Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky

PS Vita, PlayStation 4

Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky
Ripped from their lives by an explosion in Tokyo, Kanata and his friends find themselves in another world. Powerful beings bestow upon them unique abilities and send them into battle against strange creatures and monstrous evils, but the newly empowered warriors mostly care about discovering a way back to the mortal world.
If nothing else, Exist Archive: the other Side of the Sky poses a creative vision of the afterlife. Never mind those angel-heaped clouds, surging hellfires, or even the Norse realms that developer tri-Ace adapted into their Valkyrie Profile series. According to Exist Archive, departed souls journey from the planet and migrate toward rebirth elsewhere in the cosmos. However, godlike beings can hijack these spirits and force them to wage proxy wars in a strange fantasy realm, and that's where Exist Archive begins.

White-haired teenager Kanata and his fiancée Ranze spend their last few living moments trapped in the underground wreckage of a Tokyo disaster. An explosion sends their souls skyward (though not before Ranze drops an ambiguous line about their relationship), and Kanata wakes up in an ethereal land of floating islands and ancient machines. His first new friends are a gentle amnesiac named Mayura and a sarcastic entity called Yamatoga, but he soon joins other humans, Ranze included, who were plucked from the Earth and granted impressive combat abilities. It's all to settle a complicated score between halfway benevolent creatures and their shadowy foes, though no one quite trusts Yamatoga.

Exist Archive turns its floating islands and skyborne fortresses into side-scrolling levels bursting with brightly saturated colors and stratospheric backgrounds. Kanata and his allies are free to run and jump through them, often with little precision in the controls. The game borrows the Metroid and Castlevania formula (commonly labeled “Metroidvania”) by granting Kanata double-jumps, projectiles, and other techniques that allow him to access new regions of previously visited stages.

Enemies are visible on-screen, and touching one brings up Exist Archive's best feature. The battle system lines up four characters, each of them linked to one of the Vita or PS4's action buttons. Press a button, and your appointed swordfighter or gunner or mage will attack. Hit them with the right combination, and you'll discover new ways of taking down enemies. Tap those buttons when foes strike, and party members will block or perhaps even counterattack. There's a lot to the battle system: budgeting out the energy meter to get the most possible attacks per round, juggling enemies to break their defenses, using gunners and sorcerers to attack spiky creatures from a distance, and targeting one enemy to deal out collateral damage to the monsters surrounding it.

Whether it's the Norse fantasy of Valkyrie Profile or the space opera of Star Ocean, tri-Ace rarely lets an RPG through the door without a vast spread of options. Characters upgrade their skills to unlock new moves battle, and the full compendium of active techniques and passive defenses is impressive. Atop that, a chart tracks just how much the characters like Kanata, and there are in-battle benefits to getting along with teammates.

Yet Exist Archive never makes you care about it. The characters seep with teenage anime clichés, and their otherworldly benefactors are strangely uninteresting—though Yamatoga is a surprisingly candid (and well-acted) jerkbag as deities go. Even when Ren, a genre-savvy nerd, looses a decent joke or tokusatsu heroine Rui belts out catchphrases, there's another exchange (like Namero fussing over his name) to walk things back to banality.

Exist Archive isn't entirely dull in its take on eschatology: the conflict between the characters' new powers and the lives they've left behind, and the ancient machines of a race called the precursors are all intriguing. Yet you'll have to dig for them. The game slouches through a lot of its storyline, taking ten hours to arrive at any really notable plot revelations. By the time Exist Archive rolls out the option of sending your party members back to earth (and unlocking various endings), you'll weigh the tactical advantages of losing a decent blade-wielder or gun-kata artist well before you wonder how Suzaku or Mitsuhide will react to seeing their friends and family again.

Exist Archive shares a lot with Valkyrie Profile: the battle system, the side-view dungeons, and the cadre of deceased spirits granted second chances. Even the menu-confirmation beeps are the same, and Motoi Sakuraba's surging overtures would slip flawlessly around a Valkyrie Profile game. It's as though Exist Archive actually was another Valkyrie Profile before Square Enix pulled the license to make a mobile game instead.

So it's sadder still that Exist Archive lacks real inspiration in its story. Valkyrie Profile games told uniquely morbid tales, tied into Norse myths, and drew characters from doomed young soldiers to elderly nobles. Exist Archive recruits a pack of stereotypes from a throwaway light novel, lacking even the breezy appeal of Tales characters. In its lasting appeal, it feels further from Valkyrie Profile and closer to last year's Lost Dimension, which took good ideas and failed to create any interesting characters to carry them.

Even some of the better moments unravel. Revisiting levels offers the chance to discover new ground and items, but the procession of similar backgrounds and enemies grows tedious, and the game struggles to create a sense of progress. This is a grinder's game, pointed at the player who thinks nothing of replaying levels for the sake of new discoveries or higher letter grades.

For a minor irritation, Exist Archive uses strangely proportioned characters throughout. Not quite “chibi” and not anywhere near realistic, everyone has an oversized head atop a smaller body. It's incongruous in just about every sector of the game, as though tri-Ace was inspired by Monster High dolls, and it clashes with the normally sized portraits that appear during dialogue sequences.

Despite its curious vision of an afterlife filled with squabbling gods and aerial continents, Exist Archive is suited largely to players who care little for a game's storyline, themes, or setting aside from how fast they can skip the cutscenes. The action-oriented battles and voluminous skillsets are fun in their complexities, but even those who concentrate on the gameplay may ask themselves just why they're going through all of this. And there isn't much of an answer.

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

+ A fantastic and deep battle system
Repetitive dungeons, dull characters

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