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Alternate dimensions, magical girls, and an unwieldy title? Yup, it’s an anime game. None of those are necessarily bad, except for when you have to repetitively type such a lengthy title. Otherwise, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is one fine brawler from a series with a history outside of the genre.
Fighters and brawlers share plenty of similarities, and 5pb had little issue with the transition. I grew up on games like Double Dragon II and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III for the NES, and while brawlers have lost popularity over the years, I’m always quick to jump on newcomers. Battle Grounds, unlike so many others, has a surprising amount of depth.
Some recent inclusions to the genre have RPG elements, but I’ve yet to play anything which takes the idea this far. Each of the characters have three base skills: attack, defense, and speed. How these level is entirely up to your playstyle. Where they differ is in their skill trees, with roughly fifteen abilities to be unlocked. On my initial playthrough I went with Yuzuha the ninja who has lots of flashy attacks and can temporarily vanish. Meanwhile, Itsuki is a powerhouse, exhibiting more deliberate maneuvers. Now, imagine experience-gathering has you participating in all the wonderful over-the-top action of anime in a 2D, pixel art form. The result is flashy, chaotic, colorful, and palpably satisfying.
The make-or-break factor for high octane combat is often visual feedback. Taking on numerous enemies with precision strikes isn’t enough. You have to look like a badass. Battle Grounds has a firm understanding of this with gorgeous animations, each possessing their own flair. As Yuzuha, I often catch myself charge-attacking, because the fiery hurt put on display is just so impressive. The same thing can be said about every action, whether it’s the shockwave given off by a perfectly timed counter or the simple fluidity of sprinting.
Everything about Battle Grounds is visually stunning. Pixel art may not have the same jaw-dropping effect of hyper-realism, but the sheer gumption of style warrants your attention. While both playable characters and foes are 2D, the highly detailed world has plenty of depth. Not only do backgrounds appear 3D, but there are two planes upon which to fight during any given battle. By tapping the proper command, your character jumps back and forth between the close and far lanes. It’s a clever way of avoiding the age-old brawler issue of struggling to be incredibly precise with limited depth perception. There’s never any doubt whether your attack will land, so long as you're in the appropriate lane.
Most environments are mundane on paper, and admittedly none are as impressively detailed as the initial zone, Akiba. Even so, every locale gels withmoe presentation and the increasingly zany enemy design. In suit with the retro visuals is a stellar, upbeat chiptune soundtrack which furthers pushes the energetic tone.
Given 5pb’s history with fighters, it should come as no surprise that Battle Grounds' combat isn’t standard for the genre. By no means are the combos or base tactics as deep as Street Fighter or even Smash Bros., but one has to be ever-mindful of their tactical approach. The average cannon fodder may not pose a huge threat on lower difficulties, but one slip can easily cost you during a boss battle. One of the few issues: having to skip through cutscenes every time you lose a boss battle comes as a result of the welcomed challenge. It's a fairly minor complaint, seeing how quickly dialogue can be skipped, but it’s nonetheless annoying.
The game's biggest issue is the lack of online multiplayer. Japanese developers don’t seem to have the strongest grasp on potential success in this regard. PC gaming isn’t known for couch co-op, but the obvious solution of online isn’t anywhere to be found. As much I’d like to get a three friends to tag along, the likelihood of my PC being the hub of such an interaction is minuscule.
As is with many anime games, Battle Grounds’ story is secondary. I can confirm there is some sort of good vs. evil fight involving multiple dimensions and magical girls. That’s it. To fully appreciate the narrative, it’s probably best to have pre-investment with the Phantom Breaker series. Not that there’s no amusement to be had, the moe style certainly makes the target audience quite niche. But if you think about it, adorable idealistic girls beating the shit out of a plethora of eccentric foes should be everyone’s jam.
The only factor which will be keeping Phantom: Breaker: Battle Grounds of my top 10 list come year's end is the fact it’s a port of a 2013 XBLA release. Otherwise, it’s a fantastic brawler with impressive mechanical chops and a wonderfully realized 2D world of moe.
HuniePop is the dumbest game I've played in 2014. And I fully expect it to stay that way come December.
I don’t get the sense that HuniePot, the developer, intended me to laugh as much as I did during the eight hour investment. There is little inkling of sarcasm — or maybe satire — of the dating-sim premise with the usual array of scantily clad anime girls. And yet, the kickstarter page and related blog all seem to imply this game is at leastsemi-serious. There’s a whole lot wrong, but the utterly trashy time isn't so bad. HuniePop is like a joke food. You suspect it’ll taste awful — and it definitely does — but you have a "good" time nonetheless.
As far as anime dating-sim premises go, it passes the originality test. How's that? Well, there's not a single high school in sight. You play the role of the shut-in who's terrible with girls. Neatly enough, you can choose between being male or female, but it does little other than minor dialogue alterations. Either way you’ll be visited by a fairy who vows to help you out. Not with magic, oddly. Oh,no. This fairy is much more inclined to give you sketchy advice on how to improve your luck with the ladies. It's one of those fairies.
