(Nintendo 3DS Review) Project X Zone

Developer: Monolith Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Genre: Tactical-RPG
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 7.5 = Good

Project X Zone is a massive crossover turn-based tactical role-playing game featuring dozens of characters from franchises across the libraries of Capcom, Namco Bandai, and Sega. Its predecessor, Namco x Capcom, never made it to North America, but after over seven years of hearing about its crazy matchups, gamers here finally have a chance to mix up their favorites from such series as Dead Rising, Resonance of Fate, Tales, Tekken, and Valkyria Chronicles.

How so many characters come into contact with one another is revealed in an incredibly simple but unbelievably text-heavy story. As I don’t have the 40-plus hours that the game takes to explain everything, the long and the short of it is that rifts are causing worlds to merge. Why the rifts are appearing and who (or what) are behind them is slowly revealed throughout a 40-chapter story. What is immediately apparent, however, is that Project X Zone revels in excess: the game starts with players dealing thousands of points of damage during each fight over five—yes, five—prologues.

It’s how players deal those massive amounts of damage that will either have them hooked until the credits roll or giving up long before the rifts close. A large portion of the sizable cast are separated into permanent two-unit teams known as pairs, while the remainder of the active roster are transitory secondary members known as solos. Whenever a pair is engaged in combat, it can call on its tagalong solo member or another nearby pair, which acts as a support unit, to assist them with a sequence of preset special moves; with up to five characters pummeling on one enemy, even a small encounter can become incredibly chaotic. Making the most out of a victory requires not only knowing what attack to use but when—or if—to call in the cavalry.

The initial pairs start off with three moves. Moves are initiated by using an attack button, though two of the first three also require players to simultaneously press forward or backward on the d-pad. Eventually, every cardinal direction will have a move assigned to it, for a total of five moves. Each pair in the beginning of the game has three chances to attack during combat, coinciding with their three moves. There is no limit on how much of their attack set is utilized for any particular move, but players will want to mix things up because using each move will unlock one additional attack. Summoning a solo or support pair to launch an assault at the moment of impact will cause a special blow called a Cross Hit, which freezes enemies in the air for as long as all parties land their attacks within a set time limit. As in fighting games, juggling is a cornerstone of combat. Enemies can be juggled in the air after the initial hit, and the longer the combo, the more Cross Power (XP) the pair receives as a reward. Some moves launch enemies straight into the air and others backwards and off the left wall, with each subsequent blow sending them bouncing back up. The optimal time to land a hit is right before enemies touch the ground, which results in Critical damage. Maintaining a combo is even more important against enemies that have a shield because of its regenerative properties. Shields must be broken before the enemy incurs damage, and they build back up for each hit of a combo, so failing to keep them in the air will result in them landing with a charged guard.

The XP earned during combat plays a major role during both the player’s turn and the enemy’s turn. Normal attacks can earn pairs a max of 100 XP during combat, but calling in a solo or support duo can bump the max up to 150. As the sole source of energy behind powerful offensive and defensive moves, it’s vital to eke as many points as possible out of a battle. During combat, the points are used to execute powerful cinematic moves known as Limit Breaks. The points are even more useful outside of combat, allowing units to engage a wide range of actions on the battlefield map: to partially defend, fully defend, and counter an enemy attack, activate a skill, or launch a cinematic multi-target assault known as a Map Attack. Both Limit Breaks and Map Attacks require the princely sum of 100 XP, but their cost is matched by their potency. Finding new and inventive ways to earn a few extra XP, including juggling the limp bodies of defeated enemies, is not only important for long-term survival but is also one of the main reasons as to why combat is so addictive.

Constant experimentation is at the center of what keeps Project X Zone fresh. Players are required to continuously come up with optimal move lists and combinations of support and solo pairings for each team. Characters evolve as they level, and although the player has no direct hand in guiding their growth, they do benefit from an expanding number of skills and attack moves. These are unlocked slowly, though, leading to a steady trickle of new abilities throughout the game. Solo characters are also constantly being introduced and swapped out, which requires players to regularly learn and acclimate themselves to a whole new series of attack timings. By the end, the characters’ abilities will be fully fleshed out, with every attack unlocked and with skill lists that range from bestowing additional attacks to solo members to healing an ally’s ailments. Many of the pairings make sense, such as Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter, Akira and Pai from Virtua Fighter, and Chris and Jill from Resident Evil; others, such as Dante from Devil May Cry and Demitri from Darkstalkers, are less traditional and take more time to fully comprehend. But it’s coming to grips with those weird matchups and having to constantly tinker that makes the game so enjoyable; there are just enough shifts, and at just the right moments, to keep combat interesting.

