This is a Public Service Announcement: there’s an amazing game on Xbox Live that nobody seems to be aware of. It’s an old-school beat-‘em-up that combines the stunning pixel art of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and the sophisticated gameplay of Guardian Heroes. It’s $10, it’s mad Japanese, and you should play it IMMEDIATELY!!
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a spinoff of obscure Japanese 2D fighter Phantom Breaker. The North American release was cancelled, apparently, and I can’t even begin to comprehend the story. Something about “Fu-Mantion Artifacts” and reviving an ancient evil named Phantom who looks like Ghetto Jafar. The full title for this thing is Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds – Cocoa’s Nightmare Attack – . Yeah, the grammar nerd in me is screaming out in agony at ending a sentence with a dash. I’m surprised they couldn’t fit a few tildes in there while they were at it. Thanks, Japan.
There’s not a whole lot of information available about this game. It was made by Japanese developer Division2 and published by 5pb Games. There’s a Japanese website for the game that was translated into English (http://5pb.jp/games/pbbg/en/), leading to some helpful gems like this: “Mikoto - The music college student, has black hair and great sword. All round player with basic tricks.” They must have a shitty PR/marketing budget, because I’ve only seen two or three gaming websites cover it. I didn’t even know it existed until I stumbled onto the demo in the new releases section of Xbox Live Arcade.
When I fired up that demo on a whim, though, I was blown away. The most striking feature is the presentation of the game, which does justice to the pixelated roots of the beat-‘em-up genre. It wasn’t animated by famed artist Paul Robertson, but it sure as hell looks like it (which is a plus for me). I had to do some digging to find that it wasn’t him doing the game, because it looks that damn good. Characters are “super deformed,” so they’re all enormous heads and adorable puppy dog eyes. I have to say it again: damn, these sprites look good. Just watching the characters’ idle animations is mesmerizing. There is also some excellent, catchy chiptunes music in the background at all times, which adds a lot to the experience.
Since this is a Japanese game, the characters are an assortment of anime archetypes like “girl in frilly dress,” “ninja girl,” and “shrine keeper girl.” There’s an amnesiac who “fights only to satisfy her lust for battles.” There’s also a maid that wields a giant hammer and calls herself a warrior of justice, or something. Characters have overly elaborate names for their special moves, borrowing stuff from other languages like “Stumpfer Flugel.” Just go with it. Pick the one you think is cutest. You start off with 4 available characters, with 6 others unlocked through beating the game on the four different difficulty levels. There’s also a DLC character being released next week, bringing the roster to 10 female characters and 1 evil male.
If you’re turned off by the 1000% Japan-sanity™ of this game thus far, there’s one major selling point: the combat is unparalleled among beat-‘em-ups. It’s a simple system at first glance, with strong, medium, and light attack buttons that you can wail on to take down enemies. As you level up between stages, you can invest in stat bonuses to attack, defense, and speed. More importantly, there’s also an elaborate skill tree to spend your points on, which opens up the game to a huge extent. There is way too much stuff to cover here, but the game gets into special moves, EX moves, guard cancels, overdrives, Phantom Breaks, and all kinds of nonsense. It’s ridiculous, almost as detailed as a regular 2D fighter, yet it all works. It requires a 26-page “How to Play” tutorial thing to explain all of this shit. The depth is there is you want to explore it, or you can just smash some stuff up real good if you’d prefer.
The game also features two horizontal planes in which you can fight enemies, much like the genre classic Guardian Heroes. You can hop between the two lanes at will to avoid enemy attacks, which is very helpful during the boss fights. I wasn’t a huge fan of this setup when I first encountered it in Guardian Heroes, but it works seamlessly in this game.
I could go on and on about how much fun I’ve had with this game since I picked it up this past weekend and how much time I’ve lost while playing it (always a sign of an awesome game for me). The most important bullet point for me is that the game shows a little respect to players. It’s $10 for starters, not $15 or $20. It seems like $15 is the standard price now for XBLA games, so I was super happy to see that $10 price tag. The game also has more features in it at launch than Scott Pilgrim has a year or two later, with that planned DLC or whatever that will finally add online multiplayer. Phantom Breaker has 4-player online co-op from the get-go, couch co-op, a deathmatch mode, more complex fighting, and way more characters to choose from. The DLC I mentioned earlier is being released for $5 next week, and it includes a bonus character and doubles the level cap from 50 to 99. I’m happy to buy that and show some support for the game. With Scott Pilgrim, I have to pay extra for the privilege of playing online with friends, pay extra for the bonus modes and stuff. Nah, not doing it.
Like I said at the beginning of this thing, I just don’t think enough people are aware of this game, which is a goddamn shame. I consider myself to be a pretty well-informed consumer when it comes to video games, especially the intersection of retro games and weird Japanese shit, and Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds wasn’t on my radar AT ALL. If you have even a passing fondness for the beat-‘em-up genre, I highly, highly recommend that you give this game a look.