A Rave in Your Pocket: Project X Zone Review
Welcome to Project X Zone, the ultimate crossover mash-up! Namco, Capcom, and Sega have teamed up to present over 60 characters from more than 20 of the most beloved game franchises of all time! Featuring Street Fighter’s Chun Li, .hack’s Kite, Virtua Fighter’s Pai Chan, and dozens of other stars – this is the Nintendo 3DS’ party of the year!
Project X Zone is a story of robbery, anarchy, and inter-dimensional travel. It begins with the theft of a Portalstone from the manor of an ancient monastic family. A mysterious organization called Oros Phlox is using the Portalstone to dissolve the boundaries between alternate worlds and timelines. As a result, Japan has been overtaken by demons, aliens, robots, mutants from the future, and much nastier things! The prologue introduces you to Mii Koryuji, the descendant of the Portalstone’s protectors, and Kogoro Tenzai, her tutor, who must investigate the theft and stop Oros Phlox from sowing total chaos and dissolution.
This is a rare game; a turn-based strategy-fighter. Your characters are paired up on the battlefield and when a pair’s turn comes up, you navigate them around the map grid, choosing which enemy unit to attack and from which direction. Once you have picked your target, you can press the A button to initiate a battle.
Battles are staged like traditional arcade fighting games, with your characters poised on one side of the screen and your opponents standing on the other side. Project X Zone isn’t a traditional fighting game, though: during a fight you get to attack your opponent without fear of a counter-attack, while they passively absorb your blows. If your opponent has enough cross points when your attack turn ends, then they will be able to counter-attack you for a small amount of damage. Likewise, after an enemy attacks your character, you are given the option to make a short counter-attack or to defend, reducing the damage that you take.
The characters in a ‘pair unit’ have gorgeously animated combination attacks, which they execute as a team, working together to juggle opponents in the air and to batter them with fist, sword, gun and bomb. There are no long sequences of buttons to memorise: the combos are executed by pressing the A button in combination with one direction on the Direction pad. For example, Frank West of Dead Rising and Hsien-Ko of Darkstalkers have a combo called Double Lariat & Gong Reflect, which lands eight hits on the enemy. This attack is executed just by pressing the A button while pushing right on the Direction pad. Each pair unit has at least three combos that can be executed this way, including a Special Attack combo that can be activated under special circumstances. You can unlock more combos for a pair unit by winning more fights with them, and increasing their experience. The choreographed attacks are always perfectly executed and will only miss if you time them incorrectly. Using an attack that strikes low when the enemy has been flung high into the air is a sure way to waste your turn!
Project X Zone is a visual feast. Filled to the brim with eye-candy, it features rich animations, detailed character sprites, colourful and interactive backgrounds, and brilliant effects. Namco Bandai has produced a uniform art style which makes every character look like they belong in the same world without really compromising their original designs.
It is in battle that the character designs really shine: they are fully animated, breathing figures that balance on the balls of their feet, swaying back and forth as they await your command. Every pair of characters pulls off a variety of moves for each combo that they can perform, so that a full set of four combos can involve as many as forty different manoeuvres: anything from throwing a fireball, to swinging a toy hammer, to firing shotguns hidden in their high heels. The Special Attack combos are even more intense, featuring drawn-out, ludicrously dramatic, and effect-heavy assaults on your plainly helpless opponent.
Project X Zone’s chaotic battles are joined by a soundtrack that is the very definition of epic. Each character has his or her own theme song that has been borrowed from their original game, which plays during their turn. The heroes’ personalities are so well expressed by their theme songs that you can recognize whose turn it is even without looking at the screen. The variety of musical styles represented by the characters’ themes gives texture and meaning to the struggle: Ken of Street Fighter has driving rhythm and a powerful electric guitar, setting a heroic mood; the theme of Soma, from the ruined future of God Eater, uses strings and piano to produce a serious, fateful air; Gemini from Sakura Wars is accompanied by bouncing bass and playful, adventurous trumpeting. In every track you can feel the reason that each hero has for fighting against the forces of chaos.
