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EGM Review:
Project X Zone

By
Posted on July 2, 2013 AT 08:00am

Even Goku and Freeza think these battles drag on

Frank West. This intrepid photojournalist has stared down the barrel of a gun as an embedded correspondent on the battlefield. He’s also defended a small Colorado town from the scourge of the undead menace.

But can the Dead Rising star survive a transdimensional rift in the middle of Akihabara that calls forth a temperamental young inventor lass with skull earrings who commands a permanent robot underclass?

This is but one of the tough questions Project X Zone asks players—and, friends, there are no easy answers here.

As the title would suggest to anyone familiar with Japan’s penchant for bizarre abbreviations—“X” is intended to be pronounced as “cross,” though I refuse to stoop to that level in English—Project X Zone is a grid-based strategy-RPG that brings together countless dysfunctional heroes and antagonists (more than 200 in all) from various Namco Bandai, Capcom, and Sega properties. What are they all doing in one place, you might ask? Essentially, Project X Zone’s narrative can be summed up by a single in-game quote—and no further context is necessary: “I see you are recruiting alien demons to your side.”

I’ll just say that the characters themselves seem flustered by all the convoluted, nonsensical plot points that merely serve to teleport Character A to Location B so they can be threatened by Villain C. At one point, Mr. West himself even sighs, “This is getting a bit hard to follow.”

You could say that, Frank. You could say that.

Even hardened Street Fighter warrior Ryu—ceremony means nothing to him and the fight is everything, after all—seems weirdly detached from the proceedings as he ponders, “Does this battle have a purpose?” while engaging a giant Met from Mega Man.

It’s actually quite appropriate that Ryu makes appearance in the game, because Project X Zone is all about combat—to the point of fatigue. The battles are quite enjoyable…for about 30 minutes at a time. The major problem, however, is that they consistently stretch well beyond the point that any player could find reasonable, like the houseguest who’s long since outworn his welcome. Yes, it’s true—these battles are the “Puck from the Real World” of strategy-RPGs.

In short bursts, however, Project X Zone and its combat are quite enjoyable, so let’s start off with the basics. Each unit on the battlefield is comprised of two characters from a particular publisher who’ve paired up for some reason or another. Some, such as Yuri Lowell and Estelle from Tales of Vesperia, make total sense. Others, such as Frank West and Hsien-Ko from Darkstalkers, are more random (but so is the game as a whole). You can also augment your crew by adding an additional fighter (such as Arthur from Ghosts ’n Goblins or Heihachi from Tekken) who can swap between any unit before and after chapters; when you’re adjacent to a particular friendly team on the battlefield, you can even call them into battle. So, for example, Frank and Hsien-Ko might start off a fight with a Red Arremer from Ghosts ’n Goblins by themselves, then call in Tron Bonne and her Servbots from Mega Man Legends for some additional pounding—and then Frank, Hsien-Ko, and Tron might be joined by Gemini Sunrise and Erica Fontaine from Sakura Wars to finish off the foe with a flurry of fists.

Once you’ve entered combat, however, Project X Zone becomes less of a strategy title and more of a fighting game. The main goal revolves around unleashing punishing moves that can stun the enemy, leaving them open for 100-hit juggling combos that require specific timing—there’s a Training option in between chapters that lets you practice this element in greater detail—and finally unleash an animated special move if all went according to plan. Unlike most tactical games, there’s a sense that you’re in direct control of your characters’ fates—and that makes combat, as a whole, far more engaging.

In a neat little nod to the franchises on display, each combat pairing is accompanied by their own musical number as their turn comes up, so you’ll hear the Dead Rising theme when Frank West is about to take a chainsaw to the enemy ranks or Tales of Vesperia’s overworld song when Yuri Lowell’s unleashing his special brand of vigilante justice on a horde of baddies. (Though several tracks, including Bonnie Pink’s “Ring a Bell” from Vesperia, have been axed in this version due to licensing issues.)

In what should come as a surprise to no one, Project X Zone doesn’t offer any English-language voiceovers. After all, it’s not like Troy Baker is gonna rush back into the studio to record a few throwaway lines for Yuri Lowell after his star turns in BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us (OK, maybe Troy would, but corralling the rest of the cast would’ve been a logistical and financial nightmare).

Thus, you’ve got two choices here: You can either turn off the voices, or you can listen to the Japanese actors—some of whom are, shall we say, more tolerable than others. (Yet somehow, the Japanese voice for undead Aussie rocker Lord Raptor from Darkstalkers—intentionally or not—manages to pull off what sounds like Australian-accented Japanese.) The translation itself is uneven and seems far too married to the original Japanese script (it definitely caters to the otaku crowd), though there’s one line in particular between two famous Resident Evil veterans that’s as clever as it comes.

And now, we get to the aforementioned grind that Project X Zone ultimately—and regrettably—devolves into. Isn’t it always a neat little twist when enemy reinforcements charge in at the mid-point of a strategy-RPG battle? This forces you to change up your tactics or use quick thinking to take out the enemy battalion that now surrounds your troops. The problem with Project X Zone is that this happens every…single…chapter. It’s not an exciting twist if you expect it to happen—and, in fact, it would be more shocking if it didn’t occur.

