There’s a story going on in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, but for the life of me, I can’t make heads or tails out of it. The general basis is that an ancient evil has awakened and kidnapped one of the main heroine’s sisters. Naturally, it’s you job to get her back by beating up anyone who stands in your way as you travel through space, time, and the afterlife. The story is generic, but so what? You didn’t play for its story back in 2013 on Xbox Live Arcade and you won’t be doing the same on the PS Vita. You’ll be playing because it’s a nice, fast-paced, beat ’em up brawler that you can take on the go.
Published by 5pb and developed by Division2, Battle Grounds is actually a spin-off of the main Phantom Breaker series and features “chibified” versions of the game’s four female fighters: Mikoto, Waka, Itsuki, and Yuzuha. Separate of the original fighting game, it is a 2D side-scrolling brawler that proudly displays its arcade influence. As expected, you’re given multiple characters to choose from that have their own unique skills and special moves. You’re also given the chance to level up and upgrade your fighter, depending on all the ninjas you defeat and treasures earned. When it’s all over, more characters are unlocked, inciting you to give the game another go.
Battle Grounds is a straightforward game. It promises a fun, brawling experience and delivers just that, with its simple controls and lovely 32-bit appearance. However, if you’re looking for something more than “run right, beat up these guys, run left, now beat up these guys,” you’re not going to get it here. It wouldn’t be bad if the game would stop reminding us that it’s capable of more. An interesting gameplay feature is switching from foreground to background, expanding the battle arena and opening up some potentially interesting battle strategies. A feature like that should have led to some creative gameplay scenarios, but Battle Grounds uses it as another dumping ground for enemies.
To be fair, it shakes some things up in its later stages but not enough to kill the “been there, done that” feeling from the game. An example is in a late stage, where you must carefully navigate through a maze in Hell. Another example that’s less thrilling and is honestly lazy is a stage where you destroy boulders blocking your path, which never feels as satisfying as the same act in Resident Evil 5. Returning to the foreground/background mechanic, there will be times when the camera will not be your friend, as your character will be obscured by what’s happening closest to your screen. It’s not a severe problem, but it’s there.
Those who yearn for the old-school games will love the nostalgic sounds and visuals Battle Grounds offers. Defunct Games was right to correct the official PlayStation blog when it falsely described the game’s graphics as “8-bit,” as there is more detail and animation going on than anything seen from the NES era. The backgrounds are appealing with their crudely drawn cel-shaded style and faux 3D presence. The main girls may be stereotypical in design but are still fun and adorable characters to play. One character in particular, Kurisu Makise of Steins;Gate fame (available as DLC), has some impressive attack animations that should make fans happy.
Enemies are amusing caricatures for the most part, but when the game decides to have its white heroines fight off against waves of dark-skinned enemies — well, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow. I’m willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up as programmers poorly implementing which character color variation you fight next than something intentionally racist. When the games moves on to monstrous demonic and robotic foes, it’s all the better for it.
My only regret is that I was unable to try out the online multiplayer modes, as I couldn’t find anyone to match up with. Either because of how niche the game is or the limited audience the PS Vita provides, I couldn’t play co-op or fight anyone to the death. This may not be a problem for anyone buying this game with a friend in mind, but anyone hoping to join a quick online match will have trouble doing just that. For $12 on the PlayStation Network store, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds does its job and does it well — just don’t expect anything more.