Project X Zone Review

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For some fans, the mere fact that Project X (pronounced Cross) Zone saw a release outside of Japan was enough reason to get excited. Understandable, since it features a plethora of Capcom, Namco and Sega characters  some of which haven’t been graced with a game in several years  trading punches and hilarious quips in familiar locales. Given the fact that it’s a sequel to another strange crossover strategy RPG that we never got, Namco X Capcom, and that it features tons of obscure characters with copious amounts of dialogue, it seemed very unlikely.

For better or worse, the crossover madness has finally graced our shores with its uneven mix of loving nostalgia and egregious unoriginality. Project X Zone has an all-star cast from the likes of Street Fighter, Sakura Wars and the Tales series, but is the novelty of having them together enough to carry an otherwise lackluster adventure?

Project X Zone starts off with an intriguing premise: crossing between time and dimensions is a common phenomenon, with characters who appeared in Namco X Capcom and the Super Robot Wars games acting pretty nonchalant about the whole affair. It starts to take a turn for the chaotic when people begin to vanish and new arrivals are plucked from their worlds. Self-proclaimed “dancing, fighting cheergirl,” Mii Kouryuuji is reluctantly at the heart of the mystery thanks to her family’s obligation to protect the now-stolen Portalstone, an ancient artifact that seems to be the cause of the turmoil. She sets off with her tutor/ninja detective, Kogoro Tenzai, to retrieve it and stop the perpetually cryptic organization Oros Phlox from abusing its powers. Though the cast of original characters is small, heroes and villains from some of gaming’s biggest franchises will help or hinder them in a quest to restore normalcy.

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Nothing says “Take me seriously as a heroine.” like cheerleading in an impractical outfit.

To do that, they’ll need to move as groups of two along a grid in turns and attack whatever the objective requires while staying alive with the help of items and skills. You can move the camera with the D-Pad, zoom in and all the other things you’d expect with perfectly functional controls. Project X Zone mixes the strategy RPG formula up a bit by transitioning to real-time battles that play out sort of like the Tales series’ battles, only, not nearly as involved. Here, too, everything controls pretty much exactly as it should. You don’t move, rather, you hold a direction or remain neutral and push the A button to start a series of real-time attacks by your two characters which can cause a juggle state for another attack. The juggling is fairly simple, but some moves will send the enemy flying up out of reach, so most of the timing involved is in preventing this annoying state. You’ll also land critical hits if you wait until right before they hit the ground, so that’s fun and useful for extra damage.

Once your allotted number of special moves is exhausted, that’s it, unless you use every attack to get an extra hit with any move. You’ll learn more as you go, resulting in bigger combos and more damage. Enemies gradually get harder and start to have shield gauges that need to be broken and multiple assaults that attack several of your characters at once, so it’s a good thing you have solo characters that can be paired with teams to form a triumvirate of ass kicking and, when standing near another team, assists that can pile on additional attacks. The multiple assaults along with combo ending supers require XP, a shared resource that’s quickly gained with combos that informs most of what you would call strategy in X Zone. The specific skills of team and solo characters, which can be used outside of fights for various beneficial results like increased defense or walking distance, also use XP. The choice is up to you whether you prioritize using healing skills and buffs to give yourself an edge, save your XP to defend yourself and counter attack or to do tons of damage with supers. While characters can’t ever permanently die, you can also use XP (usually 100 out of the max 150) to revive them.

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It’s not really as crazy as it looks.

It’s very impressive to see the madness of five characters onscreen attacking at once and that the game never has any slowdown to boot, but the system is honestly quite simple and changes little over time, save for the minute differences in timing for every special move. Enemies don’t ever fight back during your turn, and while wailing on them never gets old, it eventually loses a lot of its initial wow factor. Even the supers, which are satisfying to use and look incredibly cool, eventually grow tiring and benefit greatly from the option to skip them. Stats, skills and equipment help differentiate the characters somewhat, and they certainly look, feel and sound different, but they mostly fill the same basic roles, with some being more effective than others. The same enemies are fought the same ways, only differing in increasingly ridiculous Hit Points, shield gauge and lethality, and plentiful items all but break any sense of danger. You’ll take down the same dozen or so boss characters over and over and really start to wonder why they couldn’t have thrown in at least one per series. Worse, the AI is incapable of throwing anything other than more enemies at you, with the last stage in particular reaching Fire Emblem levels of enemy flooding. There’s a harder difficulty unlocked after you complete the game, but just making the enemies even harder doesn’t seem like it would fix any of its issues.

