Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky
Publisher: Aksys Games
Genre: Turn-based RPG
Release Date: 10/18/2016
Tri-Ace and Valkyrie Profile are two names I haven’t heard in awhile. The former being a developer of inconsistent quality capable of producing amazing experiences about as often as they do forgettable ones. I say this as someone who is a fan of their work, both the good and the bad. There are not many folks who say they appreciate Infinite Undiscovery for what it is. Well, guess what? I am one of those people. I also enjoyed the last few Star Ocean games (save for the most recent as I haven’t played it yet), and I found Resonance of Fate to be worthwhile undertaking even with all of its user unfriendliness. I lay all of this on the table, so you know where I’m coming from when I say that despite some deep flaws, I really enjoyed Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky.
Now, Valkyrie Profile is often hailed as being one of Tri-Ace’s best, which is why when a game like Exist Archive is proclaimed as its spiritual successor, it’s not something to be taken lightly. Even VP‘s sequels couldn’t measure up to the legacy the original left behind. Sadly, this doesn’t either, but it’s still not a game to be written off entirely.
The premise begins interestingly enough. An unlucky teen, Kanata, finds himself caught up in an explosion along with a handful of others. He then wakes up on a strange planet next to an unfamiliar girl who seems to have amnesia. Are they both dead? Did they wind up on another planet? Is it possible to get home? Together, they try to answer these questions and round up others who share in their fate. And that’s not all. A mysterious being named Yamatoga is imbedded in the two of them that not only grants immortality, but gives them the ability to fight on evil footing with the attacking Chasseur.
I enjoyed many of the themes explored here, including the explanation behind what happens to our souls after death and how it relates to the world that the game takes place in. I also liked exploring the lives that the cast had back on Earth. But the exposition is spread incredibly thin over the entirety of the adventure and what’s here leaves you wanting more. The bulk of the game is spent hunting for party members and their accompanying crystals (which encapsulate the feelings of their owner and become the vehicle by which the plot conveys the backstory of each character), and much of the character development is delivered by way of flashback dialogue sprinkled in during dungeons. You do get the occasional character banter between quests, though there is very little meat to it. Which is a shame, as I would’ve liked to learn more about the pink Power Ranger and the nerdy RPG hero wannabe.
I also had trouble remembering the motivations behind the various factions introduced throughout, even though there is an in-game glossary meant to keep you in the know. There is simply a lot that the player is expected to digest and an inadequate amount of time is paid to explain it all. I’m not saying Exist Archive needs to be a cutscene laden information dump between dungeons, but there should be more of a balance. There are a lot of good ideas in the narrative, and I hated seeing the potential squandered, even though did enjoy it in the end.
It helps that the English cast delivers the lines really well. I did find the voice of Yamatoga to be rather grating during combat, however. There’s something about the way he screams his lines during an attack that is offensive to the ears. Motoi Sakuraba (Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean composer) is back to craft the soundtrack, and he does a stellar job putting together some catchy themes. Visually, things are more of a mixed bag. The few animated cutscenes that you’re treated to are very well done and easy on the eyes, as are the various landscapes. The backdrops on Protolexa are so mesmerizing as to be distracting, though they do suffer from constant reuse. I also was not a fan of the character designs, as I found them to be a bit on the bland side and the disproportionate bodies are a stylistic choice that’s not particularly appealing. There isn’t much variety in the monsters either.
Rather than there being an open world, Kanata and friends get dropped off at various locations based on the mission that you choose to pursue. Once the quest starts, exploration is handled from a 2D perspective, with the occasional door you can enter in the background or foreground. Enemies are visible as floating red clouds and attacking them will initiate battle. Upon defeat, they remain as colorless bubbles until the mission is over, which is nice if you ever find yourself lost. Fights are avoidable altogether just by jumping over them or (later) freezing them in place. In that regard, there are some platforming elements to the game, with much of the challenge of navigating late game dungeons being attributed to tricky jumps and figuring out ways to reach places that are out of sight.
