master – but the fact of the matter is that none of it gels with the game's otherwise basic beat-'em-up structure.
To be fair, though, the fundamentals are easy enough to grasp. Square, triangle, and circle can be tapped to let loose with combo strings of varying power, and fighting groups of enemy grunts is enjoyable, at least for a while. However, problems arise when it comes to defending against your foes, because all of your protective options are overly complex – especially for a brawler that's so incredibly hectic.
There's basic blocking, crouching blocks, timed blocks, enemy stuns, back steps, shadow steps, and even an emergency mode which blasts opponents away after you take damage. All of these mechanics would seem fine in a standard one-on-one fighting game, but in Phantom Breaker, you're almost constantly up against hordes of aggressive foes who'll surround you on both sides. As such, the learning curve hits a brick wall relatively early on, and at that point, further enjoyment is going to depend on whether or not you have the time and patience to try and master what's on offer.
It's the boss battles that'll no doubt make many a player hurl their DualShock 4 in frustration, though. These pivotal fights can make for a good spectacle, but gameplay-wise, they arguably show the release at its worst. In a sense, it's a bit baffling, because you'd expect these usually smaller duels to be a better fit for the combat system, but in reality, many bosses are just absurdly cheap.
Whether it's taking off whole chunks of your health bar with attacks that literally activate within a split second or catching you in a combo that forcefully stuns you into submission, bosses can easily become a test of luck rather than skill. At one point during our time with the game, a certain baddie decided to use the same long range homing attack about ten times in a row, and while it is possible to escape such a barrage with the right know-how, the fact that the artificial intelligence is even capable of such cheap tricks is disheartening.
Due to these issues, the story mode can be hit and miss. There are definitely some good points scattered throughout thanks to some genuinely entertaining fights and a reasonable character levelling system, but your enjoyment can easily be snatched away by a bout of frustration, even on the easier difficulty levels.
As for the story itself, it's just not worth paying much attention to. Told through Japanese voiced dialogue boxes, it's a typically crazy tale of super powered young women and big evil bad guys, spliced with a bit of weird psychological drama. At the end of the day, it just feels like an afterthought, and this notion is amplified when you consider that when playing cooperatively, the game doesn't even bother showing the aforementioned text boxes at all.
Speaking of co-op, this is arguably the best way to play, because you can really rack up some impressive combos alongside someone who knows what they're doing. When brawling alone, Phantom Breaker is already an incredibly hectic experience, but with up to three other players by your side – either online or locally – the on-screen chaos is exaggerated to an even larger degree. Sure, it can be difficult to actually keep track of your character at times, but there's certainly a laugh to be had if you're up for some crazy combat with a group of friends – just don't expect them to stick around when they get obliterated by a broken boss.
Likewise, the competitive versus mode can be decent fun, too, but it's perhaps no surprise that the playable cast of characters is more than a bit unbalanced. Starting off with four main heroines, there are other combatants to unlock for use across all modes of play, and after a brief stint with some of them, it becomes clear that several characters are far more effective than others. This isn't a huge deal since competitive clashes obviously aren't the title's core feature, but it does tend to grate against the sense that the game wants its combat to be taken seriously.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive has all the components of an addictive, satisfying beat-'em-up, but it just doesn't harmonise them as well as it should. Its overly complex battle system clashes with its bustling moment-to-moment gameplay, and the result is an often frustrating fighter with a deceivingly steep learning curve. That said, there's no denying that there's still fun to be had with this great looking brawler, especially if you join forces with a couple of capable players.