Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive (PS4)

Back in early April of 2013 Mages, and their publisher 5pb released onto the Xbox 360 XBLA library a substitute game for a planned Phantom Breaker 2D fighter. This unsuspected yet brilliantly delivered anime beat 'em up that was "Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds" ended up surprising even me. It turned out to be a game that incorporated deeply involved fighting game elements into a "Streets of Rage" style brawler. It could be played solo, or in the company of friends as a co-op, or competitive game making it all the more intriguing. There was both local, and network play included in the affordable retail cost. The art style that accompanied said gaming experience was of a cutesy chibi-anime design, and was done up in a way that utilized pixels for character builds. One might think that such an odd combination of features would screw with the game's intended quality, but in the end it was the perfect genre blend. When 5pb announced the release of an upgraded version of the same game for the PS4 earlier this year I was once again excited to take that trip down memory lane, and see what changes, if any had taken hold of the original experience. To my dismay I did not notice any real changes other than the inclusion of a former DLC character, and some possible tweaks to the character management system, and modes. Regardless of these possible basic improvements, and the lack of truly new content I still had a blast playing through the game. It definitely lived up to the asking price, and it's former glory.

In "Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive" you take on the role of one of several female protagonists with special powers known as "F.A.". It is this power that the game's main villain seeks out, and through a devious scheme he does end up winning some of the F.A. wielders over with the promise of wishes being granted. Unfortunately for said individuals 'Phantom (the game's bad guy)' had plotted to free himself from his eternal prison by granting said wishes. By promising wishes, and granting them for those who asked he would be able to free himself from his bonds due to the power surge that the act would cause. The story in which these events occur takes place in Japan like many anime inspired games do. It has protagonists Mikoto, Waka, Itsuki, Yuzuha, and others traversing the monster plagued locales, and otherworldly realms in order to aid their manipulated friends while freeing them from the grips of Phantom's persuasive powers.

Upon starting up the game you will be greeted by a decently animated anime style intro that showcases the girls of 'Phantom Breaker' in chibi-form as well as some of the villainous characters you will meet as you engage in the game's few modes of play. Past the intro sequence lies a simple menu select screen filled with straightforward options. There's a "Play Game" main menu hub for all the offline modes of play as well as an inclusive "Network" sub-menu for those looking to take the game for a spin with some random online gamers. In the "Play Game" menu you will find four different offline modes including 'Story Mode', 'Arcade Mode', 'Co-op Mode', and 'Battlegrounds'. The 'Story Mode' is where you'll be taking your selected character through the game's given plot, and beat 'em up stages while leveling up their power, and abilities. Story mode, like the other modes come in a variety of difficulties with 'Easy', and 'Normal' being available from the start, but 'Hard', Nightmare', and 'Nightmare+' awaiting those who can first beat the normal playthrough.

In 'Story Mode' you will begin by selecting one of four initially available characters (Mikoto, Waka, Itsuki, Yuzuha), and their color palette along with the preferred difficulty setting. It should be noted that the color palettes are race friendly, and showcase a bit of everything for all races. Aside from those aesthetics you'll find that your chosen character is governed by various RPG-like elements. They have upgradeable RPG attributes in the form of 'Attack', 'Defense', and 'Speed'. They also have an upgradeable skill tree that enables the character/s to jump more, perform stronger combos, and enhance their various special attacks amongst other fighting game related things. This of course can all be set in-game after a stage completion, or in the main menu titled "Skill Set". Everything that can be upgraded can only be done so through the skill points gained from stage completion, and stage grinding (aka, the killing off of enemies).

When it comes to playing "Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive" in 'Story Mode' or whatever other stage oriented mode you choose you will find things aren't as simple as a 'Streets of Rage' style beat 'em up. As I mentioned earlier this game does incorporate fighting game mechanics that allow for combo oriented attacks. After choosing your character, and their respective color palette you will begin your adventure on the first stage (in 'Story Mode', 'Arcade Mode' & 'Co-op Mode'). As you begin you'll notice that your character has a couple of gauges, and a special icon at the upper left-hand corner of the screen. One gauge is a health gauge, and it lets you know how much life your character has left. It can be refilled by picking up food items that drop from crates, or enemies that you attack. The second gauge is an "SP" gauge, and it helps you to realize when you can, or cannot use certain special attacks (EX Attack, Phantom Break, Overdrive, Counter Burst, Critical Burst ...) according the color that it currently is (aka, gauge percentage). The gauge will fill up multiple times, but utilizing it in the way that you want will require the correct timing, and proper combination of face, directional (DPad), and shoulder buttons. Luckily for you all is explained in detail within the 25 page 'Help Menu".

Once you've grasped all that the "Help Menu" describes (I highly suggest you reference it before you play as there is no in-game tutorial) you'll be ready to take your chibi-heroine on a proper frantic beat 'em up outing. Just know that you will be switching lanes to target/attack specific rows of enemies via the "Lane Movement" mechanic (L1) instead of roaming freely (aka, 'Streets of Rage' style). Also note that your attacks come in the light, medium, and heavy damage variety with the fourth face button reserved for SP (special attacks). Utilizing the basic attacks of 'Light (SQUARE)', 'Medium (TRIANGLE)', and 'Heavy (CIRCLE)' along with 'SP (X)' you will be able to rack up fighting game combos of ridiculous proportions. Needless to say you can't just button mash your way through the mobs of surrounding baddies as there is an automatic defense mechanism that comes into play when you choose to press nothing. Timing your attacks, and defenses will mean the difference between success, and defeat. Like a proper fighting game 'Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive' does take skill to master, and to complete. Don't let the "beat 'em up' aspect of it fool you.