Once in combat, then the Valkyrie Profile comparisons really come to light. Each member of your four character party is mapped to a different face button and you are allotted a number of action points to string together attacks from any one of these members during the attack phase. What makes the combat so addicting is figuring out different methods and party combinations to maximize the damage done in the fewest turns. If you fail to take out your foes in the attack phase, the fight switches to the guard phase, and the face buttons will instead put up the guard of the respective character. Knowing attack patterns come into play here, as if you know who is going to get hit, you can avoid defending with certain party members and reserve points for attacking on your next turn. Being particularly effective in your offensive will also allow party members to use a skill called Demon’s Greed, a sort of ultimate attack unique to each character that can wipe large groups of foes and can be strung together in a combo.
Fans of customizing party composition to the extent of something like Bravely Default will find much to love here, as any character can be any class or learn any skill. Each one begins with a handful and has a limited number of skill points to invest in learning them, but by building affection amongst the party, these skills can be learned by any party member after battle. As to which skill is learned, it seems to be entirely random which can be frustrating, but it’s a neat feature regardless.
Exist Archive falls victim to uneven difficulty spikes, particularly in the very beginning and towards the end. It’s not until well into the game that you are able to craft consumable items to use in battle, so up until that point, they have to be found and used sparingly. This can be problematic for a newcomer trying to learn the mechanics of the battle system. Weapons, armor, and accessories must also be earned by random drops until later too, meaning that you could wind up severely underpowered in the gear department if luck isn’t on your side. The end game requires a disproportionate amount of grinding in order to keep up in level, and in some cases, you’ll find that the recommended level gets smaller in later missions rather than bigger. Why not put those missions first so the player can power up a little more naturally? There was one particular segment where I went into a mission several levels above the requirement and by the time I finished I was ten levels below where I needed to be for the next one. Still others, I was five levels above the recommendation and I still met with bosses that could cut me down in one strike.
Fortunately, if you do lose, the most that happens is that you’re dumped back to the menu with a little less affection between your party members, so there is no progress lost. You don’t get your items back though, and you most certainly don’t get to pick up right before the boss. No, there is no saving just prior to boss battles anymore (or during a mission period), you have to navigate the entire dungeon over again, which is frustrating.
If you enjoy questing while connected to PSN, there are a few perks to be had. Several dungeons will be marked as hotspots, and exploring them while in this state will treat you to higher drop rates within those zones. There’s also a mode called Speed Run to see how fast you can down one of the game’s many bosses for some free items. Your best times will be uploaded to the online leaderboard for bragging rights. Save data is transferable to PSN as well for use in the Vita version if you happen to buy both.
Between the myriad of side quests and the multiple endings, there is plenty to do. Even doing the minimum can take a player roughly forty hours. That being said, much of that is padded out by forcing the player to backtrack through previously visited areas and grinding levels to meet a strength minimum that a reasonable person wouldn’t expected to earn organically. Fortunately, the combat is enjoyable enough and the experience system is easy enough to game through chaining that this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. New abilities, such as double jumping and sliding add a sort of Metroidvania flavor, which makes exploration a little more bearable during return visits. The mission goals could use a bit more variety though.
Exist Archive is a victim of its own legacy in a way. Valkyrie Profile is held to such a high standard that it’s bound to create disappointment among fans that are expecting to come away with the same experience that they did back then. Still, the comparisons aren’t unwarranted, what with the similar combat system and the 2D exploration style. The game can stand on its own with its unique premise and character customization options, and despite some balancing issues, manages to remain enjoyable throughout its duration. If the main thing you enjoyed about VP was the combat or you’re just a Tri-Ace fan in general, then this is the game for you.
Short Attention Span Summary
It’s an uphill battle for any game to justify its existence when being compared to a beloved cult classic, especially when crafted by many of the same developers. And while Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky does not surpass its predecessor, it at least provides a unique premise and couples it with a great combat system. It’s not without its faults; the plot is spread thin across the forty hour adventure, the difficulty is uneven, and the inability to save during missions should not be a thing in 2016. It’s Tri-Ace doing what Tri-Ace does best, and that’s putting out solid games with divisive design decisions, and if you’re like me, that sounds like a perfectly fine game.
Tags: aksys games, Exist Archive, ps4, Spike Chunsoft, Tri-Ace