Project X Zone
Developer: Banpresto/Monolith Soft
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 06/25/2013
Project X Zone really didn’t seem like a game that would come stateside. The legal nightmares alone involving licensing characters from Sega, Capcom and Namco Bandai franchises, several of which have never appeared in a North American release before, seems to kill it. After all, Namco X Capcom never made it stateside (Which is a shame as it is awesome), while the second game to use the NxC style engine, Super Robots Taisen OG: Endless Frontier had to be brought over by Atlus and fared poorly, both commercial and critically. That was pretty much strike two. I myself loved the engine and graphics of SRTOG:EF, but didn’t care for the characters, felt it was mostly padding, and the localization was pretty terrible. The final strike would seem to be that SRPGs are pretty much Nippon Ichi titles and little else. Hell, we almost didn’t get Fire Emblem: Awakening stateside after all!
Lucky for us two things happened. The first is that Fire Emblem: Awakening printed money big time for Nintendo, showing publishers there is still a big fan base for SRPGs. The second is that Harada Katsuhiro, a producer for Tekken and Soul Calibur (and who may be most famous for his recent quasi-disappearance) championed the English localization of the game. So here we are now with Project X Zone, a game that brings together some of the most beloved characters from across the video game spectrum and puts them into a tag team style grid based SRPG that lasts for over forty-five battles and gives you the most playable characters on a screen since the Shining Force series on the Sega Genesis, Game Gear and Saturn. Even Ogre Tactics and the Disgaea franchise don’t let you have as many characters running around killing enemies as this game. I have to admit, after spending crazy amounts of time with this game (According to my 3DS stats, only Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Shining Force: The Sword of Hayja and Pokemon Rumble Blast have accrued more playing time), I’m completely in love with this game, and it’s probably my favorite game for the 3DS this year (although not quite my favorite game OF the year – yet).
Story-wise, this is complete fanservice and, while utterly out of canon with most of the games these characters have appeared in before, is a direct sequel to Namco X Capcom and Endless Frontier. As such, the game makes allusions to events of the first game, although only the Endless Frontier characters make slight references to the events of their game. Otherwise the game is pretty much all about, “Holy crap, look at these characters I am fighting with or against! WHOO!” The dialogue between battles is pretty much introducing new playable characters, new enemies, explaining why they are there and then setting up large fight scenes. The MacGuffin for this game is a Portal Stone which allows for warps between other dimensions, time, and space, including the virtual world from .hack. Hell, even John McClaine from Die Hard Arcade, aka Dynamite Cop, shows up here, albeit under his unlicensed Japanese name of Bruno Delinger… which is odd, as Bruce Willis and the Die Hard team would have happily let Namco Bandai use the character for the game as a tie-in to the latest movie, but Namco Bandai didn’t take them up on the offer. How crazy is that?
ANYWAY, the two main characters of the game are completely new characters and are named Kogoro Tenzai (a shifty detective slash ninja) and Mii Kouryuuji (a teenage girl who dresses like a maid), although they really do take a back seat to the name characters, save for the fact the bad guys in the game want to hunt Mii down and use her for… some reason. Really, the story is little more than barely held together window dressing that is used as an excuse for why all these inter-company battles are taking place. You get some comedy moments, some weird pairings (Frank West and Hsien-Ko), some crazy awesome pairings (Demitri and Dante) and mostly pairings of characters from the same video game. The story makes no attempt to be some mind-blowing piece of epic prose. It’s camp, it knows it, and makes no attempt to hide the fact it is all about the fan service. As such, Project X Zone isn’t going to amazing you with deep characterizations or rich storytelling, but it will delight fans of the characters appearing in the game, no doubt about it.
Graphically, Project X Zone looks a lot like Endless Frontier, which is good, as that was one of the prettiest games for the Nintendo DS by far. Project X Zone looks far better than any SRPG I can think of, save for maybe Disgaea 4, and that’s a PS3 game. Character models during battles are wonderfully animated and look/perform/move as they would in their own games. Special attacks actually have some chunks of hand drawn animation to them, which helps signify their importance and makes them stand out from the pack. Commentary and dialogue is done via static images, which is a pretty common trope in JRPGs, and although some may long for fully animated conversation scenes, what’s here is more than acceptable. I’m also happy to say that I haven’t encountered any slow down in combat, which is impressive when you can have two different units and a solo back up character all attacking at once. What’s here is just very visually impressive for an SRPG, and there’s really nothing that compares to it.
