It's unlikely that this review is the first you're hearing of Project X Zone; with a sprawling, time-traveling, world-hopping, dimension-skipping plot that draws together more than 200 characters from about 30 different franchises, there's been a lot of excited talk about this one. Now that we've been able to spend our time with it, we can say that the excitement was well-founded.
Project X Zone is technically a Bandai Namco game, but it's a more or less even crossover project with two other major publishers: Capcom and Sega. That's a genuine cause for celebration, because each of these companies have long and rich histories, and Project X Zone makes the most of drawing from all of them. It's a massive, thrilling swirl of mythologies, concepts and universes, and it's handled with a both wry sense of humour and wise acknowledgement of its gimmickry. It's the video game equivalent of generations of actors and actresses getting together to reminisce about the magic of Hollywood and the strange places their careers have taken them, and it's delightful.
The gameplay itself manages a balance as impressive as its character roster, being both accessible to casual fans and allowing for the advanced strategy that RTS experts will bring along with them. This allows the game to appeal to a wide range of people, from folks who just want to power through and enjoy the story to those who want to strut their tactical prowess, and the fact that it manages to pull this off without resorting to including a separate Easy Mode is something akin to magic.
Each chapter consists of a long, involved battle. Typically your units have a very clear objective (to destroy a boss, to protect another unit, etc.) but this will often change on the fly, and entire strategies will need to be revised on order to account for the arrival of new enemies or complications. This is nice, because once you've seen one battle grid you've seen them all; Project X Zone knows this, and uses it to lull you into a sense of complacency. That's exactly when it tosses you a curve ball, and you realized that the enemy you've worn yourself down fighting was just a mislead, and the real adversary has snuck up from behind.
The action is turn-based, with each unit displaying a number above his or her (or its) head that lets you know when they'll next get the chance to move. If you're playing with simplicity in mind, this is all you need to know; you will move and attack the enemy when you can, with additional firepower on your side if you're close enough to a friendly unit.
It's easy, and the actual execution of your attacks is even simpler: on the battle screen you press A to unleash one attack, left and A to unleash another, and right and A to unleash a third. If your XP meter is at 100% (though it can go higher) you can also press Y to trigger a gorgeously animated attack of immense devastation. If you forget any of this, don't worry; it's all listed right on the touch screen for easy reference.
However if you want to explore the deeper aspects of combat, you have a much more complicated road ahead. For instance you can trigger the attack of allied units to land at the same time as your own; if you're successful in this, you'll "lock" the enemy in place for a short time so that you can keep pounding on them. Additionally you can time your attacks to land just as the enemy rebounds from a previous strike, which is difficult but results in a very handy Critical when it works. This is one of the best things about the purposeful duality of Project X Zone; the frantic melee on-screen is brilliant eye candy when you're playing casually, but a tricky test of expert timing when you want to make every hit count.
You can also use your time on the grid to do more than maneuver troops into position; you can hunt down upgrades in treasure chests, revive fallen units, use special skills to replenish health or break an enemy's defenses (among other things) and more. You can equip and swap powerup items with unique stat effects, you can rotate partners into and out of unique combinations, and you save into as many as 15(!) different slots between chapters so that you can experiment with as many different approaches as you like. And this is just scraping the surface; Project X Zone has a lot of opportunity for personal strategy, and if you're willing to dig a little bit even the most experienced gamers will find something to challenge them.
When an enemy unit attacks, you'll have a few options. Of course, you can choose to do nothing and bear the brunt of their weaponry — which is many times the best option, strategically speaking — but you can also trade in XP to Counter (allowing you to strike back), Defend (reducing the damage you'll take) or Full Defend (nullifying the damage you'd have taken).
It's a bit confusing at first because the game features both XP and Exp., which are two very different concepts. Exp. refers to experience points, which accumulate after battle and allow your units to level up. XP however is a different meter, which fills during battle and allows you to release stronger attacks once it maxes out. This means that while you'll always be tempted to cash in some XP in order to turn an enemy's attacks back against them, it comes with a price: your most devastating attacks will have to wait. And, of course, if you trade in all of your XP, there won't be anything you can do on an enemy's turn but sit back and take whatever they decide to dish out!
