Project X Zone seems like something that probably shouldn't exist. It's a strategy role-playing game sporting an expansive all-star cast of prolific characters from the combined libraries of Capcom, Namco Bandai, and Sega.
That sounds more like the stuff of fantasy than an actual game you can play. And yet, here it is.
Project X Zone (Nintendo 3DS)
Developer: Monolith Soft, Banpresto
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Released: June 25, 2013 (NA), July 5, 2013 (EU)
Project X Zone focuses its attention almost entirely on two things: combat and fan service. Despite being an RPG, much of the what one might typically associate with the venerable genre has been pushed to the wayside in favor of a much more streamlined experience. Battles flow seamlessly from one to the next, with little in the way to break up the action.
Oh sure, there's a story. It's a bizarre little tale involving time travel, alternate dimensions, and a syndicate of bad guys doing bad guy things. It's forced, needlessly complicated, and, to be honest, not really all that important. The narrative merely serves as a pretense to thrust the casts of franchises like Resident Evil, Tekken, and Valkyria Chronicles under one amazing roof; and that's all that matters.
To their credit, the characters seem to acknowledge the absurdity of the plot. Teetering on the verge of parody, Monolith Soft seems to halfheartedly thumbs its nose at the incomprehensible plots which seem all too common in JRPGs these days. The comedy is backed up by sharp dialogue, laden with inside jokes from many of the franchises from which Project X Zone draws its cast. Characters make fun of one another's inappropriate outfits and reference localization oddities that should garner at least a few laughs from enthusiasts of Japanese games.
It's evident that the developers possess an extensive knowledge of the source material, showcasing a clear adoration for Capcom, Namco Bandai, and Sega's various properties. The entire package is one big tip of the cap to fans. From the expansive roster to the clever dialogue and detailed gameplay animations, Project X Zone really goes the extra mile to make certain players know how much it respects these beloved characters and franchises.
Missions take place on a grid and players are given an isometric view of the battlefield. Small teams of characters are represented by a single avatar and utilize this map for strategic positioning. It's all fairly typical of the genre, but diverges radically from the standard SRPG fare when it comes to the combat itself.
Project X Zone places more of an emphasis on action and style in comparison with some like Fire Emblem: Awakening. Rather than planning attacks out ahead of time, players take on a more active role in skirmishes. Each pair of characters has a variety of moves and set number of attacks per turn that can be executed in succession at the player's leisure. Think of it more as a stripped down fighting game than an elaborate game of chess.
At first, Project X Zone seems like a fairly shallow experience, at least in contrast with its peers. However, the game possesses more depth than players might initially give it credit for. While button mashing can go a long way, it can be a great deal more engaging than one might initially imagine. Much of this comes down to timing and choosing one's attacks wisely. Finding a way to knock an enemy off its feet then juggling them in mid air to negate their defenses is the key to an efficient victory.
Over the course of a battle actions will contribute to filling a meter that is shared between the entire party. This can be saved up for a devastating super attack powerful enough to help fell boss characters quickly. Alternatively, the meter can be used to great effect for lifesaving defensive maneuvers and counter attacks that can help turn the tide of battle.
Solo characters that aren't tied to a partner can join up with a team to form a trio. Rather than acting in unison with the rest of the group, they have the ability to execute a powerful attack once per turn. Nearby allies can be used in a similar fashion, piling on for an assault that can include up to five characters at any one time. These scenes are hilariously chaotic, as groups wail on an unfortunate foe in unison with a cacophony of fists and swords.
The battle animations were clearly the focus of a great deal of time and attention. Lovingly crafted, the developers pulled character's moves straight from the source material. It makes the combat such a joy to take part in. Chun-Li can be pulling off a kikoken one moment, transitioning into a spinning bird kick in the next, and seconds later you get to witness a horde of Servbots rushing in with a variety of bizarre attacks. It's amazing.
As much as I loved Project X Zone, it's not for everyone. The story is incomprehensible. It can be pretty repetitive. And those lacking a strong attachment to Capcom, Namco Bandai, and Sega's iconic characters might want to stay away. That said, this is a love letter from Japan that just about any RPG fan should seriously consider checking out.