(originally posted October 3rd 2014)
In October 2012, Project X Zone, a tactical RPG, was released in Japan for the Nintendo 3DS. That following year, we Westerners were fortunate enough to receive the game ourselves, despite less than stellar sales. Opinion on this game is noticeably mixed; those who have played it either love it for what it is or find it rather dull. I am one of the former. I adore this game for a multitude of reasons and I wish more people were aware of it. It did manage to sell ten times more in the West than the publishers, Bandai Namco, were expecting but it’s hardly a household name; even amongst gamers it’s probably overlooked. So, I’m dedicating this whole month to one of my all-time favourite games, and by the end of this, you’ll hopefully be convinced to give a game a shot.
In case the title didn’t clue you in, Project X Zone (the X is pronounced ‘cross’) is a crossover title developed by Banpresto (responsible for the popular Japan-only series Super Robot Wars) and Monolith Soft (who made Xenoblade Chronicles, my favourite game ever), starring various characters from franchises owned by Capcom, Sega and Bandai Namco, mostly franchises that have bigger presences in Japan than they do in the West. I mean, how many people have heard of Sakura Wars or Yumeria?
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite barely knowing any of the characters that appear in the game, they’re all very likable and their personalities are quickly established. There’s even a database that gives you all the important backstory info on them and any significant events from their games. Plus, there are plenty of familiar faces around to help draw in new players, including several Street Fighter, Resident Evil and Tekken characters.
Probably one of my biggest appreciations about this game is that it actually has a plot, unlike most crossover titles which are content with just having their characters fight each other with no context. That being said, the story isn’t exactly the greatest in terms of actual writing.
It begins with two original characters; Kogoro Tenzai, a ninja/private detective for hire, and Mii Koryuji, a young heiress to a corporation and a fighting monk, searching for a treasure called the Portalstone, which was stolen from Mii’s mansion. Soon after, the walls between dimensions become unstable and people and places from different worlds begin crossing over. Kogoro and Mii soon find themselves assembling a group of heroes as they battle various villains attempting to take advantage of the chaos for their own reasons; one such group being the mysterious Oros Phlox.
From that point onwards, the story just becomes insane. Things very rarely make much sense, with characters randomly hopping from one setting to the next (to the point where even the characters comment on the ridiculousness of it all) and the way the chapters (levels) are handled mean things become rather predictable. You enter a room, bunch of enemies appear, you kill a few, even more enemies appear, including at least one or two boss-level enemies, you kill them, rinse and repeat.
While the story itself isn’t great, what saves it is the dialogue. As more and more characters appear, the potential for interactions increase. We see zombie survivor Frank West becoming friends with actual zombie Hsien-Ko. Flynn from Tales of Vesperia finds himself playing knight in shining armour to the slightly psychotic Princess Devilotte. The pervy Vashyron from Resonance of Fate comments on every woman’s bust size. It’s these character moments that truly make the game, leading to scenes that range from funny, touching and a tad sad.
There’s also something incredibly appealing seeing all these characters forming alliances like this. Maybe it’s because that they’re actually talking to each other instead of just exchanging fisticuffs, and because there’s so many of them, it does feel like you’re creating the most badass army to ever exist.
The localisation isn’t great at times though, with some misspellings, poor grammar and one really bad translation that diffuses any tension or seriousness, courtesy of Lady from Devil May Cry (“There’s no telling what would happen if that came to pass. That’s bad”).
But what about the gameplay? Well, it’s a combination of RPG and turn-based strategy. Before a chapter starts, you are shown which characters you have access to, which are split into Pair Units and Solo Units.
Pair Units are the ones you actively control. Made up of two characters (e.g. Ryu and Ken), they are the ones you give equipment to, move across the map and use during battles. Solo Units are individual characters (e.g. Ulala) that you kind of equip to a pair unit, and can be summoned during a fight with an enemy. They only perform one specific attack, as opposed to Pair Units that learn up to five attacks.
All the units on the map take turns in moving and attacking. When you’re controlling a unit, you can move them, use their available skills, use items and attack an enemy that is within their attack range. When a fight starts, you perform attacks by either pressing the A button on its own or in conjunction with one of the directions on the D-Pad. The number of times you can attack depends on how many attacks you have, so if a Pair Unit has access to four attacks, they can only attack four times, unless you use each attack once, which allows you to attack one more time. Once all tries are used, the fight ends and so does the unit’s turn. You can end your turn without fighting, though. A chapter is completed when the victory requirements are met (which are usually ‘kill all enemies’ though they do change sometimes).
