If the name "Phantom Breaker" sounds familiar to you, pat yourself on the back. An obscure, Japan-only fighter, Phantom Breaker was never available to western audiences. Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, on the other hand, is readily available just about everywhere - thanks to the wonders of Xbox Live Arcade.
Unlike it's progenitor, however, Battle Grounds forgoes the trappings of a straight-up fighting game, opting instead to adopt the guise of a side-scrolling brawler. If you're thinking "Double Dragon", you're on the right track; if you thought "Guardian Heroes", you're even closer (in fact, one of the team at developer Mages actually worked on Guardian Heroes.)
The idea is simple. Choose a character (from a cast of four, each a different class that will be instantly familiar to fans of the RPG genre) then wade into combat with all manner of increasingly hard-to-beat enemy characters. Beating them unleashes various amounts of XP tokens which, when collected, contribute to your level-up rate. Leveling, of course, improves your character, so it's a key motivator as your adventure progresses.
Combat itself is a mixture of button mashing (for beginners) and structured combo play. The depth in the control and combat is staggering, for the game type, with screeds of text explaining its various nuances in the "Help & Options" menu. True to the (obviously low) budget, however, that's the only place they exist; you get dropped straight into the deep end, with no instructions or tutorial provided whatsoever. If you're a true aficionado of the genre, or don't mind a little menu-diving from time to time, it's not a disaster, but user friendly it ain't.
The setting for the game is Japan; specifically, all manner of iconic Japanese locales, like the famous Akihabara district of Tokyo. If you've ever been to Japan, every aspect of the gorgeously exaggerated backdrops is instantly recognizable. From the capsule machines to the amusingly renamed stores, every facet reminds you of time spent in the country. If you're a Japanophile (like I am), you'll love it.
The visuals themselves, as you have probably already figured out, are presented in the retro / 16-bit style that's been so popular of late. They look great in stills, but even better in motion; the backgrounds are actually 3D, too, so there's lots of depth and interest in the environment. Characters are also delightful; the main variation is in their increasingly elaborate headgear or other exaggerations that separate an enemy from a future (and more difficult) version of same.
Many large (and I do mean large) enemies also join the fray later in the game, which can present a challenge over and above the extra difficulty they also bring to the table. While they look cool, and are fun to defeat, they can seriously get in the way and prevent you from seeing what's going on. You can, you see, switch between two different fighting "planes"; the foreground and the background. When you're on the background, huge enemies in the foreground can completely block your view of the action, forcing you to fight them - even if the ones in the back would otherwise be your first choice.
That slight camera quirk is not a big deal, but it is symptomatic of the title's only real problem. There are no major issues to prevent you enjoying yourself, but there is a myriad of little niggles that - while individually negligible - add up to a frustration that's hard to ignore. Whether it's the repetitive button-mashing nature of the gameplay, the cumbersome menus, the lack of impetus to use more than just weak attack and super (ignoring medium, heavy, and special attacks), the slightly awkward controls, the frustratingly difficult (at times) plane-changing, or any of a thousand other niggles, something (or, more likely, several things) will annoy you to some degree.
Still, it's hard to deny that a coop beat-em-up with loads of visual flair and plenty of replayability (thanks to the various characters and even character builds you can try) represents damn good value for around $16 (it's 800 of Microsoft's mystical Points.) It's frustrating that you can't really find anyone to play with online, but friends / local coop cures that and, let's face it, this sort of game is more fun with friends than strangers anyway.
Given it's on XBLA, you can play the trial without spending anything at all (aside from some bandwidth - it's just over 1.5GB), so if you're still interested you should definitely at least do that. It's not for everyone, but it is pretty cool - especially if you're a fan of retro and / or Japan. A tentative recommendation, then, with caveats.