Hands On: Going for the Combos in Project X Zone

Pure pixelated madness

When Project X Zone was announced for Japan, we could barely contain our glee. Here was a game with retro-styled visuals, rocking music and popular characters from Capcom, SEGA and Namco Bandai all rolled into one — oh, and Monolith Soft was one of the developers.

And then, it underwhelmed in the Japanese charts. It didn't surge to number one and shift a million copies, and localisation suddenly looked like a forlorn hope. Yet here we are, with its release getting ever closer and a reduced price of £27.99 being listed on the UK 3DS eShop; you can knock us over with a feather.

Yet uneducated hype is a dangerous thing, so it's pleasing that a demo has now arrived in Europe — hopefully to follow in North America — and a second is already confirmed for 27th June; that'll be in a Ghosts 'n Goblins stage. This first demo is in the Imperial Theater stage from Sakura Wars, giving SEGA fans in particular an early taste, though Capcom makes an iconic appearance or two.

As this is a demo, it opens up with a brief introduction to the game, opting to describe itself as a simulation RPG. Based on what we've played so far, we'd potentially opt for action RPG as a description, and this small taster demonstrates a combination of turn-based play with controllable battle scenes.

In terms of breaking down the gameplay, some elements will be familiar to those that have been investing a lot of time in Fire Emblem: Awakening in recent times. When controlling your characters you can opt to move to safety and avoid a battle — though weaker enemies can be taken on with little fear of deadly retaliation — or go within attack range of an enemy unit. Units go around in teams of two and, in some cases, with a third solo player tagged in. Based on the extensive game info buried in the menus, adding solo units to teams will be something that you may be able to do yourself in the full title.

A bit like in Awakening, if you attack with an ally unit within range, they can assist in the battle. The interface for this isometric stage view is intuitive once you get over the bright colours and distracting mini-graphics, so within moments you'll be strategically moving units around and using health items to recover from battles. There's a lot less micro-management than in Fire Emblem, however, as items are simply shared between all of your units in one menu, and most notably you don't get to decide who moves when, with numbers above characters (both friend and foe) showing when their turn will come around. This strips a lot of strategy out of the experience, which is fine as a design choice, and we found greater success going on the charge and staying on the offensive. If someone does get knocked out, it's possibly to revive them with another team, if you're willing to sacrifice a turn.

It's when you initialise a battle that the real fun begins, and the visual flair comes into its own. In the overhead view the combination of small pixel-based characters and simplistic environment design is underwhelming, but a battle scene zooms in for a side-by-side scrap. When you attack you use a combination of directions on the d-pad or Circle Pad, with the A button, to initiate different moves. The left shoulder button triggers a solo unit to join in — if available — while the right shoulder button does the same but with any assist teams you've been clever enough to ensure are in the vicinity. It's like an RPG turn-based remix of something like Tekken Tag Tournament 2, but with strategic and simple combo inputs. It's all in the timing, as some attacks lift an enemy into the air while others don't, and the trick is learning to time your core attacks with the assist attacks, to ensure that the initiated moves connect as much as possible. When you get it right the screen become a whirl of frenzied motion, with CrossX damage bonuses if you've pieced it all together well.

The ace in the whole in the special attack, initiated with Y. While each battle earns characters EXP points to level up, there's a separate and dynamic XP system that goes up to 150%. This XP creeps up as you chain attacks, and when it's above 100% a tap of Y will initiate the special move. It can be equated to the Street Fighter super combos, for one example, as a dramatic animation sequence kicks off with both characters dishing out a lot of damage in the most stylish way possible. These aren't just effective for KO-ing an enemy, but brilliantly intersperse pixel-based bombast with flashes of anime-style animations. For fans of the many franchises on display, these are a thrill.

And the fan service is strong with this one. Each team has music from their related series kick in once they're in play, which combined with their unique move-sets is great entertainment.

It's tough to tell how well this fan-service, stylish presentation and live-action strategy style will translate over a full game. There's plenty of statistical depth to gawk at if you dive off into the menus, yes, but the design decision of the game deciding who moves next, rather than leaving that in the player's hands, does encourage reckless abandon. There's no way of keeping units out of danger, as such, and when attacked you can use XP points — if you have them — to defend, full defend (which avoids damage) or counter with a single move on the battle screen once you've taken your hit. As the units all seem to be up for a fight, without notable classes to worry about, everyone's a tank. If we have one reservation, which may be quelled in the full game, it's that the novelty of aggressive play and timed — but basic — combos in battles will wear off.

But then, this demo is but a glimpse. It keeps us away from "multi-attacks", for example, and the environment on show doesn't have any chests or items to find and access. We certainly wouldn't rule out the prospect that this one will deliver some depth and intrigue to join the excitement and outrageous style on show.

With over 50 playable characters set to be included from 29 game franchises, we're excited to see just how far the full experience will go, while the fan-service could potentially be well and truly off the hook. While we'd put a cautionary sticker on the action/turn-based/RPG hybrid that this is shaping up to be, we can't help but enjoy the sheer darn audacity of it all. This small taster is a reminder of what makes gaming, particularly on Nintendo's handhelds, fun — it's not taking itself seriously, and will happily give you over-the-top fight animations and special moves when it could get away with so much less.

If the final product can maintain diversity and hold our interest over a number of hours, this could be a real treat.