Project X Zone (pronounced “Project Cross Zone”) is one of the most awesomely ambitious projects I’ve seen in handheld gaming. It’s a massive crossover on 3DS starring video game character from Namco Bandai, Capcom, and Sega. It even mixes genres by mashing turn-based strategy RPG gameplay with 2D action. All this should have spelled a game that’s completely made of win, but ends up being more like 2/3 win.
I’ve watched the story intro to the game several times now, and it’s just as nonsensical every time. Apparently, in the Project X Zone universe, people are more or less aware of the fact that other realities exist, and they aren’t too surprised when someone from say, the demon world of Darkstalkers, jumps into the post-apocalyptic future world of God Eater. Right away, that takes a lot of the excitement out of the game, as none of the characters are particularly excited or surprised about running into each other. So how can I feel that excited about it?
At the start, you play as two original characters, Kogoro Tenzai and Mii Kouryuuji – a ninja/detective and his understudy/cheerleader. Their mansion had just been ransacked for some magical relic when a bunch of monsters show up on their front lawn looking to kidnap the girl. Bing, bang, boom, you dispatch the monsters, and somehow the fountain on your lawn teleports everyone someplace else. There, you meet more characters, kill more monsters, and get teleported to the next plot-convenient location.
This happens over and over with each stop throwing in more protagonists following a growing cast of antagonists. It gets to the point you just can’t keep track and you stop caring about the story, which isn’t really a bad thing because it feels like a 14-year-old’s first attempt at fan fiction.
On the bright side, once I stopped caring about the plot, I could appreciate just how awesome the rest of the game is. The strategy game half of the action is well designed to capture the feel of leading a massive party of video game heroes, teaming up to smite evil. Unlike your typical strategy RPG, you’re not worried about getting a terrain advantage, or positioning your units to survive the slow whittling down of every enemy – in fact, most enemies can be taken out with a single well-executed attack. The only thing you’re worried about is tackling the one or two uber-villains on each stage.
Fodder enemies are actually an asset, as beating them up grants you XP (“Cross Points,” not “Experience Points”). XP can be spent to activate a unit’s skills, including healing allies, increased movement, and each unit’s iconic finishing attacks; the only things that put a noticeable dent in a boss’ HP. That’s why judicious spending of XP is your number one concern. In terms of tactical positioning, all you really need to worry about is keeping a few allied units nearby, as you can call on them for backup when you hit the attack button and switch to the combat mode.
Combat mode is where the real fun happens. This transforms the gameplay into a 2D action scene where the enemy has to stand there and take a beating from your characters. Each combination of a direction and the B button produce a different attack from your paired-up characters. Unleash these attacks at just the right time and order, and you’ll do more damage by juggling the enemy in the air, or scoring a Critical Hit when it’s most vulnerable. If you’ve assigned one of the solo characters to support the unit, you can also call them in during the combo with the L button for an additional beatdown. The R button calls the main pair from a nearby unit as well.
When all these things happen at once, it becomes utter madness of the screen. It feels more like button mashing, but over time I did notice my timing getting better, and I realized which support attacks best complimented units. This let me beat more difficult monsters with fewer attacks and build up more XP in the process. It’s also incredibly addictive because even when you get tired of doing a particular attack, you’ll always have another unit combination to master.
It can’t be an easy task to make every character shine in this kind of game, but a valiant effort was put forth. Hardly a scene goes by where every character in your group gets a line or two of dialogue, so nobody gets forgotten as time goes on. On top of that, the voice acting is great, and there’s plenty of it, which is why it’s only available in the original Japanese. There is also a great variety of lines to hear before and after each attack, often with your unit’s main pair interacting with others who joined in the fight. Sure, a few lines get repeated too often, but skipping them is just a button press away.
I also appreciated the remixed theme songs that play for each character when it’s their turn to move. They almost sound like they could be the intro to each character’s Saturday morning cartoon (which I probably would watch for any of them).
What makes this game great also holds it back. It’s awesome to have Heihachi Mishima from Tekken beating up Resident Evil zombies so that Mega Man and X from can unleash a Mega Buster on Skeith from .hack. But there’s no true main hero to base the story around and feel invested in. Despite being utterly hooked on Project X Zone, I can’t help thinking that some better writing that instilled a sense of wonder at what’s going on could have made this game a legend equal to the sum of its heroes.