Unfortunately, one thing that could have been better developed in Project X Zone is its story. After the first prologue chapter the story rapidly degenerates into chaos, leaping from one set of characters to another. All of them are investigating something, whether it is a string of disappearing persons, an infestation of monsters, or a dysfunctional teleporter. These storylines come to an immediate end when mysterious portals open up in space, swallowing the heroes and sending them to alien dimensions. From that point on you will be traveling aimlessly between worlds, just as confused as the new friends that you make at every stop along the way.
To add to this, few of the scenarios that you find yourself in will flow within the story. Sometimes you will see monsters from a certain game franchise being hunted by the heroes from that franchise, in a setting from their native world. This familiarity rarely lasts, as the entire cast will be swept off to an arbitrary, new setting to fight an equally arbitrary villain. You will, for example, wind up in a setting from Dead Rising where you must fight monsters from Megaman Legends and a boss from Xenosaga.
However, the weakness of the plot allows the game to focus almost exclusively on developing the characters and their relationships. As you progress through the game, the cast begins to abandon interest in understanding why things are happening the way they are. The more serious-minded characters will occasionally wonder what the villains’ plans are, but most of their friends are more involved in flirting with one another, teasing one another, or cracking jokes at each others’ expense. They embrace the chaos and have a lot of fun with it! In the absence of a meaningful story structure, Project X Zone is really about a party of friends who go on bizarre adventures, laughing and playing with the strange situations that they find themselves in.
This format is so effective because the characters in Project X Zone are very well defined. The game uses lighthearted and frivolous banter to introduce characters and sketch out their personalities. Almost every combination of characters will share a unique conversation at the end of a battle, playing on each other’s foibles. The dialogue is almost entirely performed by voice actors too, an impressive addition to the game that gives each line more emotional impact and better dramatic or comic timing.
Project X Zone becomes progressively more difficult as it goes on, with a very comfortable learning curve. The real game is not in winning fights but in winning them with style. It is not only good strategy to keep your party in a tight formation so that they can support each other in battle but the game positively rewards you for pulling off hundred-hit combos. The challenges are deceptively easy in the earlier chapters, but as you reach the mid-game you will be facing off against huge legions of monsters and multiple bosses at a time, requiring you to have mastered the support system and the juggling skills.
The juggling metagame allows you to access your friends’ hidden abilities. When you strike an opponent with a combo and they are helplessly flung into the air, you can hit them again before they touch the ground and extend your combo by eight to ten more hits. You can string together dozens of attacks in this way. At the end of every encounter you are given bonus points based on how many attacks you strung together while juggling your opponent, called Cross Points. Cross Points are also earned by calling in allies to support you in a fight and are crucial for taking on the bosses: when your Cross Point gauge reaches 100% you are able to use a devastatingly powerful Special Attack.
To succeed in Project X Zone you do not need many specialized skills. In fact, you could be a master of this game even if you have never played a game like this before. You need only to pay attention to how your characters move, choose an attack that will strike the enemy at their current altitude, and time your attacks precisely. The first ten chapters, which can take up to ten hours to clear, give you plenty of time to practice and master these skills.
Project X Zone is less a fighting game and more a dancing game. The music, animation and dialogue all serve to express your new friends’ personalities so that you can get acquainted and really understand them. You must feel the heroes as extensions of yourself; their movements must become your second nature. Then you can choreograph perfect, hundred-hit combinations, showing off your smooth moves as your friends leap, cartwheel, twirl, and skip around the stage, performing incredible stunts with hoops, staves, pistols, and a host of other props. It is a circus show, and you are the ringmaster!
Excellence permeates nearly every fibre of this game. It revolves around knowing a cast of charming, complex, and surprisingly real characters who want nothing more than to live in peace, with love, unity and respect between them all. And if you don’t know anybody yet, then you’re sure to make a lot of new friends!
The only significant mark against Project X Zone is that its story doesn’t feel like it is progressing as your party bounces from one venue to the next. This is far from a fatal flaw, as the real fun is to be had spending time with your friends in new places. As an obvious work of love, Project X Zone has earned a score of 4.75 out of 5.
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