When I started Project X Zone, the first thing I saw was the opening. Naturally you’d think, “well of course you saw the opening, what else would you see, you moron?” But hear me out – this wasn’t some throw-away J-Pop modern opening. This was like a ’90s anime or video game style opening, complete with the heroes literally flying toward the gigantic main villain in blazes of energy. I felt like I was playing Rival Schools again. Of course the kicker was the voice acting. When I heard the characters shouting the game’s title in horribly broken English, I knew I was in another time.
Even though it has that near-perfect atmosphere of the mid-90s, there are some moments that remind you when this game was made. One was a scene between Morrigan (Darkstalkers), Chun-li (Street Fighter), Kogoro and Mii. Morrigan introduces herself as the Succubus she is and in surprise Mii calls her a terrible demon that preys on men in their sleep (amazing exposition, I know). Kogoro responds, “You look more like a wet dream demon to me.” I also got a lovely conversation with Alisa (God Eater) and Vashyron (Resonance of Fate) that involved “going both ways” and “I’ll do things my way in the rear,” and, while I of course laughed like an asshole, there is no way that joke would have flown back in the ’90s.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s go over the plot. Mii Koryuji comes from a family of monks that have influenced history since the feudal era. Her tutor, Kogoro Tenzai, is the descendant of the Tenzai Clan, who were ninja-for-hire since – you guessed it – the feudal era. Mii’s family has been guarding the Portalstone for generations but the true of its power has been lost in time. Thanks to it being stolen by some mysterious foes, it sets off a whole chain of events that require you to play as lots of awesome characters and punch things.
One of my favorite things about the plot (which is a surprisingly well put together excuse for a crossover) were all the references. If characters met in past crossovers, such as Ryu (Street Fighter) and Jin (Tekken), they would share a friendly greeting or converse with each other at length. It was also interesting to see how some characters had already interacted with each other in the past, like when Frank (Dead Rising) instantly recognized Chris and Jill (Resident Evil) because he did a story with them once. All the lampshade hangings were hilarious as well, and that and the constant fourth-wall breaking did wonders to keep the story from getting too heavy-handed.
Moving on to gameplay, your characters start on a map, which is designed around different settings in the crossover-ed games. Each team is represented by a single character icon, called a Pair Unit, that you control by moving around and placing near an enemy unit. The Pair Unit has a basic range that they can attack from (which can be modified by certain in-game skills) and once an enemy is within that range, you can initiate an attack. When this happens, instead of passively watching the battle, you enter a fighting mode that allows you to attack the foe with set combos.
The second section of combat is called the Cross Active Battle System. You press the A button either alone or with a Directional button in order to perform one of up to five combo attacks. As you can see in the screenshot above, the enemy’s HP bar is on the bottom left and on the bottom right is something called a Cross Power (XP) bar, which fills up as you take and deal out damage. The XP bar allows you to do nifty things like activate special attacks (once it reaches 100%), counter and even block enemy attacks. Now the flashy symbol there that says “Cross” mean’s that you have scored a Cross Hit, which allows you keep the enemy in place; if that foe had a Block (a shield of sorts that protects the enemy from damage) that was just broken, it stays broken for the remainder of the Cross Hit. However, you can only score a Cross Hit when three or more characters attack the foe at the same time. Just how are you suppose to do that?
One way is to have another Pair Unit assist you. When the Pair Unit you are controlling is on the map, not only can they be in the range of enemy units but also in the range of other ally Pair Units. When this happens, you’ll see the Pair Units displayed on the top right corner. If multiple Pair Units are in range, you can cycle through them with the Y button. Once you get to the Cross Active Battle System screen, hit the R shoulder button and let that Support Attack fly. Solo Units, which are single character units that can be freely grouped with a Pair Unit, can also unleash their own Support Attack with the press of the L shoulder button.
Now that we’ve gotten the game mechanics out of the way, it’s time to get into the juicy bits – the positives and negatives of Project X Zone! Let’s start with positive. The sprite art is some of the smoothest and painstakingly detailed that I’ve seen in a while – there is literally not a bad sprite design in the house. The character portraits, while standard, have a nice-to-look-at art style that works well to match (most of) the characters with each without taking away their distinctive qualities. Thankfully, the few original Project X Zone characters blend right in and don’t hog all the screen time. As an added bonus, standard enemy designs have this really excellent uniqueness about them that enhances their alien-ness.
The music will often give you nostalgic attacks, with a lot of retro themes remixed and remastered. The best part is that you get to hear each Pair Unit’s trademark themes when their turn comes up. The level designs are also visually distinctive with each area being a recreation of all the games’ stages, levels and home bases. Finally the voice acting is, of course, in full Japanese, which means lots of burning spirit and cutsie voices all around, which is of course not a bad thing.
The gameplay is very accessible for those who enjoy tactical RPGs but have trouble with the sheer difficulty and depth of other titles, like Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem, while giving hardcore tactical fans some form of strategy with the juggling and critical system during the Cross Active Battle. What really separates this game from others in the genre is the idea of separating combat strategy between the map section and the battle section. It creates an incredibly immersive experience that doesn’t force you to twiddle your thumbs like a moron while watching some flashy combos, but instead requires you to make snap judgments about whether to call in for support and make the enemy an easy target with a Cross Hit or to time the enemy juggles and score very powerful critical hits.
Sorry Demitri, but I have to talk about the negatives now. One of my pet peeves with this game is that while the maps are well-designed, they have absolutely no strategic element or any gameplay driven mechanics. What I love about other tactical games is having some kind of condition or obstacle unique to each map that forces you to really consider where to place your units. I’m not saying that it should be a mechanic that takes away from the game’s accessibility, but it should be one that really sets each map apart.
Speaking of accessibility, there is no difficulty setting in the beginning. At all. Which is fine if you’re playing for the first time or you’re not so good at turn-based tactical RPGs. But if you want a bigger challenge, stronger enemies, etc., then you, my friend, are outta luck unless you’re willing to replay the game for a second time to unlock the hard mode. I don’t think it would be worth it because this game has very little in the way of replayability.
My final grievance with Project X Zone is the flow of battle, which basically went like this: a lot of enemy units appear on the map, you fight them for a couple turns and then the true boss of that stage appears. Where is the variety? I would have loved to see some stages that required a different win condition or maybe no bosses and just waves of enemies or maybe just a boss and no enemies. If the Cross Active Battle System and character roster didn’t keep the game exciting and fresh, this point would be a major issue. In this case, however, it just becomes somewhat of an annoyance.
Overall, Project X Zone is a blast. It has great gameplay that’s easy to get into yet holds quite a bit of depth, great music, excellent sprite art, a fun (and funny) plot and best of all, it’s a complete fan service-fest for fans of any and all of the franchises involved. The few problems I had with the game are far from deal breaking, and I would easily recommend it to any tactical RPG fan or even to anyone just looking for another great game to add to their 3DS library.