There are several more aspects to the fights. If a Pair Unit is accompanied by a Solo Unit, you can press the L button to summon them once. If the Pair Unit is adjacent to another Pair Unit, you can press the R button to have them attack once. This means you can have five characters beating the crap out of a single enemy, which is incredibly satisfying to watch if you pull it off right.
There is an element of skill that needs to be learnt for fights. Attacking enemies slowly fills your Cross Gauge by rewarding you with XP, which is shared amongst the whole team. XP are needed to use skills and with at least 100%, you can perform a Pair Unit’s super special attack with the Y button (which also ends the fight once you use it). In order to get your XP above 100% and up to 150%, you need to catch the enemy in a Cross Hit. When a Pair Unit hits an enemy at the same time as another Pair or a Solo, the enemy is held in place, making it easier to hit, since attacks juggle enemies constantly. Also, if you attack an enemy just before they hit the ground, you’ll deal a critical hit, and this applies to every possible attack.
As you can see, there’s a surprising amount of depth to an otherwise simple combat system. I haven’t even talked about potential status effects, enemy weight and the MAP attacks, which are like the super attacks, but capable of hitting up to four enemies. If it all sounds rather overwhelming, don’t worry. The first five chapters teach you all the basics and the database contains a whole bunch of tutorials that explain every aspect of the game, which you can read to your leisure. There’s even a practice mode you can use in between chapters. It may seem daunting but you’ll get the hang of it the more you play it.
Despite its RPG qualities, Project X Zone is unlike most games of the genre. There’s no shop to buy items and equipment from; you get them from either opening chests that are scattered across the map or defeating enemies and you can’t return to previous chapters to grind up on experience; once a chapter’s done, there’s no going back. This may make it seem like the game can quickly become a difficult and unfair experience, but while the game can become much harder if you don’t understand the mechanics and enemies do come in massive droves, plus the boss enemies can deal a lot of damage, it doesn’t actually require that much strategy. On my first playthrough, I only failed one chapter, and that was because I forgot that I had to keep a certain unit alive. In fact, getting a game over has little ramifications, aside from having to start the chapter all over again. There’s no mocking game over music, no disturbing extra cutscene; just a rather basic game over screen that might as well say “Uh oh, sphagettios.” To sum up, the game can be rather easy to play once you know what you’re doing; the real challenge comes from the New Game Plus, where item drops become less frequent and enemies give out less experience when defeated.
I feel like I should talk about the aesthetics too. The sprite work on all the characters is very lovely; managing to evoke a classic arcade feel while at the same time being incredibly detailed. I never get tired of watching the attack animations, especially for the super moves which are delightfully over-the-top and reek of anime-esque goodness (though one can get rather exasperated by the constant boob jiggling in some of the animations). There are also some options that allow you to turn of the special attack animations if you don’t want to see them all the time, as well as the voice acting if you’re not fond of hearing people speaking Japanese all the time. I’d talk about the music as well but, well, I’m saving that for another time.
Project X Zone’s biggest flaw, though, is its repetitiveness. That other camp of people I mentioned at the start? The reason they probably find the game dull is because very little changes as you progress. Sure, you gain more allies with each chapter, but you’ll have the whole 60 man/woman/android army by about the halfway point. From then on, it’s the same every chapter (aside from moments where the team is forced to split up). If played in abundance, some people can get very bored with it.
For me personally, I don’t mind it. In fact, to me, Project X Zone is the perfect game to play if I’ve got a long train journey or I just need to kill an hour or so. With it being on a handheld, I can just quickly boot it up, beat some enemies and use the quicksave feature to save my progress. Most people play Bejewelled or Temple Run for situations like this, but for me, Project X Zone does that job perfectly.
It’s probably because it’s so unique in its presentation. It makes you feel like you’re actively controlling these super badass characters despite only pressing one button. You get to witness ordinary martial artists battling demons, former soldiers fighting a humanoid rabbit driving a giant robot and a reporter from space popping in to shoot up a former Australian death metal musician zombie.
We may never see a game like this again, both in terms of game mechanics and presentation, but it left its mark on the people who enjoyed it. I adore this game for what it does; for being over-the-top and knowing it – it’s just adrenaline-filled fun, and I implore you to give the game a shot yourself. Hopefully, you’ll fall in love with it too.