Power Up Girls
Few genres are as immediately understandable as the beat ‘em up. Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, a spinoff of a 2D fighting game, has you play as one of several weaponised schoolgirls tearing from the left to the right of the screen. You’ll be combating fanged monsters and cultural stereotypes alike, pummelling them into groups and smashing them sky high, before meeting a boss at the end of each level.
You don’t want to play Phantom Breaker without some kind of control pad. As a PC port it’s fairly barebones – a retro 16-bit throwback that boots up already-windowed. The sprite work and animation quality is solid though, which is all that really matters for such a fast-paced brawler. The two-dimensional playing field will fill up fast with bad guys and you’ll want to get straight to work bashing those buttons to get rid of them. On the easier difficulties, Phantom Breaker is extremely forgiving. You can deliver deadly specials often and there’s always trashcans of food you can break open and eat to regain your health. The game also features two planes, so that you can switch from foreground to background if you’re ever surrounded.
Swapping planes rarely comes in handy for anything other than tactical retreats. For the most part, you’ll want as many enemies on your bit of the screen as possible so that you can trap them all in some kind of near-infinite combo. Each schoolgirl has a different weapon set and fighting style (as well as hairdo), which means you can always swap out for a change of pace. There is a fair bit of complexity to the combat, more than a beat ‘em up really needs. The complexity makes sense considering Phantom Breaker’s fighting game heritage, and it’s nice to have such a fluid system where you can chain different attacks and keep long sets of combinations going.
Pick up the pace
Despite the fighting nuance, the combat is still straightforward. Enemies come in great waves, and although there are a few types that will charge at you or try to put you in one of their own deadly combos, you can often break out and immediately exact revenge. There’s also not much outside of battering waves of enemies. As mentioned, there’s a boss at the end of each level, but they’re often a similarly proportioned schoolgirl, and so throughout the game there aren’t really any stand-out set pieces or interesting tangents to chop up the pace.
There are higher difficulties available, once you’ve completed the game, and so I can only imagine more hardcore fighting-experts will be forced to play more conservatively and perfect their combo-making abilities. As you fight your way through Tokyo, your schoolgirl will slowly gain experience and level up. In between levels, you power up their attack, defence or speed as well as learn extra combinations and specials through a skill tree. It’s simple, but it means there’s some long-term investment there.
The story behind Phantom Breaker is light, a thin justification for a mindless cartoon rampage across Tokyo. Whilst I imagine that the game’s manic style and flavour is genuinely appreciated by some, it really is Japanese pop culture tuned to a level of manufactured zaniness rather than genuine idiosyncrasy. Your fights take place through the major commercial centres of Tokyo amd the colourful districts of Akihabara, Ikebukuro and Shinjuku, where you battle in underground car parks and subway stations, as well as across the great indoor expanses of tiled shopping complexes.
The setting and tone of Phantom Breaker is quite forgettable, particularly for those un-initiated in the way of the Otaku. However, for the most part it’s still hectic and mindless fun. It’s proficient in allowing you to beat people up, to quickly grab a control pad and mash a few buttons and produce something which looks spectacular. It also comes with local co-op, and if my schooldays in inner London taught me anything, it’s that beating people up as part of a group is infinitely more rewarding than fighting things out solo.
Hectic and fun beat ‘em up, fairly complex combo system taken from fighting games, beating people up as a group is even better, the girls have great hairdos
Stylistically feels more like manufactured bonkers than authentic bonkers, not much to it other than fighting big waves of enemies