Project X Zone 2 Review
Everyone loves to see their favorite games and characters mashed up and teamed up with one another. Even on the adversarial side, the concept still spurs discussion, maybe even more so. Who would win? Goku or Superman? Link or Dante? The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the ThunderCats? See? You just picked the winners in your head, and I'm sure someone out there disagrees and has a zillion reasons why. This concept was brought to life a few years ago in Monolith Soft's almost great SRPG Project X Zone, which saw heroes from the Sega, Namco and Capcom back catalogues uniting to defeat... something... honestly, the story didn't make much sense. I enjoyed the game but found it to fall just short of greatness; you can read that review here. Anyway, Monolith Soft is back with Project X Zone 2, a sequel that promises more characters, streamlined systems and a story that hopefully makes a tad more sense. Two out of three ain't bad.
If you guessed that they missed the mark again with the story, you guessed right. The somewhat lame excuse to throw all these different characters into the same world remains mysterious portals opening between space and time, sucking in heroes and villains from all kinds of places. Shinra, which is kind of the National Guard for dimensional rifts, is tasked with beating back evil that spews from them, and you soon find yourself helping (and hindering) their objectives. Ok, so the story sucks again; it comes off as the second laziest kind of fan fiction (with the first being anything that deals with the erotic). Thankfully, though, the dialogue is snappy, funny and just well done. The interactions between characters are fantastic, even against a shoddy plot for a backdrop. The only drawback is that if you don't already know these characters, you'll get less than nothing out of their dialogue and exchanges. An in-game character encyclopedia can help a bit, but it won't substitute for existing knowledge of these heroes and villains. If you can stomach an SRPG with almost no plot, seeing Leon Kennedy interact with Strider, Mega Man, or Shinobi makes it well worth the oversight.
The graphics and sound have taken a turn for the better as well. One of the best parts of Project X Zone was the sprites and animation during skirmishes, and it's been improved upon for the sequel. The overworld stages look more detailed and the characters, both in and out of battle, look amazing. Seeing as some of these folks have never starred in a 2D game like this, checking out what they might have looked like if their games were on SNES or Genesis, rather than newer systems, is a treat. Resident Evil 2 and 4's Leon looks awesome, as do Dead Rising's Frank, Devil May Cry's Dante and even Fire Emblem's Chrom and Lucina; every sprite is perfectly detailed to capture the essence of these iconic characters.
The battle animations are the icing on that cake. Everything runs smooth as silk while bullets and swords fly, with up to four or more heroes and villains blasting each other at once. And if that's not enough, special attacks are complimented by anime-style mini cutscenes, showing your favorite characters in all their glory. The animations, even the mini cutscenes, don't stay awesome forever; by the time you finish you'll have seen them dozens of times and they lose that special something upon repetition. Still, I dare anyone not to smile when Ryu fires off his Hadouken blast or Phoenix Wright pairs his pointed finger with his trademark "Objection!" shout.
The game's soundtrack is pretty good to, but like the overall game itself, you'll only really enjoy it if you know enough about the characters and their games to be able to point out and identify their remixed music. Since the game features characters from some pretty obscure Sega RPGs and games that may or may not have made it to our shores, not all of the music hit the right notes (ugh sorry) with me. But hearing a track you know from a game you love, again, its impossible not get a little charge out of it. The voice track is sure to be discussed ad nauseum among gamers as I believe it is only presented in Japanese. I couldn't find a way to switch the voice track to English (not that I would want to) so the dubs in the subs vs. dubs war probably won't be happy. Personally, I'd much rather have the voices in their native language while reading the subtitles, but not everyone agrees (especially the illiterate).
The gameplay in Project X Zone 2 will be instantly familiar to those who spent any time with the first game, though they will be pleasantly surprised at some of the tweaks to the formula. The game is played from the 3/4 perspective, much like a Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics. You move your characters around the grid to engage enemies, pick up items and the like, and this part of the game is pretty standard for the genre. Things are shook up by the battle system, which is far more hands-on than most SRPGs. When you and an enemy do clash, you are brought to a 2D plane where your character or characters stand to the right and the enemies stand at the left. You then must input certain button presses to activate attacks, with the goal being to knock the enemy into the air and juggle it there, resulting in multiplying damage. Figuring out each character's attacks and timing them right takes a few battles, but becomes second nature fairly quickly. Strengthening your characters leads to more moves and longer combos, and the system that seems boring and simple at first becomes so much more strategic. This isn't my favorite SRPG battle system (that honor goes to Crokett! DS, followed by Valkyria Chronicles), but it is definitely in the top three.
Remember those improvements I mentioned earlier? The biggest and most significant is the ability to pair any two characters with a third support character in any manner you wish. In Project X Zone, two character pairings were static throughout the game, and a lot of the dialogue was between the two members of these teams. Things are much more open in the sequel (and the dialogue no less snappy), and you are encouraged to experiment with your character teams. Creating those juggling combos in battle isn't tough, no matter which pairings you choose to make, but some characters work particularly well together. Add on a third support character (they aren't main fighters in battles, but instead contribute a single attack when/if you need them) and you have the potential for some deadly and just plain cool match ups.
While that is the most obvious improvement, there are plenty of other, smaller tweaks and changes that make the sequel a better title overall. The menus and between-mission stat screens are better organized and easier to understand. The game gives new players a chance to ease into things with a far better tutorial/prologue than the first game had. And while you still don't have a ton of control on character growth - if you use them, the gain levels - the ability to more freely create pairs and whole teams means you have greater control over how you progress. And though I mentioned it in passing before, the game's reference material, the Crosspedia, contains not only your basic tutorials, but also plenty of information on each character you'll encounter. If you don't know Sakura Wars from God Eater, you certainly won't be able to appreciate all the in-jokes and references, but this will at least help you figure who comes from where.
If I have any real complaint with Project X Zone 2, it is that, exactly like the original, the game way overstays its welcome. This goes for individual battles and the game as a whole. Certain late game fights can take more than an hour to complete, and the whole thing feels like a 40 hour game padded and stretched out to a 60+ hour one. The pace is better than the first, though, which was a 25 hour game stretched into a 50 hour one, but you will still be ready to move onto something else before the credits are close to rolling. The fact that what story is present is nigh incomprehensible means there is no plot pulling you through to the end, just small exchanges between characters and fight after fight after fight. If Project X Zone 3 ever comes and insists on sticking with the portals/rifts/dimensions nonsense as its main plot point, then I hope they will at least have some brevity in getting from one end of the experience to the other. Games don't have to be long in the hour count to be good, and if you've run out of things to say, don't just keep going for another dozen hours for the sake of running the clock!
Project X Zone 2 is an enjoyable sequel to an enjoyable game, and it's one that I'd like to see inspire an ongoing franchise. The awful fan-fiction storyline is really no improvement over the first title and the game is still way too long for its own good, but the graphics, engaging SRPG/action/fighting gameplay and, most of all, the fan service (the "I know these characters" kind, not the weird anime nudity kind) make Project X Zone 2 more than worth your time.
Final Rating: 84% - Fan fiction story aside, Project X Zone 2 is fan service that's more than worth your time.