When it comes to a 'Story Mode' playthrough you'll find that it happens very much like a multiple area event (Think 'Sonic the Hedgehog') in which bad guys swarm you in massive numbers/varieties, and bosses greet you at the end for a final fight. Each stage (and there are several in the 'Story Mode' playthrough) is ultimately divided up into several areas of interest each. By clearing out all of one area's enemies, and reading through the text that accompanies the odd adventure therein you will eventually wind up at the boss battle in which you'll basically have to catch said boss off guard while delivering the final blow via the provided fighting game mechanics. Enemies, no matter what the type will drop massive amounts of loot, and power-ups that will aid you in the improvement of your chosen character.

In 'Arcade Mode' the same stage by stage playthrough plays out in it's entirety, but without the story elements. While in 'Arcade Mode' you'll also notice that the screen houses a score, and timer display that will allow you to keep track of your progress as you battle your way to the end. It also allows you to share a screenshot of your achievement as a skilled 'Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive" player via the PS4 share button option. Unfortunately you will not be able to PS4 share your gameplay footage in full length video form as the developer/publisher has nullified that feature in-game. Within the additional 'Co-op Mode' that is selectable from the same 'Play Game' menu as the previously mentioned modes of play you'll be able to enjoy a similar playthrough as 'Story Mode', but with up to four players locally. This is good for those oldschool couch gaming sessions that true friends can share at home. For those looking for that proper fighting game experience outside of the friendly 'Co-op Mode' you will find that 'Battlegrounds' may be just what you're looking for. Like the local 'Co-op mode', 'Battlegrounds' can be played locally with up to three other friends/family members, but will allow for a more competitive engagement. By that I mean you will be brawling with your best buddies using your upgraded character of choice. Of course all the in-game rules, and mechanics usage still applies, but in this case you'll be fighting for top spot.

Aside from the offline 'Play Game' options you also find in place a 'Play Game' option geared wholly towards online play. This sub-menu of sorts known as 'Network' houses only multiplayer modes, and will have you engaging in friendly co-op inspired playthroughs, or competitive battles with random online gamers similar to those found in the offline portions of the game. 'Co-op Mode', and 'Battlegrounds' are very much there for you to enjoy in the best of ways. You can 'create', 'search', or risk it all, and 'quick join' in either two modes of play. Supposing you play it smart you will choose the 'create', or 'search' options in which you can set the criteria according to ping/signal strength, and game type. It's more, or less a mode for those who don't have close friends or family to game with anymore.

For those of you worried about your score rankings, and speed run times 'Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive' does contain, in it's menu system a leaderboard that will easily help you find your global ranking. It is divided up by the usual things including mode type, score, ranking, and other things that tie-in with the various modes of offline, and online gameplay. To further entice you to do your best as you play the developer has also added PSN trophies into the mix that can be earned by performing various feats of in-game prowess. Some trophies are easier to earn than others, but that's pretty much a given for any game that features skill based gameplay.

In the way of visual, and sound quality 'Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive' does well enough to impress. It has cute anime characters done up in indie-like pixels. It also has backgrounds which definitely look like they came from the minds of a Japanese game developer (I mean that with the utmost respect). You'll see mock streets of Japanese districts as well as fictitious realms created in a sort of watercolor presentation. The character design itself is brilliantly done, and animated. Even the enemies in their extremely odd appearances look anime inspired. The only complaint, if any would be that the sound effects that come with looting enemies to death in mass numbers is annoying. The coin dropping sounds can really grate on one's nerves. Other than that the music that accompanies each level has a sort of retro appeal that most gamers will enjoy. It definitely stays true to the more indie side of the game.

New PS4 Features ...

Thrown into the fray that is 'Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive' are some subtle, and not so subtle features that are exclusive to the PS4 version. You'll find that the hordes of enemies this time around are more plentiful, and that there's a newly arranged soundtrack as well as new skills/abilities (Triple Jump, Shadow Clones ...), and new items (Out Range ...) that change the technical aspect of gameplay. I definitely noticed the more chaotic gameplay, and it definitely explains why I died so often in the beginning of my story mode playthrough (O_o). I don't think the enemy upgrade was all that necessary, but it did help the leveling up process some. Other than those things you'll find that the only significant difference is the offering up of the Steins;Gate DLC character, 'Makise Kurisu' which will cost you a questionable "$5.99".

The Verdict ...

Despite having one piece of character oriented DLC outside of the main game 'Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive' still impresses me on a grand scale. It functions as well as I remembered, and looks amazing on the PS4. The fact that the developer offered up all offline, and online modes of play yet again makes this affordable genre hybrid all the more worth the while. I think they even included a previously DLC exclusive character free of charge (Yuzuha). Even if you've played the original game like I have don't pass up getting to enjoy it on the PS4 as well. It's very much worth the asking price ($14.99)!

*NOTE*: You can unlock extra characters by playing through the 'Story Mode' on different difficulty settings. This in itself extends upon the game's already decent replay value.

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