It's kind of a miracle that Project X Zone was released in North America. Few games have such a convoluted backstory. Crossover games are somewhat common in Japan, with the most long-lasting being the Super Robot Wars franchise. At some point, Namco got Souichirou Morizumi, director of Super Robot Wars Impact and similar games, to create a spinoff using game characters. The result was Namco X Capcom. After that, Morizumi worked on Super Robot Wars OG Saga: Endless Frontier, which is a spinoff of Super Robot Wars and a sequel to Namco X Capcom. Project X Zone is simultaneously a sequel to Super Robot Wars OG Saga: Endless Frontier EXCEED, Namco X Capcom, and the latest Super Robot Wars game, all the while including a bunch of new franchises from Capcom, Namco and Sega.
In short, you shouldn't be surprised that the plot sounds a little convoluted. The main character is Mii, a rich heiress whose family has guarded a Portalstone for years. The story begins with the Portalstone being stolen, and Mii and her bodyguard set out to get it back. It isn't long before they're flung between worlds, meeting characters from the future, the past, alternate timelines, and video games. Each new meeting brings them closer to finding the mysterious organization that stole the Portalstone, but it also brings new danger, as the various villain factions from each world take advantage of the gradual destabilizing of reality to enact their evil plans.
The plot is fun, but it isn't very good. As I'd mentioned, Project X Zone comes from the Super Robot Wars games, a franchise that makes its living on insane crossovers between disparate series. Super Robot Wars tends to involve complex megacrossovers where the world setting is a fusion of the various shows and events, but they're altered in interesting ways. In comparison, Project X Zone follows a simple pattern: Characters show up, express surprise at their surroundings, fight a bunch of enemies, recruit a new character, and then are mysteriously teleported somewhere else. They express surprise at their new surroundings, fight another bunch of enemies, and then are mysteriously teleported to yet another location. This repeats ad nauseam. There are fun crossover elements. Amusing in-jokes are the name of the game, and there are some fun interactions between the characters.
The biggest barrier to enjoying the game is the fact that many of the characters are obscure or from games that never saw a Western release. There are a lot of recognizable characters, such as Mega Man X or Ryu from Street Fighter, but you've also got characters from the Japanese-only PSP strategy RPG Valkyria Chronicles 3 or Sanger Zomvolt from Super Robot Wars. If you don't mind not recognizing the characters, the game does a good job of introducing them, and it even includes an encyclopedia to give you a rough idea of the important terms and characters. If you don't mind that, and you're OK with the game taking forever to get to Chris and Jill or Mega Man and Zero, then it won't be an issue. Just be prepared to spend a lot of time with Sakurai Taisen or .hack characters.
Project X Zone's combat system is a mashup of Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier and Namco X Capcom. Movement occurs on a map screen, with each character having an attack range and movement range. When you attack an enemy, it switches to a 2-D combat sequence — sort of. The combat is more like beating up a training dummy. Each character has a specific number of attack chances, starting at three and upgrading as the game progresses. They also have a number of different attack strings. You can perform different attacks by pressing a direction, and the attack animation plays out. You can chain attacks to do more damage, and combat ends once you've run out of attacks. If an enemy survives, he or she may counterattack, meaning you'll take damage after the combat ends.
Enemies don't attack or dodge, and their only form of defense is a block meter. Blocking prevents your attacks from doing any damage or moving the enemy until the block meter drains and their block is broken. The trick is that if the enemy touches the ground at any point after their block is broken, they'll instantly refill their block meter. You must keep them in the air to keep them damageable. This is where Criticals come into play. A Critical attack allows you to deal significantly more damage to an enemy, but it only occurs if you hit an enemy right before he hits the ground. If you mistime it, then they start blocking again.
There is more complexity once you involve other characters. By default, your characters are called "pair" teams, with each pair made up of two characters who function as a single character. You'll never get Chun-Li because you'll always have Chun-Li and Morrigan. You can equip a pair team with a solo character, who only has a single attack. If another pair unit is standing nearby, you can also call them in for a support attack, which causes them to use a single predefined attack on the enemy. With proper positioning, you're going to have five characters beating down an enemy at one time.
If the original pair hits the enemy at the same time as a solo or support attack, it activates an X-Cross. Thisholds the enemy in place for a short time, so it's easy to hit them while two other sets of attacks are pounding on the enemy. You can also use one extra attack chance per fight if you use each of a character's available attack strings once per fight.
Various attacks have a chance of inflicting status effects on an enemy. The chance of a status effect sticking is tied to the character's Tech stat. Status effects are pretty powerful. Stun prevents an enemy from blocking or counterattacking, Down prevents them from counterattacking, and Poison drains a chunk of their health. Your characters are also vulnerable to status effects, as well as the Bind status, which prevents you from using items or special skills. Healing status effects for a party member is so trivial that it doesn't really matter.
