Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Namco Bandai | Capcom | SEGA
Perhaps it's the heatwave, but I've been having a bizarre recurring dream over the last few nights. In my fevered imagination, the developers behind Xenoblade Chronicles impossibly created a strategic turn-based RPG disgused as a fighting game. Starring over 40 classic characters from SEGA, Capcom and Namco Bandai franchises. Jill Valentine, Frank West, Heihachi Mishima, Ulala, Chun Li, Yuri Lowell, Blackrose, Mega-Man, Ryu, Dante, Neneko and even that bloke from Resonance Of Fate come cartwheeling through my mind; an impossible cavalcade of superstars all fighting side by side. On the 3DS, no less.
I wake up screaming.
Then, just before I reach for my phone to ring a clinical psychiatrist, I notice that same game in my 3DS card slot. Project X Zone is somehow inexplicably, maddeningly, brilliantly real. And magnificent in its insanity.
The pitch, as mentoned, is bonkers. Monolith Soft have somehow managed to bring its 40-strong roster together in a single canonical storyline involving dimensional travel and an evil organisation exploiting portals between worlds. Your growing party gets catapulted between familiar locations, from Willamette to .hack's virtual simulation and Sakura Wars' parisienne theatres, hot on the trail of a dream team of villains old and new. It's a labyrinthine and unwieldly beast that has to find increasingly unlikely excuses to introduce even more of its megastars, but ultimately it's just an excuse to create what could well be the most ambitious crossover of all time.
Just look at that lineup. Look at it. Namco Bandai, Capcom and SEGA have brought an enormous cast of characters from popular franchises and niche Japanese imports to the party, providing a 'best of' collection that you'd never see in a Western-developed game. Devil May Cry and Darkstalkers. .Hack and Tales Of Vesperia. Sakura Wars and Street Fighter. Dead Rising and Tron Bonne, and so many more besides. Each character has been brought to life with high-resolution portraits, carefully-localised translated text dialogue, Japanese voice acting and personality-packed sprite art, bursting with unbridled verve and evident love of the source material.
It's difficult to overstate the thrill of seeing some of our favourite characters interacting with each other in the same world, sharing their own perspectives and constantly cracking in-jokes based on their game's mechanics and storylines. Frank West photographs everyone he sees, netting a perfect erotica score each time. The .hack cast compare everything to RPGs, whereas the Gods Eater troupe complain that they can't harvest the cores out of enemies they kill. Dante moans about his payment and seeks pizza wherever he can find it. Much of the humour is predicated on you being a major fan of the games in question, but so long as you're au fait with a handful of them, it's a real treat that you simply can't find anywhere else.
The quality of the text localisation is excellent, with each character retaining their own specific personalities and recognisable catch phrases. Only a handful of lines end up flubbed or lost in translation, though admittedly a few asides could be construed as fist-bitingly sexist from time to time. Usually only lascivious or pervy male characters are involved, and end up looking worse for their comments, so it arguably works in context. Otherwise, again, it's the sort of reckless and utterly wonderful crossover experiment that usually never gets green-lit, let alone makes it out of Japan. As a fan of most of these series, I must admit to punching the air with each new appearance and tongue-in-cheek reference.
However, all of this won't make a difference if the gameplay doesn't hold up, and I'm delighted to report that there's an enjoyable SRPG underpinning the storyline, humour and cameos.
Despite the action-heavy marketing, Project X Zone is very much an strategy RPG that draws on the likes of Final Fantasy tactics to inform its turn-based gameplay. Throughout some isometric grid-based maps, you'll control your roster in order of initiative; facing off against legions of foes and bosses drawn from numerous games (and a few original surprises). It's familiar stuff, with each unit able to move a certain distance per turn, deploy unique skills by expending Cross Power (confusingly referred to as XP) and attack a single enemy in a specific range. However, in a neat twist, most combatants are organised into pairs - such as Frank West and Hsien-Ko, Ryu and Ken and X and Zero, with solo freelancers able to buff units with extra stats and skills into if you attach them to a partnership.
