Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a co-op beat-em-up game that hit Xbox Live Arcade in 2013. A year later it found more fans when it moved to PlayStation Vita. Now, the PC release is finally here, so we can all stand for applause. Think of PBB like River City Ransom, Scott Pilgrim or Double Dragon, only a little more on rails and a little more focused on attack strategy and combos.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is actually a spin-off from Phantom Breaker, a one on one fighting game released in 2011 for Xbox 360. Battle Grounds takes elements from the fighter and turns everything into a sidescrolling beat-em-up, complete with adorable (but still frightening) chibi versions of some of the main characters. It's easy to see the cross-genre influences, especially when you take a look at the light-medium-hard attack style button layout. Street Fighter says hi!
The story in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is, let's see, intricate. A lot of it is told through pages of text and pre-boss conversations, and it involves things like parallel dimensions, a bad guy named Phantom, something about a kidnapped sister, and four warriors who are out to rescue her. That's a great excuse to get out there and punch some stuff, so choose your character and get started.
Moves variety is one of the best things about Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds. You can jump, dash, throw, guard break and guard cancel, for starters. Many of those moves can be chained with light, medium and hard attacks for even more variety. Each of the main attacks moves at its own speed and deals a corresponding amount of damage, heavy attacks being slower but hurting a lot more, for example. It naturally sets things up for combos, which are counted on the screen and help build your special attack meter.
Levels in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds are divided into two tracks: the foreground and the background. You can't freely move between them, you can only switch when you're at a standing position by pressing the L button. Putting the action on two confined stages brings its own level of strategy. The two tiers don't interact with each other, meaning enemies have to cross over in order to attack. The usual beat-em-up rule of "keep everybody in front of you" still applies, but with the two levels to think about, you have to reserve a sliver of your awareness for the back- and foreground.
You'll also want to keep an eye out for collectibles in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds. Grabbing gems that burst out of defeated enemies and destroyed props go toward your experience points. Characters have skill trees you get to fill out by spending said points, adding a slight RPG flavoring to the mix. Each warrior levels up independently of the others and has separate attack, defense and speed stats that need boosting, too. Collect gems during combat and bring them to the character stat screen after each stage to buff the ladies up one slot at a time.
Co-op in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds lets you bring in three other players for a good old fashioned brawl fest. Each person chooses a character and joins in the fray to contribute their own punches, kicks, throws and combos that benefit the team by giving enemies one more target to lust after. Gems and coins fly all over the place, there are flashing lights and battle cries, it's epic.
True cooperation comes into play when you lure bosses away from buddies and revive fallen comrades by crouching over their lifeless corpses, putting yourself in harm's way. It's a simple setup that really isn't any different from other beat-em-ups out there, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The one drawback is that every player needs their own gamepad to participate. Keyboard controls don't seem to be supported, so break out the adapters and crowd around the laptop.
One co-op feature players have been moaning about is the lack of online play. The console versions had online capabilities, but it was buggy at best. The development team decided to emphasize local co-op for the PC release rather than push out another barrel of bugs. Plans for future online play haven't been set, but at this point, don't bet on it. Local cuts down the potential audience, but at least it's a smooth experience.
For some replay value, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds adds unlockable nightmare difficulty modes and an arcade mode that lets you jump in to beat your old scores. Characters level up individually and scores are only saved on a per-difficulty level, meaning if you want to show off your mastery, you'll have to do it several times.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is ultimately a satisfying game that's going to scratch every beat-em-up itch you have. It's easy to pick up and play, offers respectable co-op action, looks and sounds great, and features long-term rewards in addition to the instant gratification of beating up people who look at you the wrong way.