The soundtrack for Project Zone has to be the best part of the game however. Tracks from so many wonderfully games are included here, and I have to admit, the first time Ichiro and Sakura showed up with the main Sakura Taisen theme, I had a mark-out moment – something I honestly haven’t had with a video game in many years. The background track changes based on which tandem is active, and it’s hard to find fault with any of the tracks. MAYBE the Resonance of Fate track, as it’s a bit too slow for a fast pasted reaction based combat system like the one this game has (as opposed to the usual SRPG style of combat), but it’s such a great song I feel dirty suggesting it. The voice acting is all still in Japanese, which may disappoint some gamers (while thrilling others), but the added cost for an English voice cast combined with the legal rights involved probably would have made Project X Zone insanely cost prohibitive. Besides, the game is so insanely, uniquely Japanese, it actually works better without an English speaking cast to me. That said, I suppose Ken and John McClaine in English would have made sense to begin with, but then, that opens up a whole new ball of crazy. Honestly though, listening to Project X Zone is as much fun as playing it.
Gameplay is where Project X Zone really stands out. Like most SPGs, Project X Zone involves characters moving about on a grid based map, attacking and defending. Project X Zone is more like Shining Force and Ogre Tactics, where characters go based on an individual agility/speed/etc rating, compared to SRPGs like Disgaea or Fire Emblem where it is all one side at a time. Furthermore, in 99.99% of SRPGs, combat is determined by the computer. You pick your action, and the AI of the game plays out a brief combat scene showing what happened. That is NOT THE CASE HERE. Project X Zone requires exceptional timing, hand-eye coordination and, if you’re a frame counter, that’s going to help you magnificently here.
When the player initiates combat, your two characters act as one. You have a choice of moves to pick from, one for each attack you can make. You start off with three, but as characters level up you can earn four or five attacks for that team a turn. You can use the same move for each of your attacks or mix them up. If you use one of each attack on your turn, you’ll earn a bonus move, so it’s worth your time to find the best way to combo your moves into one long string. Attacks are done in real time, so you press your button for one, wait for it to end, then press your next choice. The key is to press at the right time to make the moves become one fluid attack, earn critical damage, juggle combos and extra hits. You can whittle through the game without any skill, but you’ll probably have a few teams get KO’d or use a lot of healing items/skills in the process. Besides these attacks, if you have a third character as a striker, ala some King of Fighters games, you can call them in with the L shoulder button for more damage, and if you are close enough to another set of characters on your side, you can press the R shoulder button to have them help you out too! So you can do a lot of attacks on each team’s turn. They key is figuring out the best order to do move, the timing for the moves, who best to use as a striker with a specific team and who are the best teams to support each other. It’s pretty in-depth actually.
Attacking earns you XP, which is different from EXP, which is what you earn to level up. XP is a percentage gauge which fuels your super special attacks (100% of the bar is used) but also your skills, which can take between 10% and 50% of the bar. All characters share a single bar, so it will constantly be going up and down. Skills include healing, increase XP earned in combat, increasing range, doing more damage and so on. You can only fill up the bar to 100% through normal attacks, but by doing cross attacks, which are having support or striker characters attacking with your team, the bar can go up to 150%. Skills are vital to surviving some big battles, so don’t overlook them – especially since you can’t purchase items, only find them, and there are a very limited number of those.
When defending you have four options. Spend 20% of the EXP bar to launch a counter attack, 20% to defend (no attack but take half damage), spend 60% to take NO damage (or single digits from a boss) or spend nothing and take the attack head on. Your choice should be based on who is being attacked. For example, Chun-Li and Morrigan earn their fourth attack very early on, so they become pretty powerful. Teamed with Bahn from Fighting Vipers, they can do two hits in a counter, and with a support character, that’s a total of three counters. So for a good part of the game, they can whittle down a lot of opponents by being a Geese Howard like counter attack tandem. Let ’em get hit, let ’em counter, and watch their XP go way up.
Repeat all this for forty-five battles, and that’s the game. It has less battles than Namco x Capcom, and those battles could be crazy long, but you should still find yourself spending at least forty hours with Project X Zone, if not more. Unfortunately though, the game really is a one and done affair. You can replay battles or “egress out” to replay and thus grind up your team’s levels. They only battles in the game are the strict linear ones, so everything will always play out exactly the same. All that will really change is if you mix strikers up with different teams or purposely try and level up different characters. There’s no character customization or anything, so as wonderful as the game is, unless you truly want an exact rehash of something you’ve already played, Project X Zone is a one and done game. Compare that to Disgaea, which is basically never-ending, Shining Force and Fire Emblem which offer a crazy number of characters, bonding between said characters and promotions, and replay value is definitely the Achilles Heel of Project X Zone.