When you engage an enemy, however, Monolith Soft plays their trump card. Pound for Pound, Project X Zone looks just like a classic fighting game.
Portrayed from a side-on perspective, combat involves a neat mix between real-time action and turn-based tactics. Each duo has a set of familiar attacks and skills that can be triggered with simple inputs, most of which last about five seconds as both characters loose a flurry of simultaneous blows. Monolith Soft has keenly observed every character in their arsenal, meaning that they all use their recognisable trademark abilities. Ling Xiaoyu deals out quickfire damage with her Phoenix stance. Frank West throws random mall objects and chainsaws. Jill Valentine wields her rocket launcher. Arthur from Ghosts and Goblins loses all his clothes and slinks offscreen. Ryu's Hadoken, Morrigan's bat blades and Yuri Lowell's swordplay are all present and correct, and perfectly replicated here. The slavish devotion to respecting the source material makes for stunning fan service.
Each attack sequence has the potential to juggle or control the enemy, meaning that precisely timing each move is paramount to deal the most amount of damage possible and break their block (represented as a shield gauge). Occasionally you'll also be able to pull off a special attack, which rewards you with an eye-popping cutscene and pin-sharp anime cutscenes as your fighters brutalise the opponent to within an inch of their lives. With big expressive sprites, smooth animations, retina-shredding effects and no hint of slowdown, Project X Zone's battles present some of the best eye candy on the system.
Cross Hits and support attacks add more depth to the combat, and provide one of the most satisfying facets of the game. Units can summon nearby allies to enter the fray with a tap of the right bumper, who leap in and devastate the enemy simultaneously with your own assault. Doing so tends to lock the enemy in place and deals extra damage to boot. Solo units such Tron Bonne can also be brought into battle, boasting overlong attacks and all manner of ridiculous visual flair. Yes, Tron does bring all her Servbots along. All of them. Knowing exactly when to trigger these moves for maximum effect, and how best to control a foe so that most of your attacks connect, becomes increasingly more important as the challenge curve mounts up, while dealing bonus damage funnels into extra experience and XP for counter-attacks and defensive skills.
Beyond these intricacies within the combat system, however, Project X Zone is notably a little light on true strategic depth. Most battles can be bludgeoned through with force of numbers and grouping units close enough to trigger Cross Hits, which will leave hardcore SRPG veterans somewhat nonplussed. Personally, though, I feel that it's pitched at a happy medium so that fans of any of the myriad franchises can get involved without being turned away at the door. It's a crossover, not a hardcore strategy game, and designed to be relatively accessible. Don't worry, there are still some overwhelming odds to pit yourself against.
There's no escaping repetition, however. Project X Zone is a long game, clocking in at well over two dozen hours, and mission objectives rarely deviate from the 'kill everything, don't die' formula. Many missions are also incredibly long, sometimes feeling a little padded in the process and a little too lengthy for a dedicated handheld game. If you greedily consume it in a single hit, much like us critics have to in order to push out the review, there's no denying that malaise can set in after the first ten hours. Luckily the constantly-growing party, humour and unexpected cameos go a long way towards mitigating this - and most players will want and need to savour the experience over the course of a fortnight or so. If you play on a relatively realistic schedule between work, family and social life, Project X Zone could well last you most of the summer.
- An unprecedented roster of classic characters and hilarious interactions
- Engaging battle system with OTT attacks and perfectly observed personality
- Streamlined and accessible SRPG gameplay over a massive campaign
- Sensational, eye-popping sprite art and visuals
- Relatively light on serious strategy
- Repetitious, many missions feel overlong
- Overly convoluted plot, a few flubbed lines of dialogue
The Short Version: Project X Zone is an utter delight for fans of... well... pretty much every game from Capcom, SEGA and Namco Bandai. Hilarious dialogue, innovative hybrid SRPG strategy, a massive character roster and eyecatching combat conspire to create a crossover so recklessly insane that it probably has no right to exist.
But we're so very glad it does.