Project X Zone Review
Genre: Hybrid (Strategy/RPG/Adventure)
Developer: Monolith Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: June 25th, 2013
Many amazing games never make it over to American shores, so many in fact, I’m probably even more right than I could even fathom. Titles from days gone by, occasionally get localized further down the road, but not enough. Project X Zone when first announced, seemed like one of those localizing pipe dreams, a too good to be true scenario through and through. Needless to say, I was thrilled when they finally announced the game for North America, and was ecstatic when I was able to finally sit down, and get a chance with this crazy over the top cross over, and all of it’s star studded madness…
…but does the game end up offering more style than substance?
First off, Project X Zone is a bit of a weird one, claiming the status of hybrid in terms of game design. This is due to the title’s combination of strategy, RPG elements, and even fighting game influences, rolled into one thick experience. My initial preview focused more on explaining the actual game play than critiquing it, which is best described as slower paced, but extremely loud. This is due to the previously mentioned hybrid gameplay PxZ services, which I will explain once more, for clarity’s sake.
Bear with me, as the game’s basic premise is a tad lengthy.
Like most strategy games, you have a group of characters and teams on a grid map. Your fighters can traverse on the grid within a limited fashion, and defend and attack other enemy units. PxZ, relies on RPG elements, so your guys will become stronger with almost every battle. Not only that, but they also possess an Experience bar to perform any of their skills or their specials. This type of EXP differs from their regular level experience, as one is for their overall level progression, while the other is almost like a special attack meter, which can be increased through the means of attack and defense.
The fighting game elements come into play, as any attack in the game needs a special command input, much like a Street Fighter game. A fighter’s most basic attack can be done with merely the A Button, but variations and different combos will require perhaps forward A, or down A, in a consecutive string of inputs. The variation of input commands don’t vary as much as I would have liked, but still offer a greater sense of depth than merely pushing a button. The last hook to all of this is in reference to the “Cross Combo Battle System” (CCBS), which adds a further layer of tactical fighting into the battle mix.
The CCBS, acts as further cushioning for means to a varied end. The units in the game are split into groups of two, with a third member being chosen as a solo back up. The solo back up, can be called in at any time in the battle (normally limited as a one time attack), to help further juggle the enemies for long combo chains, and bigger damage. If one team happens to be around another team, they too can also be called in using the CCBS, so that at any one time, five member of your team can be fighting at once, albeit for a limited amount of time.
This is all in essence, a way to enhance the sense of the character interactions, encouraging high damage, multi hit combos the game makes it’s bread and butter with.
Whew. Needless to say, the hybrid premise of combining so many different genres sounds complicated, but the game becomes second nature in not too long of a time frame. The first five missions are specifically geared to help the player get use to the ins and outs, and doesn’t brutalize you with difficulty while doing so.
Even when you consider skills that further enhance your performance, or the ability to perform critical hits with correctly timed attacks, the game never seems to convolute battling to the point of confusion. In theory, it’s a lot to take in. With execution, it becomes second nature, and lends itself to battles that normally don’t last more than 30 seconds (unless a special attack is used, which comes pre-packaged with a hand drawn cut scene.) The hand drawings will also represent the bulk of how the characters interact, in the still shot cutscenes that represent the story elements of the game.
PxZ seems like a more casually focused strategy game, at least by my reckoning. While I can’t claim the status of aficionado of the genre, I have played enough titles to feel like PxZ kind of treads a safe middle ground. The game isn’t as brutal as Fire Emblem, nor is it as numbers heavy as Final Fantasy Tactics, and no where near as in-depth as Disgea. PxZ rests safely away from any true extreme, carving out a niche for itself as more accessible to a larger majority.
Truly, a game distinguished from many of the heaviest hitters of the Strategy genre, save for Super Robot Wars, another cross-over style strategy game from Namco Bandai, which has had some influence in how Project X Zone plays out. Understandable, without being devoid of nuance.
I realize I’ve already spent quite a bit of time extrapolating on the gameplay of PxZ thus far in my write up, but that’s because of how unabashed the game is in focusing in on it. Not that I’m against a game being front and center about it’s design merits, but enjoying the battle system will really be the make or break for players of the game. While it’s true PxZ was billed as the “ultimate cross over” due to the robust 60+ video game hero roster, if you don’t like how the game is played, a game starring Mega Man or Dante will be an irrelevant aside, sometime between your 300th and 301st battle taking place.
The cast is impressive, with some of the heaviest hitters from all three companies involved. I imagine many (American) gamers will dig on the Capcom roster the most (Street Fighter, Mega Man, Resident Evil,), which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of characters from both Namco and SEGA that absolutely deserve their place in this crazy cameo roster (Tekken, Virtual Fighter, Shinning Force, Xenosaga). The list really is too large for mention here, but if you enjoy any of SEGA, Namco, or Capcom’s biggest games in the last twenty years, there’s a good chance the heroes are present and accounted for.