While X Zone is certainly more engaging than the typical strategy game, it lacks the fluidity and nuance of better action games that demand more from the player than mashing buttons. Conversely, strategy fans may grow weary of the drawn-out combat and be disappointed in the lack of complexity and options. For instance, you’re never in control of where units are placed or which ones are brought into battle, only who solo characters are paired with. Character progression is also completely locked with no way to influence which stats or skills are gained. Compared to what’s already on offer for 3DS owners with the likes of Fire Emblem: Awakening, Etrian Odyssey IV and more, Project X Zone pales in comparison. It would seem that strategy RPGs and action RPGs, much like peanut butter and apple jelly, are two great things that don’t quite go together. More than anything, the draw is in fighting as classic characters, which never stops being cool.

To be brutally blunt, the story in Project X Zone is vapid and goes on for far, far too long. One playthrough took me nearly 70 hours spanning 41 chapters, yet there were only a few hours of honest exposition. While the time spent was largely due to lengthy combat and enjoying a healthy helping of chatter and super moves, it still doesn’t excuse a story that drags like a plow through a field of wet cement. “Shucks, they got away” moments are repeated ad nauseam with little ever being resolved and the “twists” had little impact when it got to the point where I was predicting when bosses would show up seconds before the characters themselves would suspect a boss to show up. The original characters are jokes compared to the crossover ones, both in substance and design, with Mii being the worst offender. If her obnoxious, McDonald’s colored one strap costume doesn’t get to you, her portrayal as an overly cheery and vacuous fighting cheerleader who just happens to be the catalyst to the whole story probably will. She may well best represent the shallow side of X Zone, serving as little more than  a shallow pond of fan service.

Around the fifth time or so I’d seen a villain just flat-out run away with no resistance, the string of patience I had with the story began to be pulled in twain. While there are moments of intrigue, very little is ever satisfyingly explained and the original characters never really get fleshed out to the point where you would actually care what happens to them, culminating in an ending that’s less a triumphant photo finish through checkered tape than it is like stepping off from a crowded bus ride with too many stops. What’s really confusing is how the quality in character design managed to drop so drastically, given that the Namco X Capcom characters, Reiji, Xiaomu and Saya, are infinitely more visually appealing and likeable. Along with Super Robot Wars’ Haken, Sanger and, to a lesser extent, Kaguya, the thunder is nearly completely stolen from X Zone’s attempts.

What saves Project X Zone more than anything is the loving attention it shows to its guest characters. It’s not an easy thing to properly represent characters that come from such diverse and beloved franchises, especially when they’ve already seen their fair share of crossover games. For instance, with a series as old as Street Fighter, players are bound to have high expectations for how Ryu and Ken fight, feel, look and act in 2D and 3D games. Monolith Soft managed to capture all of these things with all 58 playable and what few enemy characters they borrowed, whom have been given beautifully animated 2D sprites and absolutely fantastic animated cut-ins that usually help accentuate the action very well. Perhaps most impressive of all, none of the characters look incredibly out of place next to one another. The enemies you’ll be pummeling don’t fare as well, with only bosses truly animating while the rest only have a default frame and a damage frame. Both just awkwardly rotate as they get pinballed around and don’t show any animation. The only time you’ll ever actually see an enemy attack is when a boss uses a super, and not even they animate on the grid as they move. Enemies do tend to be pretty massive and well-drawn at the very least, but the presentation can at times feel very uneven.

