Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive
Developer: Mages Inc.
Publisher: Mages Inc.
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
*a digital copy of this game was provided for the purpose of this review.
As a beat-em-up spin-off to the fighting game Phantom Breaker, Battle Grounds Overdrive has an eye-catching art style that mostly serves as its standout feature. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but its fighting game toolset is a little too quirky for this type of experience — a fault that’s only exacerbated when there’s so much chaos on-screen that it becomes a bit too troublesome to time some of the game’s key maneuvers.
However, those looking for a local co-op brawler with a bit of depth and character progression thrown in are bound to enjoy a strikingly similar experience to 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game.
With a story mode that exists purely to give the solo player something to gnaw on, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive pits a handful of cutesy anime girls with superpowers against a “big bad evil” throughout a variety of stages and boss battles. In addition to the game’s original roster, the Nintendo Switch version includes Makise Kurisu from Steins;Gate and Frau from Robotics;Notes as playable characters — I have no attachment to either series but found them both enjoyable to play on their own. In comparison to the other consoles, the Nintendo Switch version has some balancing tweaks, as well as additional BGM features and a costume (which were both available to buy elsewhere, but are packed in on the Switch port). The alternate paths found in the PS4 version have been removed as well, to “avoid over complication.”
As expected, each character has their own unique look and feel. Itsuki, who swings a massive hammer while draped in a maid outfit, has a bit more weight to her combo attacks than someone like Yuzuha, a schoolgirl shinobi that delivers quicker attacks with her daggers. Like I mentioned earlier, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds has tremendous pixel art, from its starring cast to its admirable array of enemy types. Everything is pixel perfect and the action never ceases to look any less than fantastic.
Each of the beautifully designed characters begins their adventure fully powered up, complete with double jumps and boosted stats, before having it all stripped away at the end of the opening stage. This trope allows for players to complete additional stages and earn XP, in order to build them all back up from scratch. I typically gained between 2-4 levels per stage, which surprisingly only offered enough skill points to unlock one additional move or stat boost.
Even on the easiest difficulty, Phantom Breaker proved to be fairly challenging (especially the boss encounters). Spending all of my skill points only to bump up my damage by a meager one level wasn’t a noticeable upgrade and certainly didn’t assist me in defeating some of the cheaper enemies. Thankfully, though, skill points can be reallocated. Removing my negligible damage boost in favor of purchasing a triple jump proved to be far more effective when dealing with pesky ranged enemies that liked to hide in corners and spam projectiles until the “game over” screen popped up. If that example doesn’t show you how heavily rooted Phantom Breaker is in the fighting genre, I don’t know what will.
Phantom Breaker’s level-up system is a good idea on paper, but building up each cast member independently is a bit of a slog. It definitely gives players something to look forward to in the long run, especially those who plan on investing considerable amounts of time with their friends whenever the developer updates the game with its promised online functionality in 2018 — for now, though, the game remains a locals-only couch co-op or solo experience.
Overdrive’s biggest hurdle, however, is its fighting game approach to traditional beat-em-up gameplay. Combos are initiated by mashing weak, medium, and strong attacks, while the fourth face button is used to perform special abilities, like back steps, parries, and knockbacks, or unleash damaging super moves. Players can double-tap a direction to break into a dash and combine directional movements with a combination of button presses to perform a number of maneuvers like throws, EX Attacks, and Phantom Breaks. As a 2D brawler, enemies can appear in both the foreground and background, which can be shifted between by pressing one of the shoulder buttons (also helpful for dodging projectiles!). There is so much to learn about Phantom Breaker’s mechanics that the in-game text tutorial is 25-pages long. For a genre that’s mostly accessible, button mashing will only take you so far here — even on the easiest difficulty.
I’ve been at the game for hours and still haven’t fully grasped its complexities. I can’t imagine handing a 2nd controller to a friend and asking them to read 25 pages of tutorial notes before jumping in together. An in-game tutorial would have gone a long way here, and the absence of one is a pretty unfortunate misstep.
I had more fun than not with Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive and I think the Switch’s portability will play a huge factor in how often I launch the game over something else installed on my console. I’m drawn to games that give me something to look forward to, like character growth via XP systems, but I just found Phantom Breaker’s depth to be wholly unnecessary for a beat-em-up. Having the ability to play with friends online at some point is a dangling carrot I can appreciate, though, and when that time comes I’ll probably revisit Phantom Breaker far more often. For now, I’m just not motivated enough to keep replaying stages just to level characters. Maybe if it were less cumbersome.
So, where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money. I trust in your ability to make the right decision!
Full disclosure: While I’m sometimes given games to critique, I pride myself on providing an unbiased review to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for a game is irrelevant.