Saturday, October 25, 2014

Impressions #17: Project X Zone

It was a long time coming, but I purchased a Nintendo 3DS a few months back. All the factors, from its game catalog and price point to my current spending money came together at one time. Of course, one does not buy a console without first purchasing a game or two for it: Project X Zone was one of them. After playing it on and off for a few months now, I have beaten the game. The sheer amount of time it took to complete PXZ is indicative of my decidedly low opinion of the game. This week, I plan to tell you exactly why I feel that way.

Released in January of 2013 in the US, Project X Zone was developed by Monolith Software and Banpresto, published mainly by Namco Bandai. The central premise of the game is pretty simple: Bring all of the most notable characters from various big name Namco Bandai, Capcom, and Sega franchises together for one of the largest crossovers ever seen on a video game console. Given that I have heard of and/or enjoyed most of these franchises at some point in time, I would theoretically be the person with the best chance to like this game. However, the game has so many little flaws that they collectively bring the entire experience down in my honest opinion.

The story is a huge example of this. Similar to Namco X Capcom, the story revolves around two original characters made exclusively for the game: Kogoro Tenzai and Mii Koryuji. Hoping across various dimensions, timezones, and even into cyberspace, they encounter various other characters who, for whatever reason the game provides, join their party and assist them on their adventure to retrieve a stolen relic called the Portalstone. Honestly, it is extremely clear that the plot, for better or worse, only exists to justify why characters like Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter are fighting along the likes of Resident Evil's Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, Frank West from Dead Rising and Hsien-Ko from Darkstalkers, Kite and Blackrose from .hack, among many, many others. Without the fan appeal inherent to the cast, the story would not be able to stand on its own.
This is mostly because it really is only present for roughly the first and last quarters of the game. The middle portion mostly has the cast faffing about in various stages pulled from some of the games that the characters are from. Nothing of note happens during this section aside from the introduction of new cameos to add to the player roster. Even when the story is happening, it is extremely predictable and most of the plot points are either unsurprising or could be seen from a mile away. Fans of the JRPGs that are drawn upon would probably be able to piece most of the story together shortly after the start of the last quarter of the game. Like I said, it only serves to bring the characters together, and simply does not stand on its own without them.
Having said that, there are many nods, references, and in-jokes that fans of the many franchises present will appreciate. Characters from more “grounded” (for lack of a better word) franchises like Resident Evil and Dead Rising will frequently make fun of the more absurd outfits that characters from RPGs like Toma and Cyrille from Shining Force EXA wear. Differences in magical, martial, and technology powers from the various dimensions are acknowledged and understood by the plot. For example, in Valkyria Chronicles, the Valkyria powers exhibited by characters in the story are awesome. When compared to the kind of powers exhibited by KOS-MOS and T-elos of Xenosaga, or Kite and Blackrose from .hack, they come off as much less impressive, and characters make note of this.
At the same time, the fact that over 70 characters from roughly 30 different franchises has its own results on the story. This results in a phenomenon that I like to refer to as “Crossover Syndrome.” That is, when too many characters are in a scene at the same time, they all need to make an impression upon the player. Since they each only get one or two lines at the most, writers have to reduce those personalities to only the most notable traits out of what might have been a very nuanced, multifaceted personality from the original game. The ultimate result of this is that what were fleshed-out characters have become mere caricatures of what they used to be. With a cast this large, such edits are necessary. However, that does not make it any less disappointing to fans of those characters. I cannot think of a way around it, but it is something that needs acknowledgment.

As for the gameplay itself, the game is divided into a series of roughly 45 chapters. Each chapter takes place on a 2D grid, similar to what one might find in Final Fantasy Tactics. The player's party is divided into different units, which start in pre-determined spaces on the grid. There are two different types of units. The first are “Pair” units, which are comprised of two characters, usually (but not always) from the same franchise. These units are the main force players use. Effectively one unit, these partners move about the 2D plane and engage the enemy units together. What is unique about Project X Zone is that when a player unit attacks an enemy unit, they enter a 2D plane to do battle. The player can then use up to five different attacks and chain them together into a combo. As they land blows, they build up XP (Cross Points), which can be expended to use support skills on themselves or other party members. Alternatively, XP can be spent performing special attacks which inflict massive amounts of damage on the enemy. XP is shared among all player units, so there is a added element of resource management.
In addition to these Pair units, there are also “Solo” units. Rather than stand on their own, these single-character units are equipped to a Pair unit. When a Pair unit engages in a battle alongside a Solo unit, they can call upon that unit to provide addition attacks. Further, if another Pair unit if close by to that Pair unit, they can provide a Support attack. Both the Solo and Support attacks can be used even while the base Pair unit is launching their combo. When this occurs, the enemy is frozen in position during the “Cross Combo,” which provides additional XP as a bonus and can often make it easier to land attacks.

While this all sounds good on paper, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. There are several reasons why this is the case. For one, these battles are extremely long. As I mentioned earlier, there are about 45 chapters, each comprised on a single battle scene. My playtime, not including the many times I performed a soft reset and reloaded a save after a bout of bad luck, totaled over 52 hours. Since many of the early missions can be completed in about 30 minutes, this means that most of the missions towards the end will take players an hour or two to finish up. For me, this was the game I played on my commutes both to school and work, which are both 20 minutes away from my house. On a typical day, I would spend 40 minutes playing this game. Missions frequently took a day or two for me to finish.
And on its own, that might be acceptable, but the game is greatly streamlined. There are no towns, no shops. When a player finishes a match, they are shown an “Interlude” screen. At this screen, players are shown which Pair and Solo characters are available for the next mission. They can change up which Solo character is on each Pair unit, save their game, and manage equipment. Due to the lack of commerce, equipment can only be obtained by beating boss characters and opening treasure chests on the battlefield. Since this means that players will basically just go for the highest numbers, the system can by-and-large be safely ignored. Aside from this screen, players are funneled from mission to mission, without much of a chance for a breather.
Again, this would not be a problem. However, this is further compounded by the issue in that missions lack much in the way of variety or pacing. Missions tend to have a set structure in PXZ. There will be a cutscene at first which sets up the scene. Typically, players will start with an initial board layout and objective, usually “Defeat [Boss]” or “Defeat All Enemies.” Once either several turns pass or that objective is completed, a “plot twist” will occur. At this point, another enemy will appear on screen, bringing their own units into the mix. The objective for the mission may also change, but typically it remains as “Defeat All Enemies.” Once the “true” mission is complete, then the closing cutscene leads into the Interlude screen, followed by the next mission. The first few “plot twists” might catch players off guard, but it will quickly turn into another routine upon the many routines PXZ repeatedly puts the player through. Because of this loop, very few missions aside from the last two stand out to me. Even when the initial objective was unique, it always ended in “Defeat Every Enemy”, so I would mostly just play on auto-pilot.

Project X Zone is a game that only die-hard fans of the various source materials should think about purchasing. Even then, there is not much of a guarantee that said fan will walk away satisfied. I know people who love and hate this game in equal measure. Personally, I found the many otherwise small flaws of PXZ overwhelmingly detracted from my experience in aggregate. Others might have a higher tolerance, or would be more able to lose themselves in the spectacle. Overall, I would warn potential players to watch footage of the game to be a good impression of how it works before investing in it.

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