Worse yet is the HunieBee device with a Girl Tracker App. Now, other games like Persona 4 and Mass Effect let you know where and who your romance options are at anytime, but the framing of an app contextualized within the narrative tracking their exact locations is extra creepy. Many of the early scenes begin with two girls: one leaves. Girl Tracker, instantly gives you a brief rundown of who they are, and from then on out, you always know where they are.
I’ve no qualms with sex in games, and in fact, I’ll keep on advocating for the subject. With crass dialogue and flimsy characterization, HuniePop truly tests my limits. Upon meeting Aiko Yumi, your fairy helper talks about her Asian fetish by calling it "yellow fever." Now in the constant, messy, overwhelming debate of politically correct terminology, I’ve come to a conclusion. If you wouldn't refer to someone as yellow, redskin, or whatever in a face-to-face meeting with them, then it’s probably not wise to so casually employ the term.
Most of the dialogue is harmless, if laughable. And while not on a date, you can engage in conversation. One of three choices will net you more Affection points, which can be used to level up traits such as talent, sexuality, and passion. Each girl has has a favorite and a least favorite trait. Rudimentary for sure, but there's an addictive quality to it due to swift progress. There isn’t time to sit and think about how slow everything is moving as you’re constantly engaging the systems with tangible success.
Intertwined with the conversations are hunger and intoxication meters. Tasteful is really not an apt adjective. Like traits, each girl has a favorite food, which you can give them to keep the conversation going. Alcohol is used to boost the speed at which you obtain affection.
Implying that plying women with drinks to advance the relationship more rapidly is definitely for the best. Again, there’s some grey area, but then you remember the protagonist isn’t drinking, so we’re left only one option: the asshole that gets girls drunk.
Breaking up these less-than-honorable moments are dates. And what better way to seduce than by displaying your incredible match-three skills? With a limited number of moves, you must hit the ever increasing score or else the date fails. Successful outings will advance the relationship by a level. Match-threes are nothing new, but the infusion of minor RPG mechanics does bring a slight spark of creativity. Like chess or solitaire, the mechanics have taken on a timeless nature. HuniePop doesn’t shake up a proven formula in any profound way, but that’s absolutely fine. So long as you have no disposition to match-threes, there’s plenty to be enjoyed.
Until you hit the sex mini-game, that is.
Upon a successful fourth night out, you and your date head back to your apartment. Here, too, you are faced with matching, but there’s a significantly larger hurdle to be jumped. It’s not the half-naked girl, nor the moans that she makes when you make a successful match that are most off-putting. It’s not even the provocative depictions — H-scenes — of your lover which appear afterwards. What fails is the change of mechanics. You’re still matching three, but now you have to score a massive chain in rapid succession. When the puzzles are initially introduced for dating, you’re given a clear explanation of mechanics and strategies. During the sex mini-game, you’re pushed out the airplane with nothing but some sewing material and a few old blankets.
The first attempt isn’t pretty, but getting the hang of things comes with practice. Afterwards, it’s by far the most fulfilling experience. A challenging endeavor is always the most rewarding one after all. Maybe that’s intentional. However that would require HuniePop to be clever and it’s anything but.
On the topic of lacking cleverness, the dialogue could not be any more inhuman. People don’t talk the way the characters converse in HuniePop. Bad pick-up lines and non sequitur questioning run rampant. Roleplaying is just not valid, and picking a single girl is a far less optimal playstyle. You’re rewarded for telling each girl exactly what they want to hear. Intentional humor exists, but how much enjoyment you get depends entirely on whether you can laugh at the so-bad-it’s-good writing.
Asking a girl "what cup size are you rocking" two seconds after meeting her? That’s not exactly high-brow.
The remaining dialogue brings forth a lack of finish. One moment you’re asking inane questions, the next you’re being quizzed on the answer to the question you just proposed. There’s an absence of genuineness which repeated dialogue and little actual progression of the relationship exacerbate. I knew I succeeded, but only because of UI. Which is easily HuniePop’s biggest failing. Taking human emotion and turning it into a mechanic is a surefire means to craft a hollow creation. When a relationship has finally advanced as far as it can, it does so unceremoniously. A proper conclusion does not exist even if you max out every relationship. Developer HuniePot has since addressed the issue by saying they aim to release an update with end-game content around Valentine’s Day. Good on them for hearing fans out, but this is something which should have been in the original release.
At this point, it should come as no surprise that there’s a lack of artistic cohesion. Many backgrounds clash with the anime character designs. Worst is the night club, with its realistic human silhouettes scattered across a fuzzy image — mostly thanks to the finicky resolution settings. Sterile environments and some under-detailed character designs clash with the well-done stills, splitting up scenes. Despite the lack of animation or dialogue, there is far more humanity being expressed.
HuniePop has and will continue to receive ire for its sexual content. Some of the mechanics and depictions deserve fair criticism. It’s essentially a douche-bag simulator which intentionally and unintentionally garners plenty of laughs. But for what success it has with the puzzles, there’s a clear sense of an unfinished piece.
I’m happy Steam has been building its visual novel catalogue, even if that means heavily censoring the adult content. HuniePop is by no means a top tier VN like 5pb, Nitroplus, or Key are known for. It’s also not a terribleaddition to the foundation of an emerging genre in the West.