Project X Zone Review
If there is one thing about strategy RPGs that I loathe, it is the hands-off feeling many of them convey. I move my little units around a little grid, ordering my troops into battle and the one thing I want to do - battle - is all taken care of for me. Great games like Disgaea, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactic Ogre all boast excellent stories and deep strategic gameplay, but the cracking of enemy skulls is determined by a bunch of numbers. Yawn. Not so in Project X Zone, an action-packed SRPG featuring a mash-up of characters from Sega, Capcom and Namco Bandai. If you can imagine what would happen if Marvel vs. Capcom and Fire Emblem had an unholy love child, you can imagine Project X Zone.
Before we start, Project X Zone boasts more than 60 characters from various Sega, Capcom or Namco Bandai franchises and, full disclosure, I had no idea who some of them were or what games they originally appeared in. Surprisingly, ignorance of these franchises doesn't hurt the overall game (aside from a slight feeling you may be missing an inside joke now and then). And, as an added bonus, there is a massive in-game compendium explaining every animal, mineral or vegetable that makes an appearance. I know other would-be fans probably share this apprehension, so I put this little reassurance in first. If you don't know Sakura Wars from Endless Frontier, you'll still be able to enjoy this game to the fullest.
But I can almost guarantee you won't be playing the game for the story anyway. The 40+ hour narrative is a confusing, jumbled mess. Even after finishing the game, the best I can do to describe the plot is as follows: Something called a Portalstone is stolen, allowing dimensional jumps between different universes. That's the setup. The rest of the plot has tons of characters blindly hopping from dimension to dimension, forming relationships, stabbing each other in the back and being generally confused about what the hell in going on. Oh, and there is a giant, talking rabbit. No kidding. Some of the dialogue provides genuine laughs and when things aren't overly wordy or filled with acronyms, the character back and forth can sometimes erase the notion that neither you nor the in-game folks can make heads or tails of what just happened or what will happen next.
If Project X Zone has characters that are unrecognizable to a lot of people and the story is completely out in left field, what will keep this title in your 3DS? It is all about the gameplay here. If you've played an SRPG before, you'll fall right into the groove of moving units around the grid-based levels. Each unit is actually two characters, though, and that is where the battle system comes in. Instead of letting stats and numbers decide your fate when battling bad guys, this game takes a more hands-on approach. When engaged in combat, the view switches to a 2D battle screen like any Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat game. Each pair of characters has up to five attacks that are input with various d-pad/A button combinations. The key to scoring the most damage is studying the attack animations and successfully chaining combos together, a skill that also awards more experience points at the battle's end.
This never stops being a feast for the eyes, but the repetitive nature of it all can grind on the nerves. To shake things up, special characters can be brought into fights, and adjacent units' characters can also join in the brawling. Between your main pair's attacks and the available team attacks, there is some depth here, especially when it comes to figuring out your most deadly approach to any given battle. But after a while, it can all begin to run together. While I certainly appreciate the action-flavored content over menus, stats and hit points, Project X Zone's battling still doesn't touch that found in my all-time favorite SRPG, Croket! DS: Tenkuu no Yuushatachi. An import-only Nintendo DS SRPG, that title featured Smash Bros.-style 2D battles, with special moves and up to eight characters duking it out at once. Project X Zone's limited inputs feel like fighting game lite (just one calorie, not enough fighting game) compared to Croket!, but conversely, they also feel more exciting than any traditional SRPG battle system I've seen in a while.
The problem with the battle system's repetition extends to the entire game. Eventually you begin to feel that the input commands for battle and the character interactions between said battles are all there for one purpose: to mask the fact that you are basically seeing, reading and doing the exact same thing over and over again. Once you've mastered a team's combos, you can begin to bet on roughly how much damage you'll be able to dole out per turn, making the commands feel extraneous; if you are doing x damage each time, why not just let a stat or numbers-based combat system do the fighting and save everyone's time? Upon seeing that, you'll begin to realize that each of the game's 40 chapters (not including a prologue and epilogue) contains an identical scenario. Characters pop in and don't know where they are. Enemies pop in and attack. Once those enemies are defeated, more appear, usually with a slightly more powerful boss (or three) in tow. When they are defeated, everyone dimension hops to the next chapter, which will be startlingly similar in every way. As long as Project X Zone is, the lack of variety will ensure that many will never finish the entire game, and those who do will probably be sick of it by the time it is all said and done.
The last thing I'll touch on is the sound. It may irk some players that the game is completed voice acted in Japanese, with English text in speech bubbles. It didn't bother me one bit as I usually opt for a game's original language anyway, but it may be a roadblock to enjoyment for some gamers out there. On a more positive note, the game includes music from nearly all the franchises it touches on. It is always a special treat when you hear a theme from a memorable favorite. I couldn't help but smile when I suddenly noticed the background tunes were from Street Fighter II or Ghosts 'n Goblins. Like the characters, though, not everyone will know this stuff beforehand, but it is a nice bonus when you do.
So what is the final word? My first thought after finishing Project X Zone was that the game is a serviceable SRPG with some interesting features, but it is impossible to recommend when the 3DS' other flagship SRPG, Fire Emblem: Awakening, is sharing shelf space at retail. Seeing characters like Chun-Li, Dante and the crew from Valkyria Chronicles is exciting and welcome, as is hearing some tunes that will instantly trigger some fantastic gaming memories, but it isn't enough to make this game a solid recommendation. The storyline feels like someone was throwing characters and plot points at a dartboard and went with whatever stuck in the cork, and the repetitious nature of the levels and battles don't equate to a game that will hold your attention for the required time to finish it. I didn't hate Project X Zone, but the overall package didn't provide the kind of thrills you'd expect from such an amazing roster of gaming giants.
Final Rating: 79%. Plenty of characters, but not enough glue.