It’s worth it to mention the game was lucky enough to get localized, but not lucky enough to get dubbed. PxZ is in full Japanese, so anyone who isn’t a fan of subtitles will surely be doomed. I’m not a die hard when it comes to embracing dubs, so the subtitles were fine with me, even if I do enjoy some of the characters English voice actors. I still believe it’s a miracle at all the game came to American shores, and I seriously doubt the budget would have even allowed for such a serious undertaking, of re-recording voices for 60+ characters.
An unfortunate reality of game budgets, but a compromise that was definitely necessary in this context.
The story and dialogue can be a mixed bag, ranging from clever and charming, to tired and redundant plot regurgitation. While the characters and universes involved in PxZ are rich in character, trying to create a cohesive story to bring them all together, will inevitably be limited. While the game is usually referencing any one of the game characters back stories, the overall story elements can be exhausting, inter dimensional travel normally is.
PxZ acts out as more of a love letter to video game fans anyways, and fan service doesn’t need to follow a rule set that dictates depth or logic, but merely needs to be quirky and fun, which PxZ undeniably is.
The soundtrack acts as one of the game’s easiest get our of jail free cards, as the selection on hand is one gigantic grab bag of remixes from some of the best tunes in the video game universe. The OST stands out as excellent, confident remixes bring the nostalgia, with the regular fare of fast paced techno rock perfectly nailing the atmosphere of the game.
Whether it be a down trodden piano piece (Stairs of Time) from the .hack games, or the pumped up theme from Street Fighter 4 (Volcanic Rim), the game’s songs are pitch perfect and excellently remixed. Each character will bring their own themes, and a good reminder of why they may be your favorite characters along with the savory sounds.
The game is surprisingly low on cut scenes, as to say almost none. There is one very well done hand drawn one at the game’s beginning, but none others waiting in surprise for the rest of the experience. The games interactions and story elements are cobbled together through still character drawings and speech bubbles, which is no where near as engaging as the rest of the title poises itself to be.
Again, the ambition and scope of the game undercuts it’s ability to deliver, and really relies on the players love of the cross-over properties to keep moving forward. As mentioned, while sometimes a bit long winded, the script is normally charming, if not deeply cliché. Knowing the back story or in-jokes will certainly energize the conversations further, but to those who are out of the loop on too many of the characters involved, the playful asides may be lost on you entirely, in a series of alien conversations and foreign reference points.
So, we have an elaborately put together, but simple to master battle system. A story that’s more of a basic vehicle to get all of these characters from point A to point A, and an aesthetic that doesn’t quite match the grandeur of ambitions set down by the title. When diving even deeper into what Project X Zone has to offer, what does it do really well, and what does it just miss the mark on?
Well, for starters, the battle system is sadly limited by your ability to mix and match video game heroes. All of the partnerships in game are locked, and are not interchangeable. Ergo, Mega Man and Zero will always fight together, as will Ken and Ryu. Some interesting duo’s arise, like Chun-Li and Morrigan, or Frank West and Hsien-Ko, but not nearly enough of these original teams spring up.
Further, some characters , like Arthur from the Ghosts & Goblins series, are tragically doomed to be support characters, effectively locking them from ever being used for more than a couple seconds at a time.
This course of action regulates the number of original moves and fun character teams quite a bit, and alienates the whole idea of “ultimate cross over”, by limiting who can really “cross over”. Sure, by proxy, you can have every team help any team, but the lack of diversification, in allowing the player to pick their own teams, feels divided from the powerfully endorsed concept of cross over action.
Really, the whole idea of Dante and Mega Man, hanging out for dozens of hours, and never directly teaming up against a common threat, put simply, is a let down. When considering what focus the game puts on the Cross Combo Battle System, again these characters can “lend a helping hand”, but is an effort not pushed far enough, for the ties that bind all of our versatile heroes together.
The CCBS really is the star of the show, which is fitting, as it puts front and center the stars of the show. Overtime, mastery of this system may obfuscate deeper alternatives or more varied strategies, as it is very easy to abuse the system with lazy spamming, ignoring timing all together. This type of over use, and the ability to do so, allowed my own laziness to place heavier focus on just pushing through the battles with style, rather than thinking my way through with substance.
I suppose, a game mechanic that benefits from such easy approach is good in some ways, but very possibly one that will be taken for granted rather than appreciated for it’s easy to approach implementation.
I haven’t mentioned at all the 3D element of a 3DS game, more than a thousand words into a 3DS review. This is largely because the 3D element really adds little to the overall game, and I would even deposit as not worth the use of battery power. The game still has sights to behold, as the characters hand drawn art style, and similarly created special combos, make for some good eye candy.
The female characters all seemed to have gotten a slight, shall we say “padding”, and stand out way more physically than they ever did prior. It doesn’t say much about true to form character loyalty, but I doubt the designers had utmost respect when recreating their female heroes in a more robust manner.
With all of the star power, sweet music, and engaging but under utilized battle system, what is PxZ’s biggest flaw? Above all else, putting aside budget restraints, and the tug of war battle between depth and accessibility, PxZ more than anything else, suffers severely from length issues.