It’s to the game’s benefit that it is so combat intensive because that’s where it excels; the rest, however, can be a bit disappointing. The majority of the game takes place on makeshift battlefields set on the worlds inhabited by the various characters. Unlike most other tactical role-playing games, the maps themselves play only a minor role in combat. While unit placement is important for the proper pairs to support one another, and to break world items for the occasional vial of medicine or XP boost (crucial in a game without a currency or stores), the actual world is of little consequence. Things like relative unit position and terrain differentiation, variables that add so much depth and nuance to so many turn- and grid-based strategy games, are not taken into account. The extended range of the pairs’ move and attack ranges also dilute the necessity for long-term planning of unit position because of how easy it is to set up attacks.

The cyclical nature of games and of role-playing games in particular is sustained largely through pace and variety. Players might do the same thing time and again in that they meet people and accept their quests in one town before leaving to do the same thing in the next, but there are extenuating factors differentiating each of the various elements: the people have their own agendas, the areas offer new towns and landscapes to explore, and the quests hold the promise of valuable loot, new battles, and story progression. It is precisely in these that Project X Zone falls short. Players are sent exactly where they need to be, are told a simple tale extraneously through endless text bubbles, have no hubs to explore, fight the same bosses, and make very little progress for their efforts. The sole carrot of meeting new characters from beloved franchises is dangled throughout the adventure, and while it is most definitely a strong incentive, there comes a point when one finds themselves tired of yet again pummeling the same C-grade sub-boss. Around the 25-hour mark, once that same sub-boss returns yet again after several unfathomable successful retreats, it feels as if the player has literally been placed on a treadmill and forgotten about.

The battles lack variety as well, with nearly all of them structured the exact same way. Save for the rare instance of having to be in a spot or activate an object before a turn limit, the player will enter an area, fight an initial wave of enemies, and then be greeted by the level boss (or bosses) who teleports in along with substantial reinforcements. Again, many of these battles are against the exact same enemies who have been defeated time and time again. The plodding nature of this approach begins to take its toll after a while, especially when the battles are bookended by excessively lengthy, repetitive conversations. After counting nearly 40 text bubbles during a pre-fight conversation, I counted all text bubbles during several subsequent fights and found them to vary between just over 110 to over 170 per battle: everyone has to have their say, but not everything they say should be said. The occasional reference is well and good, and they are frequently funny, but these are dwarfed by the number of times characters simply agree with or repeat what’s just been said. It’s almost impressive how many words are used to say so little.

Charm goes a long way, though, and excessive charm even longer. By having so many characters from so many franchises, there are bound to be several that the player will delight in seeing, especially when they are unleashing their fury on enemies inspired by everything from Space Channel 5 to Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The Japanese voice acting is an excellent touch, the character art is colorful and cheerful, and the attack animations make for some marvelous scenes of chaos. It’s hard not to smile when Chun Li’s stage music or a tune from Shining Force kicks in, Erica from Sakura Wars covers her eyes when she shoots, or especially when the Street Fighter announcer initiates the fights. The swirl of swords, missiles, flamethrowers, playing cards, frying pans, gongs, and exploding armor are not only a visual treat, but they also offer an extra challenge as players attempt to make their targets out from the morass of explosions and uppercuts. The story, battlefields, and progression system might leave something to be desired, but the cast and the combat system are top notch.

Project X Zone is a tactical role-playing game that’s light on tactics but heavy on action. Longtime gamers will find many of their favorite characters playing a part in the adventure, along with some of their most famous gadgets, moves, and tunes, which provides for a powerful draw. However, if players are seeking an engaging story, customization, or variable- and system-rich strategy layer, then they will find this action-heavy offering lacking. For others wanting to test their timing pummeling on and alongside some of gaming’s most recognizable characters, Project X Zone makes for a satisfying, if at times trying, outing.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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