In addition to doing damage, building up combos fills your XP Bar. XP stands for Cross Points, which are effectively a shared party magic meter. Each character has a set of skills, each costing a specific amount of your XP bar. Skills can increase the damage you deal, prevent an enemy from blocking, increase the experience you gain, and so on. Each character also has a special super attack that costs 100 XP to use but does massive damage. Certain characters also get a multiattack, which allows them to instantly damage multiple foes at once for a similar cost. This bar is shared among your party and has a 100 XP limit by default, so using a super move denies others the chance to use a special skill. Any time you do an X-Cross combo, you can raise your meter up to a maximum to 150.
XP is also used to counter enemy attacks. When an enemy's turn comes up, they attack. There is no attack animation; you just take a bit of damage and move on. If you have enough XP, you can select one of three options: counter, defend or perfect defend. Counter and defend take 20 XP, and perfect defend costs 60 XP and nullifies all damage from the attack. You can't counter or defend any enemy super moves, though. XP can also be used to revive a downed character. You need to spend 100 XP to revive a character with half health, but many characters have skills that either reduce the price, increase the healing, or both.
In general, the title does a good job of making its characters distinctive despite their simplicity. Certain characters, such as the Virtua Fighter or Tekken characters, are built around their counter capabilities. Others, such as Leanne and Zephyr from Resonance of Fate, have huge attack ranges. Others, like Frank West and Hsien-Ko, get multiattacks and are most effective at clearing crowds of enemies. Yuri and Estelle from Tales of Vesperia get powerful skills that can recover HP or status effects for everyone on the map but are less effective at dealing damage. You can equip solo characters to emphasize these strengths or reduce weaknesses, as each provides a passive bonus. However, similar skills don't stack. Putting Vashyron with Leanne and Zephyr is kind of a waste because Zephyr and Vashyron both have range-increasing skills, but only one of them matters.
By far, Project X Zone's biggest problem is its pacing. The Super Robot Wars franchise uses noninteractive attack animations for its combat sequences. They're long, but at least you can skip them or speed them up. Due to the nature of its combat, Project X Zone doesn't have this feature. Unless you're using a multiattack, you have to watch the attack sequence play out for every single attack, every single time. In fact, some enemies don't even have attack animations just to speed things up. When the developers remove attack animations from over half the characters just so things move faster, something is terribly wrong. Even with these design decisions to speed up the game, it still moves at a snail's pace. Once you hit the middle of the game, stages can take one-and-a-half hours to complete even if they're incredibly straightforward. They're not difficult; they just take forever to finish, and it's largely because you're watching the same attack animations over and over again. If you build your characters to counter, it can be even longer.
This is further impacted because the interactivity feels unnecessary. There are other games with similar combat systems, such as <I>Valkyrie Profile or Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier, where you have to pay attention to juggle enemies properly. The Cross system in Project X Zone nullifies a lot of that. Once an enemy has been hit by a solo or a support attack, you don't even need to time your attacks. They are held in place, and you can just whale on them. This does less damage than timing your attacks, but considering the additional damage from solo and support, and the fact that it lets you raise your XP Meter above 100, and there's no reason to not do them. Anyone who isn't a boss will probably die in one combat round. Doing extra damage to bosses is nice, but since superattacks are the best way to damage them, it's more effective to build your XP bar.
This brings us to Project X Zone's biggest problem: It's too easy. All of the slow pacing in the world might not be an issue if the combat were challenging, but it isn't. Any enemy who isn't a boss isn't a serious threat to your characters. Even bosses are only a minor danger unless you go a while without healing. You have so many ways to shut down their damage, and unfortunately, this lends to the game feeling grindy and slow. It just takes slightly longer to grind through enemies' increasingly swelling HP. Unlike Super Robot Wars or similar games, there's no resource to conserve. You have limited items, but the game gives you at least one item after every enemy you kill, so you're swimming in healing items. I used healing items I didn't really need to simply because I had hit the 20-per-item limit and didn't want to waste any extras I'd collected.
Project X Zone has very nice attack animations. A good amount of work has been put into mimicking the game style of each character, and you'll often see nice touches that reference the original. The biggest complaint is that so much is occurring on-screen between pair attacks, solo attacks and support attacks that it's difficult to see those details. As mentioned, there's little in the way of animation besides player attacks. Enemy boss characters are the only ones with attack animations, and even then, it's only for super attacks. The maps do a good job of conveying the feel of each game world, but they're rather bland and simple. The music is excellent, including remixes and adaptations of songs for each character. The game is heavily voiced, but almost entirely in Japanese. Fortunately, the game provides subtitles during cut scenes and combat. Some things don't get subtitles for some reason, but they're few and far between.
I desperately wanted to like Project X Zone. It does a lot of things right, even if it doesn't do them as well as other titles in the same genre. The translation is solid, the presentation is good, and the gameplay seems like it could be interesting. Alas, the game ends up being too tedious. Every stage feels like a lengthy slog through harmless enemies while the same attack animations play over and over again. If you're looking for good gameplay, there are better strategy-RPGs available on the 3DS, such as Fire Emblem: Awakening. If you can put up with that sort of thing to see wacky crossover antics, then you'll have a great time. If you're not, then no amount of Dante teasing Dimitri is going to change your mind.
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