The various places you’ll visit are, for the most part, ripped straight from Capcom, Namco and Sega games. They’re all rendered fully in 3D with lots of little details and make for some weird and wonderful looking backdrops for the action. They add a little variety to how you approach things, too, with some requiring you to navigate the map in so many turns or break down barriers. The timed missions can be especially aggravating with how large some of the maps are and how units tend to pop up out of thin air, though, it’s these times when you’ll feel like you’re getting the most of your skills and that a modicum of strategy is necessary. They’re more than just random picks, too, with a modest amount of effort put towards making sense of their connections to one another, e.g. the online world of .Hack linking to the cyber areas of Mega Man. It’s perhaps the plot’s high point. Don’t expect much in the way of exploration, though, since your route is set and the boards only ever hide treasure.

It’s likely you’ll find yourself asking more than a few times who and what some of these characters and locations are, but never fear. X Zone has a database with in-depth biographies for all of the characters and organizations to help bring you up to speed. It may not make the story make any more sense, but at least you’ll know what a Maverick is and why Lady has such a sunny disposition. Some spoil more of their game than others, but they’re all informative and entertaining to read. While I hadn’t played every game represented, I can give the game my endorsement that it didn’t matter. I really grew to like the ones that I knew next to nothing about and have definitely put Resonance of Fate and the .Hack series on my to-do list. It speaks to how well the game captures their personalities.

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I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t giddy playing as X and Zero.

Most of the characters play very miniscule roles in the one page plot, but nevertheless react faithfully to the situations they find themselves in, usually resulting in very amusing and well-written dialogues. What’s more impressive is that every solo character has unique dialogue with every other team, all voiced. Likely to cut localization costs, the voices have all been left in Japanese. Fighting game characters like Chun Li and Morrigan have been heard in Japanese since their inception, so it isn’t so unusual, but others have firmly established, excellent dubs. I prefer the English voice actors of Frank West and Dante in particular, but it’s really not such a big deal.

The talent on hand is topnotch, some having voiced their respective characters for decades. Thanks to the energetic cast, the attacks have a lot of weight and power behind them and some of the exchanges are downright hilarious. What isn’t always so great is the subtitling. It manages to be on point for the vast majority of the time and is a smart solution for the language barrier, letting you know what characters are saying while never distracting you from the action, but it cuts out infrequently. One of my favorite examples is Ichiro and Sakura’s super, where they give a stirring incantation that isn’t subbed followed by a text box for, “Haaaa!” It’s a blemish on what is otherwise a solid localization.

The audio levels also seem to be a bit off, with some voice clips being too low to hear. I noticed this most often with T-elos. Headphones are definitely recommended. Years of playing Japanese games and watching anime have pretty well desensitized me to shrill, annoying voices, but I’d say the average person probably won’t be bothered too much. Even the crazy amount of speech possible during battles was never to the point of being annoying. It’s a small gripe, but I also really wish you could scroll through win quotes without completely skipping them for those times when I just wanted to read the funny things they were saying.

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There’s a thin line between cute and annoying. I side with cute.

There’s no denying the strength of X Zone’s cast. In my humble opinion, the game plays host to some of the greatest characters in gaming, which brings with it some of the best music in gaming. It all may have been covered better in other places, but the track selection is excellent with some really standout remixes that never failed to make me let that super animation play out so I could stay awhile and listen. There were a few cuts, such as the opening’s vocal track, Yoko Takahashi’s “Wing Wanderer,” but it’s still hard to fault the sound design at all. A few songs may have overly shrill instruments, but the OST as a whole is as solid as the rest of the presentation.

Project X Zone may not be anywhere near perfect, but the strength of its cast is more than a gimmick. It’s the pillar holding the experience up. If you’re already a fan, the chance to play as one of your favorite characters is nearly enough to overlook the game’s flaws. If you’re a newcomer, you have a smorgasbord of cool characters to test drive along a somewhat bumpy road. As unbalanced as X Zone is, it’s difficult not to enjoy its quirkiness and its interesting take on the strategy/action RPG genre. It’s just a shame that the same amount of time and care put into the crossover elements weren’t also afforded to the story and gameplay.