As much of a blast as old school beat em’ up video games like Streets of Rage, Double Dragon and the River City Ransom series are to play, new titles under this same banner often fail to modernise the classic genre – instead choosing to rely purely on nostalgia to fuel the fun. Although this is very much a design choice, it seems like the classic brawler could be so much more within the current video game landscape.

If you need reminding, the retro hits that started it all normally required you to move from one side to the other side of a level, repeatedly punching and kicking every baddie in sight until your fingers were bruised and battered. Sure, it was fun, but it wasn’t exactly mentally stimulating. Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive – developed by MAGES and published by 5pb – is a spin-off of the 2011 fighting game Phantom Breaker and also happens to be a title originally released in 2013. Essentially it incorporates traditional fighting game mechanics along with a few other modern touches to add much-needed depth to what is undeniably an aging concept.  

The story in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive is obscure as they come; with the fighter you take control of losing their power at the start of the game. Like with any other brawler, it’s really just one big excuse to unleash mayhem on the streets. As you would expect, every confrontation results in a fight. Taking control of a generic anime character dressed in the usual colourful attire of your choice, you’ll find yourself punching, kicking and occasionally blasting creepy middle-aged men wielding golf clubs, giant monsters that cover the entire screen, thugs on motorbikes, self-aware drones and even cake-throwing sumos on the streets of Japan. There’s enough enemy variety to keep the fighting fresh. There are also end of level bosses, typically in the form of anime characters, who absorb a hell of a lot of damage – with these showdowns more comparable to traditional fighting games.  

The fights take place in parallel universes, on the streets, in the school cafeteria, down at the local arcade, in alleyways and even in a boatyard. It’s nothing out of the ordinary from the likes of Streets of Rage and will make any players returning to this particular genre feel right at home. The sprite-based anime artwork and colourful backdrops only enhances the nostalgic vibes, as do the upbeat chip tunes. The game looks great in both the handheld and docked modes with silky smooth performance as well. There are also Japanese voice-overs with English subtitles, and plenty of battle cries from each character during battles. Despite the presentation and sound showing a certain level of admiration towards the classics, at its core, Battle Grounds Overdrive is still a contemporary take on the genre.

It’s most notably the deeper fighting mechanics and progression system that highlights this. Instead of just tapping the buttons to punch and kick, this game comes bundled with its own fighting system. Anyone familiar with the likes of Street Fighter should be able to grasp the basics quite easily. Each selectable character has a key weapon, unique moveset and additional specials that are powered by your burst gauge. Like a traditional fighting game, weak, medium and strong attacks are present, allowing you to execute quick combos on the fly. Then there’s the overdrive ability (which improves your strength and speed), emergency mode (which gives you added protection at the expense of your life gauge) and the guard and crouching block (which protect your hero against enemy attacks). Character movement makes use of the analogue stick, buttons or a combination of the two, and the controls in general make the fighting feel fluent.

This fighting system puts Phantom Breaker a step above the competition. Instead of mindlessly mashing buttons, you can now somewhat put a little thought into how to approach fights. While you can still get by just button bashing, on higher difficulties (especially the nightmare modes) you’ll need to understand how the fighting system works and be able to flawlessly execute certain moves when necessary. Learning how guard functions and how to properly throw, juggle, uppercut, recover, use ranged attacks and even dash or slide attack enemies can make extensive combos made-up of more than one hundred hits a lot easier to perform. 

Building upon these foundations is the lane system, which was previously seen in Treasure's Sega Saturn classic Guardian Heroes. By pressing the left shoulder button you can jump between the top and bottom part of a level. Instead of walking all over the place and attempting to line up an enemy with your fist or foot as you execute your finest move, the lane system means you don’t have to worry as much about your exact location. It’s now more a matter of beating down the wall of enemies approaching you from the left and right sides of the screen. Each level does have a tendency to drag with one too many scenes, but it’s easier to tolerate because of the streamlined movement. About the only downside with the fight mechanics is that there is no in-game tutorial, instead it’s a 25-page help menu you’ll have to slowly work your way through. Luckily it can be accessed at any time from the pause screen.

Further enhancing the playability of the title is the inclusion of a progression system. This means your fighters level-up when a stage is cleared and can improve their attack, defence and special stats. You can also customise their skills in the skill points area by buying new abilities – like being able to jump higher in the air, attack while dashing or enhance your guard ability – with the XP and coin your fighter earns within each stage. If your chosen character doesn’t make it through a stage or a boss fight, you’ll be able to use the XP you’ve gained to boost the character stats or even buy new skills so you can then have another attempt at the point you’re stuck on. Depending on your difficulty setting, it means you should progress through the game at a reasonable pace. 

The story mode will last you a number of hours, but the replay value can be found in the co-op element – supporting up to four players – along with the four player battle mode. Finally there's the arcade mode, where you aim for a high score and personal best in terms of time, with the ability to play on higher difficulties such as nightmare mode. Levelling all of the characters to unlock their skills will also keep you coming back for more. Unfortunately, the online mode, reportedly present within the original versions of the game, is currently absent from this iteration. Still, local co-op in handheld or docked mode is the ideal way to play.

Conclusion

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive is filled with so much content and action you’ll barely be able to keep track of your fighters. This is definitely a representation of how jam-packed the game is with multiple modes, a large cast of characters and antagonists along with fighting and progression systems that offer a deeper than normal experience than you would expect from a game associated with the beat em’ up genre. The traditional fighting mechanics offer some variety with how you can play the game and help to divert attention from the repetitive nature of this genre. If you would like to deliver some justice on the streets in a wacky anime world with appropriate modern touches in all the right places, this latest iteration of Phantom Breaker might be worth checking out.