But what is it to simply say a battle is “long”? That doesn’t really tell the reader anything. Thankfully, Project X Zone’s battles are so drawn-out that their passage can actually be measured by real-life events. For example, after a day at work, I headed home to spend a few hours with the game. As I plopped down on the couch, I fired up the 3DS while simultaneously turning the TV to a baseball game. Now, I love baseball, but I also know that it’s considered interminable and boring by many (wait till those wusses get a load of cricket). The Project X Zone chapter and the baseball game started at the same time, but the ballgame finished before my battle did—and this was just a mid-point chapter, not even close to the final boss. So, Project X Zone: Its battles are longer than the San Francisco Giants versus the Los Angeles Dodgers! At the very least, there’s a quicksave function that I can guarantee you’ll be using a lot (you can even restart that save as many times as you want—a feature I’d like to see more strategy games implement).

I’m not saying players won’t derive enjoyment from Project X Zone’s protracted conflicts. The interaction between characters from different worlds is goofy and enjoyable, and I wanted to keep playing just to see who’d pop up next (and where they’d pop up from). I never felt like the battles were unfair—even when surrounded by foes, I always felt like there was a way out as long as I used the right party combination to take down the enemy. As a whole, I definitely had more fun than not—but only to a point.

As a gamer, I’m not lacking in patience. I’m someone who’ll explore every last bush and crevice in an Etrian Odyssey game—and personally map them out with the stylus on the touchscreen—and Project X Zone wore out even my patience for monotonous tasks. Both games require diligence, but the big difference between Etrian and Project X Zone is that in the former, you can always warp out of a dungeon and go off and explore something unrelated to the major task at hand if you get burned out with the current mission. In Project X Zone, however, you must simply endure.

How long? Seventy hours, in total, for me. I suppose that means you get bang for your buck, but that absurd argument reminds me of the time a Japanese friend visiting America decided to see The English Patient, of all films—which clocks in at 2 hours and 42 minutes—because, in his words, it was “a good value.” Sure, it may be 70 hours, but so many of them are empty hours in Project X Zone. You’re not exploring. You’re not uncovering hidden areas. You’re simply pounding down cannon fodder as you wait for the next plot “twist” and the battlefield floods with enemies for the third time in a chapter. These battles make typical RPG grinding seem profound by comparison.

Furthermore, the game taunts players by slapping characters like Mega Man X and Jill Valentine prominently on the cover…and then makes them play through countless chapters before they can use them. I was 30 hours into the game before I unlocked X, for example. That’s not quite at the Final Fantasy XIII level of “Just wait till you get 25 hours in—then it actually gets playable!” but it’s close. (And, sorry, but FFXIII never got better, people.) The road to Mega Man X, Jill Valentine, and others is enjoyable on the whole, but it seems pointless to deprive players of these characters for almost half the game.

If Project X Zone had been broken up into more manageable 30-minute battles, featured a wider variety of combat backdrops that actually related to the featured franchises (sadly, only a few—such as those from Ghosts ’n Goblins—match that description), and offered more between-battle entertainment than a glossary and the opportunity to beat down a tackling dummy, it would’ve been one of my favorite strategy-RPGs of the past five years.

As it is, I definitely think the game’s recommendable for strategy devotees and fans of the various characters and franchises featured within—but be warned that you’ll probably leave disappointed at some of the lost potential. When I began Project X Zone, I wasn’t expecting much, and was blown away by those first few chapters—but by the end, 70 hours later, weary from battle and beaten down from heaving anime bosoms, I despaired at how much more it truly could’ve been.

Developer: Banpresto/Monolith Soft • Publisher: Namco Bandai Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 06.25.13
7.0
Project X Zone brings together more than 200 characters from various Namco Bandai, Capcom, and Sega properties—and then proceeds to have them engage in some of the most tedious, drawn-out battles in strategy-RPG history. Yes, it’s great fun in short bursts, but the game rarely lets you experience combat that way, unfortunately.
The Good Brings together a wide array of (mostly) entertaining characters from the past 25 years of Namco Bandai, Capcom, and Sega.
The Bad Goku and Freeza didn’t have a battle this drawn-out on planet Namek.
The Ugly Some of the Japanese voice actresses’ ear-piercing shrieks and squeals.
Project X Zone is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive. 
Andrew Fitch, Managing Editor
Andrew Fitch, a proud Japanese RPG and serial-comma enthusiast, has been attending E3 for close to a decade now. His least-proud moment? That time in 2004 when, suffering from utter exhaustion, he decided to take a break on the creepy, dilapidated—and possibly cursed—La-Z-Boy at Konami’s Silent Hill booth. Follow Andrew’s adventures in avoiding cursed furniture at his Twitter feed: @twittch. Meet the rest of the crew.

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