Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Project X Zone

Nintendo 3DS

Project X Zone
The theft of an artifact called the Portalstone sends ripples through time and space, drawing in all sorts of visitors from alternate dimensions. Of course, these dimensions correspond to familiar video games, and it leads to a crossover spanning three companies and over twenty different series.
Project X Zone is not the best strategy-RPG for customizing and cultivating a small army of followers. That'd be Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Nor is Project X Zone the best strategy-RPG for arranging various relationships among characters. That'd be Fire Emblem: Awakening or maybe Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. And Project X Zone sure isn't the best strategy-RPG for discovering a storyline that turns out depressing no matter what decisions you make. That'd be Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume...or Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. However, Project X Zone is easily the best strategy-RPG for watching Chun-Li and Morrigan smack around a Gnosis monster while Jin and Xiaoyu sweep in alongside the Namco Valkyrie and the whole thing turns into a furious web of fireballs and sword strikes and battle cries and game-nerd affirmation.

Project X Zone knows precisely what it is, and so it spares little time justifying its crossover of characters from Sega, CAPCOM, and Namco Bandai. Thanks to weakened dimensional barriers, a stretch of semi-futuristic Tokyo becomes a nexus for all sorts of characters who have come unstuck in time. Kite and BlackRose from the .hack games battle alongside the stars of Sakura Taisen. Deviliotte from Cyberbots stands with God Eater's teenage demon-hunters. Street Fighter, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, and even Fighting Vipers throw their headliners into the fray. Dead Rising's Frank West snaps candid shots of each franchise's scantily clad women, whether they're from Xenosaga, Darkstalkers, or Project X Zone's predecessor, Namco X CAPCOM. Most introductions are amusingly short, since the game assumes that the characters know each other, presumably from Namco X CAPCOM. Or perhaps they get together at that same bar after work. That would not be absurd here.

The numerous meet-ups of Project X Zone invariably lead to battles against both recognizable characters and more generic interdimensional hobgoblins. Characters pair up by series (or by some vaguer thematic connection) and trot around the typical strategy-RPG grids. Things are less routine when battles unfold and the game shifts to a side-view of some unfortunate foe being pounded to excess. Combat seems a train wreck at first, with the directional pad and attack button releasing a dozen or so strikes from the characters. Yet there's timing at work here; let enemies hit the ground, and you'll lose points and build up their defenses. The game rewards you for keeping a foe juggled until defeat, and each little tiff becomes an enjoyable mini-game in itself.

Nor is the blend a simple one. The pre-arranged duos can partner with a dozen stand-alone characters, and another team can join in an attack as long as they're close enough on the map. With these spare fighters triggered by the 3DS shoulder buttons, combat is a whirlwind. Characters pitch out dozens of signature moves, gliding into the screen with full-size portraits and whimsical little details. While the battle sprites are relatively small, they're animated with entertaining style, and characters whip out taglines both new and familiar as they fight. It's the best way to approach this sort of crossover, deftly button-mashing your way through a six-character brouhaha where Rival Schools punches give way to a Valkyria Chronicles barrage and a big finisher by Haken and Kaguya from Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier.

The thrill is fleeting. Despite all of the characters and the many ways to stack them, the massive combos grow less impressive the tenth or eleventh time you've seen Tron Bonne from Mega Man Legends lead her regiment of Servbots into battle and then get dizzy as her largest mecha-servant spins off the screen. The enemies often cut you slack in their aggression, and the game's 40-some chapters don't vary much in their objectives or layouts. Sure, characters have map-screen skills and area attacks, but those aren't as exciting as a joyful pile-up of violence that unites Mega Man X and Resonance of Fate.

There's a good reason to keep playing if you're a big enough fan. Project X Zone embraces the crossover pipe dream at every turn, and it dots the storyline with all sorts of in-jokes and minor hints. It's here that the game really cements itself as a showpiece for the truly devoted geek; sure, a lot of us can laugh at a “Jill Sandwich” joke and recognize the background music, but it takes a rarer sort to remember how Darkstalkers previously implied that Lord Raptor has a crush on Hsien-Ko. And it's for those character-fixated fans that Project X Zone truly exists. Besides, it's nice to see the Valkyria Chronicles III troops in a domestically released game.

True, the game isn't all pointed mockery. Every memorable exchange is bordered by some exposition about dimensional breaches and sealing stones, and the humor is never above a round of predictable boob jokes and similar dross. The game also insists on playing up the less interesting characters as much as the appealing ones, just to be fair. The Virtua Fighter and Shining Force EXA loans are dead weight, and Project X Zone's original protagonists, rich girl Mii Kouryuji and her tutor Kogoro Tenzai, seem dull next to Namco X CAPCOM's Reiji and Xiaomu—who show up a few hours into the game, fortunately.

Project X Zone is a bit too comfortable in its fantasy fulfillment. A hectic battle system builds up at first, but the energy fades well before the story's over. All that stays are the geek pleasures of seeing dozens of different characters bounce off each other in ways once thought impossible for an officially sanctioned and localized game. For a lot of devoted fans, that'll be enough.

Overall : B-
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : C+
Presentation : B

+ Initially fun battles mixed with unrepentant geek comedy
Combat grows repetitive, and the rest of the gameplay rarely makes up for it

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