Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky Review — Right Side Up
Loving an unpopular series can be painful. Valkyrie Profile fans know this as well as anyone. With just two main games, a spin-off, a remake and, most recently, a phone game, the series has become more of a brief love affair than a beloved. Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky may well be the closest the world will ever come to Valkyrie Profile 3. From developer tri-Ace, the game blends ideas new and old to create an all new adventure that feels familiar.
Exist Archive focuses on a group of Japanese kids who are seemingly killed in an explosion in the beginning of the game. Instead of heaven or hell, they wind up in a mysterious world called Protolexa, smack dab in the middle of a conflict between powerful entities with little regard for and comprehension of human lives and emotions. In fact, the kids are pulled into the conflict when a goddess seals pieces of the evil entity Yamatoga within each of their bodies, in an effort to keep his power split and weakened.
From here the cast must figure out how to quash the war and journey back to earth, if such a way exists. The game has a large, colorful cast of characters that you’re likely to grow attached to. The main character is Kanata, a white haired fellow whose name means something like “the great beyond” or “the other side” in Japanese. Clever. In the beginning nobody knows why they ended up in Protolexa or what kind of situation their disappearance has created back on earth and these details are slowly revealed for each character over the progress of the game.
The game features voice acting in English and Japanese, and the original voice track is an appreciated inclusion. The story on the whole is rather interesting. You’ll want to see each development as mysteries about the world and characters are slowly unveiled. It also becomes easy to root for the characters as their motivations are revealed and they resolve to face the growing challenges involved with getting back to earth. The hero can seem a bit flat at times but the events are entertaining. I liked how they snuck character development in with the brief scenes between certain missions, outside of events in the main campaign.
Aesthetically, Exist Archive is pretty slick. The character designs mostly seem stylish and unique. The anime art style is appealing and detailed and the game world is colorful and varied. The character models can take some getting used to because the proportions seem strange at first and the characters have massive heads, but these have a certain charm to them. You’ll also find an enormous game world with tiered stages and a variety of themes from basic forests to volcanic/lava stages, sprawling fields and much more. There is a decent variety of enemies and the game has an overall visual flair that I found appealing. There are even some really nice animated scenes, although used sparingly.
Unfortunately the game lacks towns and NPCs, making it feel less full than it otherwise would have. Weapon upgrades are visually represented, a nice touch. As for the gameplay, everyone expected a spiritual successor to the Valkyrie Profile series, but there are actually less similarities than you may have thought. The exploration component of the gameplay is the main similarity. In Exist Archive, you adventure in 2D, utilizing increasingly deep platforming mechanics to progress through the stages. This can be pretty fun and it feels more dynamic than just trudging through corridors, even if it is lifted directly from Valkyrie Profile 2.
Also unconventional is the combat, which mixes turn-based and real time combat into a unique hybrid system. The system, which has party members mapped to face buttons and facilitates combos, will feel familiar to tri-Ace fans and is rather addictive. When your turn begins, you can mash the buttons to just have your entire team attack all at once, or you can enter commands in a certain order to build big combos. The latter is encouraged for a variety of reasons: you deal more damage and you generate more drops from enemies, in addition to more quickly filling a meter that lets you use a super attack.
If you continue to attack a lifeless enemy, you will earn overkill bonuses in the form of extra items or experience points. When you hit a button the characters respond more slowly than I remember in VP2 and thus I remember that combat feeling a bit more smooth, but Exist Archive’s is really fun. It can take some getting used to, but once you get into it it’s quite satisfying. You can guard in real time here, not unlike the Mario RPGs. If your timing is good enough, you can even interrupt an enemy and end their turn with them taking no action. This is a game changer, especially against stronger enemies and bosses, and it will have you paying just as much attention to the opposing team’s turn as your own.
Enemies have various elemental and physical weaknesses that you’re expected to exploit with the large cast of characters. While building the characters you can set various skills to increase your team’s abilities. The game features a class system which lets you change a character’s application in battle, though there is little motivation to do so. One really cool feature would let the entire party learn a skill from one character, which keeps you from wasting skill points buying the same abilities for different team members, doubly helpful since you accumulate skill points so slowly.
Another great feature instantly outfits your characters in the best equipment they have for all slots with the touch of a button. This makes constantly upgrading your equipment, which is encouraged by the high volume of enemy drops, a simple matter. From the beginning of the game there is no sort of item shop, although you are healed completely when you return to the world map. This causes you to depend on enemy drops for healing items whenever you don’t want to quit the mission just to heal.
This isn’t a problem in stages with healing devices, but this can definitely make progression awkward in the beginning of the game, where you may need to return to the map after every few battles just to keep from losing a stamina battle with the waves of enemies. There is a rotation system in which you can move characters to the back of the formation to deal less damage but recover more health between rounds, but the bonus seemed so minor that it wasn’t worth the constant shuffling.
The stages become increasingly spacious and complex. There are items to find and areas you won’t be able to access early in the game, a problem alleviated by the need to revisit many stages at different points. The game knows you’ll revisit stages quite a bit, even adding in a speed run mode that focuses on getting through a segment as quickly as possible.
Aside from just items and more monsters, you may also find crystals throughout the stages which give you a glimpse into what’s happening with a character’s family back on earth or from the character’s past. This creates a real motivation to fully explore the stages as best you can, that and a reward you get at the end of each mission based on a stage completion percentile.
Challenge wise, the game seemed pretty mild. This might be due to slightly over-leveled characters, a result of dense enemy population at times in the similar missions. You can see and avoid enemies in the environment, but I often get paranoid about becoming under-leveled without the forced encounters and it feels wasteful to avoid so many enemies, but at least it’s your decision.
You complete missions to progress the story and these remained surprisingly repetitive. Many of the missions have you doing the exact same things in different stages. Reach a certain point, defeat a boss and repeat. I was surprised that more wasn’t done to make the missions more dynamic. Important story developments may be several identical missions apart, making the game feel artificially lengthy and like a grind at times.
The game has some noteworthy technical issues. Many times in combat I would hit R1 and use my super attack only to have the animation not start and no attack come out. This would waste a resource it sometimes took multiple turns to build up, which feels pretty bad. On top of this, you can totally waste actions in combat. If you hit an attack button after an enemy is defeated (maybe you weren’t sure if it was dead or you were trying to overkill it), you may lose the action point while taking precisely no action, limiting what else you can do in that turn.
Also, I was randomly booted out of the game for a strange error (that I took every opportunity to report) roughly five times after 40+ hours of playing. The first time this happened, I lost two hours of progress, which wasn’t fun. Being unable to save during missions made this problem a looming threat that I played in constant worry of whenever I wasn’t saving. You can trigger some very noticeable slowdown in combat depending on which actions you choose, but this was less of a problem. All of this was on the PS Vita version, maybe these problems don’t persist on PS4.
The game is also hurt by some boring spots. You unlock an item creation feature too little too late to compete with enemy drops by that point in the game. The repetitive mission structure and lack of compelling side quests weaken the pacing between major story events, and there can be quite a bit of relevant “in-between” interesting developments. Combine that with the lack of towns and NPCs, and there’s no denying the game could be a lot better but it gets many important things right.
With a cool cast of characters, a suspenseful story, a huge and beautiful world, unique exploration, addictive combat a and main scenario dozens of hours long, Exist Archive has quite a lot to offer the action RPG fan. You can and will spend many fun hour playing this. Despite the issues it’s worth the price of admission, particularly for its fast combat, a wonderfully pleasant contrast to the waves of purely turn-based JRPGs we constantly see.