Originally released last year for the Xbox 360, Phantom Breaker was a fighting game that, while never seeing a Western release, generated a decent following in Japan. Having spawned an arcade and a PlayStation 3 port, it also served as the inspiration for a 2D brawler named Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, which, after appearing on the Xbox Live Arcade last year, is now making its way onto the PlayStation Vita.
The first thing that immediately jumps out at you about the game is its pixelated, retro art style. Looking like something straight out of the 16-bit era, the characters have all been given a chibi makeover, with lots of vibrant colours added for good measure. This also extends to the stages that you battle through, all of which really pop, with their distinctive environments looking great on the Vita’s screen.
The motivation for making your way through the seven stage story mode is the same as pretty much every brawler: someone’s been kidnapped and you’ve got to come to their rescue. You are given a little bit more background to your mission, as apparently someone called Phantom is working to unseal his power by having youths with special abilities fight each other. The problem is that it’s so impenetrably nonsensical that you’ll end up skipping the minimal amounts of exposition when they do show up.
Even if the story isn’t likely to float your boat, it’s probably not the first thing that you’re looking for in a brawler. Luckily, the combat is fast, responsive, and fun. Choosing from one of four characters initially available – there’s another six to unlock – you’ll find that each have a very similar move set, with the main differences being their weapons and special attacks. These help add a little variety to each of the characters, with some having longer reach on their basic moves, while others are armed with ranged special attacks that help you to keep your foes at bay.
With no tutorial or training mode in sight, you’re left to read through a number of text screens detailing what moves you have at your disposal. With the face buttons unleashing weak, medium, strong, and special attacks, you can use the Vita's d-pad to modify these into throws, uppercuts, and leg sweeps. You can also block enemy attacks by standing still, but you need to be careful, as blocking too many hits can cause your guard to break, leaving you vulnerable. Should you find yourself in trouble, you can also hit the R button to trigger a release of power from your burst gauge – built up by hitting enemies with combos – which sends out homing projectiles that can help turn the tide of any fight.
To try and minimise the problem of lining up you attacks, your movements are limited to two horizontal lanes: one in the foreground and another in the background. You can switch between lanes by pressing the L button, and this ensures that you remain level with your opponents. The trouble is that it also means that everyone’s crammed into these lanes. This isn’t a problem most of the time, but there are occasions when you can find yourself cornered by a horde of enemies who are hammering you with attacks, while also blocking your fighter from view.
Stun locking can also happen frequently, especially when you face off against the end of level bosses, who can hit you with some quite lengthy combos. This can be frustrating as your character isn’t the quickest of movers, and the size of some of the larger enemies makes it difficult to jump your way out of trouble. The upside is that you can also do it to your enemies, making this a little easier to stomach – even if it can feel like cheating when you use the same move repeatedly to stop them from attacking you.
Despite these shortcomings, bringing your full arsenal to bear is fun, and cutting a swathe through your enemies is certainly satisfying, even if it’s a little one sided on the lower difficulty levels. It helps that the Vita handles the action beautifully with not a single hitch in framerate, even when the chaos is at its most frenzied. The biggest problem, though, is that these brawls lose their excitement well before you’ve finished the short two hour story, and you’ll have settled into a routine with fights playing out in a very similar fashion each time.
There are attempts to add a bit more depth by letting you earn experience to level up your character. This in turn earns you upgrade points that can be used to increase your attributes – attack, defence, and speed – or unlock more powerful abilities. While it’s not the most complex system that you’ll see, it’ll certainly help if you plan to tackle the campaign again on higher difficulties, or make a run at the game's arcade mode, where you get a single life to try and get a leaderboard topping score.
You can also play through the campaign in co-op, or take on other players in the battleground mode, and these can be played either online or via local ad-hoc multiplayer. At first glance these seem like a great way to prolong your time with the game, but the problem is that no one’s currently playing online, and any attempts to join a game only result in being constantly informed there’s no active sessions. Even creating your own game will lead to you staring at the lobby screen for hours on end, with not a single appearance from another player. As a result, the online mode – while great on paper – isn’t worth consideration until the player count increases above the current nonexistent level.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a fun, fast paced brawler, with a strong retro presentation that runs out of steam all too quickly. Repetitiveness almost over shadows everything that it does well, and the ghost town multiplayer modes certainly don’t help either. That said, if you’re up for an old school beat-‘em-up – with some modern additions – then this title may still be worth rescuing.