Another area where Project X Zone is a bit weak is in the challenge department. I found the game to be ludicrously easy and got through all the chapters without having a single team drop to 0 hit points. It was close sometimes, but by watching my EXP bar and the upcoming turn order of characters, I never lost a pair. Of course, I’m a bit of a savant at SRPGs, to the point where it still baffles some of the other staffers here at DHGF that I called Devil Survivor a cakewalk. However, my guess is that because I’ve played through the first two games with this engine, I retained a lot of the timing and concepts and that made the game a lot easier for me than it will be for someone who, say, has never played Endless Frontier or Namco x Capcom and thus will have to work to figure out the timing and combinations that help you dominate this game. Still, the fact remains, I found the game VERY easy. I love it, but I would be hard pressed to think of a time where I actually thought I was in danger of losing a character, much less a battle.
As there are only two other games that use an engine similar to this, and this is one of the most star-studded (if not THE most) ensemble casts in gaming history, I think it’s easy to say that Project X Zone gets major points for originality. I feel the dev team has made some definite improvements on the engine, timing, character designs and animation from the previous games. Project X Zone is definitely going to stand out from the pack this year, and even if you’ve played the other two games that use this engine, I can honestly say Project X Zone feels different enough that you won’t have a constant sense of déjà vu.
So it’s obvious that I absolutely loved Project X Zone and had a very hard time putting the game down. Again, according to my 3DS, the average time I spent with PXZ was roughly two and a half hours a shot, which is a lot for me these days. Will other gamers be as appreciative? I think so. Characters that have never made it stateside, like members of the Japanese and French teams from Sakura Taisen, are here. Same with cast members from Valkyria Chronicles III. Characters from Street Fighter, Darkstalkers, Fighting Vipers, Tekken, Rival Schools, Resident Evil, Xenosaga, Devil May Cry, Mega Man X, .hack, Shining Force EXA, Gods Eater Burst, Tales of Vesperia, Resonance of Fate, Virtua Fighter, Space Channel 5, Zombie’s Revenge, Ghost N’ Goblins AND MORE show up in this game. About the only humanoid characters missing from this game that I wanted to see was G from The House of the Dead, a Burning Ranger, PEPSIMAN from Fighting Vipers, NiGHTS, Edge from Panzer Dragoon Saga and Junon from Dragon Force. This was a pretty fantastic cast, a truly great piece of fan service, and I honestly think the characters alone will be enough to get people to purchase the game. I mean, I got to see Lord Raptor take on Jill Valentine for crying out loud! The gameplay may be where people drop off. SRPGs are a niche genre, and the fact it eschews the usual gameplay of its ilk for one far more timing oriented may cause some gamers to get frustrated or annoyed. I think once you get the hang of the moves and how to chain them together, the average gamer will not only have a blast, but also have their gateway into SRPGs to boot. Will Project X Zone be for everyone? Oh hell no, but it’s definitely FOR ME, and I think a lot of gamers are going to be surprised by how sucked into this game they will get. Remember, the more that purchase this, the more likely we’ll get an ever bigger X game next time. First it was Namco x Capcom, and now we have Namco x Capcom x Sega. Considering Monolith Soft is owned by Nintendo, could be get the Big N in the mix? Maybe SNK? Nippon Ichi? Square-Enix? The sky is the limit people! As Bruno Delinger would say, “Yippee Ki Yi Yay, くそったれ!”
Short Attention Span Summary
Project X Zone is more than a piece of fan service for Sega, Namco Bandai and Capcom fans. It’s also an exceptionally well done tactical RPG that eschews the usual battle system for this genre with one that is more timing based. The end result is a really fun game where you have to pay far more attention to every little combat nuance than you would in most RPGs. Think more Shadow Hearts than Final Fantasy. The story is little more than window dressing for the battles or excuses to have John McClaine, Chun-Li and Morrigan taking on Ayame from Sakura Taisen, or Frank West doing battle against Lord Raptor. The game’s soundtrack is simply amazing, as it takes classics tracks from all the games featured in this title, and the graphics are definitely improved over its DS and PS2 predecessors. The end result is an odd but charming game that is hard to put down. Combat may take a while to get used to, but once you do, you’ll wonder why more RPGs don’t play like this. A great job all-around.