The video game release schedule, between late June and late August, is a desert. Barely any AAA titles come out, and while there are bright spots, like new episodes of Life Is Strange, mostly if you’re looking for a new game, you’re rolling the dice on a multitude of imports and indies. Even by those standards, though, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is weird. But a good weird.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds (PC, PS4, Xbox 360, PS Vita)
This game, a spin-off of an obscure fighting franchise, essentially aims to look and feel like an early ’90s era beat-’em-up and succeeds quite admirably. The chiptune music, sprite graphics, sound mix, and what one suspects is a deliberately cheap English translation that makes the plot impossible to follow will send anybody who cut their teeth on gaming in the 2D era right back to their childhood. They pallet-swap sprites! There’s a level on a freight elevator! Let’s slam some Surge, dudes!
Similarly, the game takes the rare step of unflinchingly embracing how Japanese it is. It’s part of the nostalgia and to be honest, it’s pretty welcome.
Despite the deliberately nostalgic tone, this game is surprisingly deep. As you collect gems to boost your experience points, you’ll get a huge number of points to spend on customizing your character, both boosting their key stats and unlocking special moves and combos. It’s also relentlessly customizable; you can go in, wipe all your stats, and change your build completely from the main menu or even any time you’re in the upgrade screen. It’s a welcome change to brawlers.
That said, there are some aspects of the game that take some getting used to. First of all, it doesn’t use the thumbsticks; instead, you’ll hop between the foreground and the background to whale on your foes, using the trigger, and move with the D-pad. It also uses fighting game controls, which is an odd holdover; pressing “up” to jump doesn’t quite feel suited to this game.
It takes a little getting used to, although it’s preferable to the free-roaming 2D brawler in terms of efficiency; enemies get right up in your face and you’d better return the favor. Once you get the hang of the system, and read the manual, you’ll be pounding on Japanese hipsters in no time.
The game has five difficulties, some of which you have to unlock, and three different modes, plus both online and offline co-op. That said, the main story campaign is short on “normal.” I blew through it in just three hours with one character. The idea, of course, is that you keep playing to unlock new characters and level up your starting heroines, but if that doesn’t appeal to you, it’s pretty short.
Being a multiplatform game with little in the way of DLC, you won’t have to worry about a $15 game becoming a $60 one.
At $15, I’m not really sure Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is the best-priced deal out there. But if you want to hammer buttons, collect coins, and generally flash back to your childhood for a little while, it’s $15 well spent.