This game is one of the longest game’s I’ve beaten in some time, with my final time clocking in around 80 hours. While some of that may have been idle menu time, I was not kidding when I mentioned that PxZ had “RPG like elements”. The developers really wanted to create a lengthy story, and for you to spend a lot of time with the characters present, and its this excessive length that betrays the game most of all.
For starters, the previously mentioned failure to completely mix and match all of the heroes in the game, will most certainly stand out after 40 hours of play. The inability to custom tailor your own teams is tragic, and exacerbates itself after the nth time of doing the same special you’ve seen an innumerable number of times before. In conjunction to this, while the victory quotes and characters exchanges are many and varied, a 40+ hour experience is going to challenge even the weightiest scripts out there, resulting in a lot of redundancy in dialogue, and quips losing impact after so many repeat performances.
Similarly, while the power house special moves are cool, they lose much of their panache, when you start to get the hang of the battle system, and can basically whip them out just about every battle you engage in. Its not necessarily a mechanic that “jumps the shark“, but more like one jumping over twelve trash cans every episode, to try and retain its edge, which ultimately works against the games sense of stylish theatrics.
The length doesn’t just stop there in it’s negative effects, but further dilutes the game by going on way too long. The level design will slowly unearth itself as bland, as the levels themselves are largely just fields, with different kinds of ornamental decorations for show, and a boat load of enemies standing in your way. There’s no real interactions with the environments, and the levels really lack any real variety. With no indoor outdoor opportunities, no real verticality, and no separate areas…the lack of anything but flat terrain is way too noticeable, and may just be left over laziness from the strategy genre in general, a problem that is to blame more on the old ways of a genre, than a singular game by itself.
The length of the missions also factor into this observation of bland redundancy, as you have more time to realize how empty the levels really seem, and how many monsters there really are. With later missions expanding, and taking up more than two hours of time to complete, you’ll have a lot of time to think of how familiar this all seems, as you fight your way through replicated enemy #17.
The games lazy crutch of just throwing dozens of easy enemies at you, instead of giving you a couple of bigger, tactically challenging enemies to cope with, is a major down fall for the title from start to finish.
The Game is also relentless in its story, which as mentioned before, is more style over substance. PxZ could have used more geographic variety, or places to go and areas to visit at your own leisure. The Menu interlude between missions, barely qualifies as a breather, and exists as this once removed element from this crazy reality. The integration could have been far better, helping the immersion greatly.
In fact, the complete refusal on PxZ’s part, to let you do anything but mission after mission to get to the end, really puts a damper on any versatility of gameplay what so ever. What you see is what you get, and you really better enjoy what ends up being an endless grind against 100’s of similarly easy to tackle enemies. With no real extras to speak of, and just an endless grind from mission to mission, I almost felt relief instead of satisfaction when the credits began to role, as if I was relieved from committing to the chore of just one more mission to finish, in what had felt like an eternity in Project X Zone.
I think the characters from the .hack universe, and their fourth wall video game humor in PxZ is golden, and often points our tragic realities of design in the most humorous manner. This gets taken into truly ironic territory however, as there are moments that the characters, or really the game itself, has this rhetorical self awareness. A predication or declaration will be made, with a slant of humor, of what will happen next.
The joke becomes less funny, when the game or characters still commit to the bland, redundant, or “filler” like content, despite acknowledging it’s presence at such. Almost as if parody self-realized, and only apologizing briefly, before continuing with the needless torture of excessive padding for gameplay purposes.
After over 80 hours of gameplay, Project X Zone is indeed very fun, but it’s just fun that goes on way too long. I think PxZ also falls whim to the outdated standards of the strategy genre itself, finally letting me see the flip side to what turn based RPG players may have suffered, in the eyes of fans who wanted something a bit zippier. Presentation and cohesion have become ever increasingly important to me, and I think both are pivotal to a games ultimate success, two elements which PxZ struggles to deal with in a meaningful manner.
Do I think Project X Zone is a fun game? Absolutely, and once again reiterate my sentiment about how lucky we were for the title to get localized. While I appreciate the games different approach to design, it’s hard for me to look past so many flaws, when the game gives me so much time to do so, in the course of 80 in game hours. I think there’s a lot of entertainment to be had, but anyone who isn’t a die hard fan of strategy games, may be turned away before they even get a quarter through the game.
Project X Zone definitely works against itself in some regards, and has a sense of cross-purposes through out. The game wants you to enjoy a lot of story, but doesn’t have much to say. The battle system has a lot of in’s and out’s, but the game never challenges you to use it. PxZ even encourages heroes working together, but limits the manners and ways they can do so. The game struggles to maintain a singular goal, and gets lost in the shuffle, trying to make up for it’s lack of focus, by doing the only thing it knows how: flashy distractions and casual actions.
The “less is more” strategy would have worked well with Project X Zone, by moderating how much we got, which would have transformed the consistency of awesome, into one of rarity rather than redundancy. This in turn, would have elevated an already fun game, to a completely fantastic experience. As it stands, Project X Zone has more to show than it has to say, and if you don’t speak the game’s language, you’ll have a hard time having any meaningful dialogue with a game that wants to talk your ear off.
Article from Gamersyndrome.com