Review: Project X Zone (3DS)

Project X Zone (pronounced “Cross”) certainly is an ambitious one: Is it possible to bring more than 50 characters from three companies into one game, and have a plot that justifies the madness? This cross-over title featuring Sega, Namco Bandai and Capcom attempts to answer this question positively, but ultimately falls flat, just short of the finish line.

Project X Zone
Score: 6.9/10
Release Date: 6/25/2013 (USA)
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Developed by Banpresto, Monolith Soft
Published by Namco Bandai

Project X Zone is one of the most innovative Strategy/Tactical RPG titles in the 3DS lineup, however it fails to entice for the complete 40hrs of gameplay. Within the central realm of Project X Zone lies the Kouryuji Estate, which houses the long-guarded “Portalstone”; this artifact keeps all dimensions and aspects of time running parallel to each other…As luck has it, the Portalstone is stolen, throwing reality into cross-dimensional chaos, opening rifts between eras and worlds of past, present and future. Mii Kouryuji and detective Kogoro Tenzai, with the eventual help of others from distant realms, begin their multi-dimensional quest to retrieve the artifact and restore the fabric of reality. While the plot justifies the ludicrous idea of having so many characters and references from multiple franchises, story progression is flawed by a lack of purpose and the repetition of uncertainty:

Roughly the first half of Project X Zone– all 20hrs of it- is spent traversing between realms, gathering allies from various franchises to fight against enemies who appear (and very often re-appear) without much explanation; upon victory, the player isn’t given a sense of accomplishment towards a higher goal, so much as completing another roadblock, in what seems to be an unintended game of “how many references can the player familiarize with”. The story advances on wanting to see the next set-piece of nostalgia, rather than fighting towards a fulfilling conclusion.

While the plot is amazingly convoluted, and takes its precious time straightening itself out, Project X Zone shines in its gameplay, in a unique system dubbed the “Cross Active Battle System (CABS)”. CABS seamlessly blends gameplay elements from Strategy/Tactical RPGs and Fighting games, to create a system that is truly something else:

At its core, Project X Zone plays like a typical Strategy/Tactical RPG; the player controls units by moving them across a preset grid on the battlefield; depending on the relative position of ally and enemy units, the player can attack, heal, buff the abilities of other units, or hold their current position…This is typical of the genre. CABS takes the gameplay elements into uncharted territory, with the inclusion of Paired and Solo units, Paired Unit Assists, and watered-down Fighting game mechanics: When the player initiates an attack on an enemy unit, a “battle phase” will begin. From here, things get complex:

By default, the player will attack with a Paired Unit, or two characters acting as one offensive entity. A Paired Unit has varied attacks, each one being mapped to the “Attack” button and a directional input. Depending on the attack, these have the potential to yield such effects to the enemy as “Poison” or “Stun”. Each attack will also launch and juggle the enemy unit in the air, which gives players the opportunity to land more attacks; the player has a limited amount of attacks to execute during each battle phase, but if they complete each varying one, they will gain one extra attack. If the player strikes moments before the enemy touches the ground after a juggle, that attack will become a “Critical”, dealing extra damage. By landing attacks and Critical strikes, the Paired Unit’s XP gauge will increase, which at certain levels will allow them to use abilities, and unleash “Special” moves, indicated with a brief cutscene, and usually some gratuitous fanservice. Solo Units are independent, and can be attached to any Paired Unit to become a third “assist” character. When attacks from the Paired and Solo Units strike at the same time, this initiates a “Cross Hit”, locking the enemy in place for a brief period of time; this can be extended for as long as both the Paired and Solo Units are attacking. If two Paired Units are adjacent to each other, then that outside Unit can be brought in for a Paired Unit Assist, an additional attack on the enemy.

It’s a wild and complex system that borders upon insanity, but it works brilliantly and has enough strategic layering to be the saving grace of Project X Zone.

The soundtrack is just as varied as the cast; while a few tracks original to Project X Zone exist, most of the soundtrack comes from various series featured within the game. During gameplay, the music will change in correspondence to the character in-play; i.e. when Ryu and Ken are selected, “Volcanic Rim” from Street Fighter IV will play. While it is a nice touch, and accents the reality of having characters from different worlds, most of the Units only have one theme per franchise; in the later stages of the game, the music gets understandably repetitive. The intro, paired with an original animation by Trigger (from former members of Gainax…and it shows), is simply outstanding.

Project X Zone is a difficult game to recommend, due to its conflicting properties. With the inclusion of New Game+ and an unlockable Hard Mode, the game offers incentive for “replayability”, at the cost of trudging through the loosely-structured 40hr Story Mode. The Cross Active Battle System is a spectacle to behold, especially in the hands of an experienced player, but new players might find it to be an overwhelming experience.

While it has several properties that would have made it one of the best Strategy/Tactical RPGs to release this year for the 3DS, a convoluted plot and overwhelming yet fun gameplay engine hold Project X Zone back from what might have been an absolutely solid title.

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