We'd love to talk about the plot here, but part of the fun is that the myriad characters in Project X Zone spend so much time arguing and debating what that plot is that we don't want to undercut the deliberate confusion. Suffice it to say that the developers knew better than to take such a silly concept too seriously. We can't imagine too many gamers would take it seriously either, but we will warn you right now that if you expect there to be a sincere and profound reason that Jill Valentine and Bruno Delinger are teaming up to fight the red arremers from Ghosts 'n Goblins, you're going to be sorely disappointed.
Project X Zone is first and foremost a comedy, and it's a rather good one (if, obviously, self-indulgent). Characters appear, talk a little about the silliness and inconsistencies of their own franchises and histories, and then team up with somebody else who gets to do the same. While this does start to feel routine after a while, the in-jokes are clever winks to fans of every represented title in the game, and the humour is broad enough that you don't have to know these characters very well to enjoy their company (see the great running joke about the things Frank West chooses to document with his camera, which is funny regardless of context). In fact, the humour isn't even limited to video games; classic films, television shows and even works of literature are ripe for allusion as well, and it helps Project X Zone to feel more like a fascinating cultural event than just a self-aware video game.
The jokey asides and playful dialogue do feel a bit overwhelming at times (after all, there are a lot of characters, and they all have something to say) but thankfully the one thing the game does take seriously is its combat, which is some of the best-calibrated, most impressive turn-based action we've seen since Fire Emblem: Awakening. There's also a sort of magical fidelity to the animation behind each pair's special moves, with several of them being genuinely breathtaking, and all of them worth triggering at least once in order to appreciate the love and affection behind each.
In terms of the franchises represented in Project X Zone, it's the Capcom titles that are likely to be most familiar to Western gamers. With series such as Mega Man X, Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Street Fighter and Devil May Cry in the mix, it can make some of the Bandai Namco and Sega franchises seem a bit obscure by comparison. This isn't a criticism, however; it's a great opportunity to broaden our gaming horizons, and it's a definite accomplishment that literally every allied unit was a pleasure to use. Of course with the likes of Shining Force, Tekken and Xenosaga front and center as well, it's not as though Western fans will be getting used to all new faces, and the fact that these franchises all bring along their own items, environments and adversaries makes even the smallest discoveries a lot of fun.
We do have a few concerns with the game, but at this point in the review it's probably pretty clear that they pale in comparison to what Project X Zone does right. Nevertheless, they're worth bringing up.
For starters, since you can only save your game between chapters it's very possible that some foolish moves at the end of an epic 40-minute battle will force you to restart the entire thing. It's not a huge problem, but when it does happen you'll certainly feel it.
There's also a sense of fatigue that sets in if your play sessions are too long. With the extended dialogues and similar battle grids, Project X Zone is best played in shorter bursts of a chapter or two at a time; any longer than that and the game can start to feel tedious, so it's worth taking regular breaks.
The music is great — both the original tracks and the brilliant remixes from other titles — but some tracks only play while a particular unit is moving. This means that you'll hear the same two or three seconds of the song every time a character moves, but never again, and the constant interruption of songs can feel pretty graceless in a game that's otherwise very well polished.
Other than that there aren't many problems with the game, though there is one other thing worth mentioning: it has a decidedly sexual sense of humour, and when any given female character shows up in provocative attire, the comments from the male characters pile up in a way that may seem like a bit much. It's all down to your personal tolerance for things of this nature, but the sheer volume of innuendo (as well as over proposition) makes it stand out in a way that some gamers might not be comfortable with.
Overall, though, Project X Zone is every bit as great as it should be. The 3D is a bit underused, but the visuals are top-notch, with any animated sequence becoming an immediate highlight and some absolutely perfect spritework on characters that typically aren't represented in sprite form! There's also a great soundtrack that draws from the expected source material, and a combat system that's impressively complicated for a game like this, which could have skimped on the gameplay in order to coast instead on our nostalgia and good graces.
It's a great experience, and one that sets the bar extremely high for ambitious crossovers. We're already daydreaming about who we'd like to see in a sequel; it says a lot about the quality of Project X Zone that a game this huge could still leave us wanting more.
It's by no means a flawless experience, but Project X Zone offers an infectiously giddy thrill that somehow only manages to grow the more time you spend with it. While the battles can go on a bit long and feel repetitive — and the staggering number of characters means a lot of redundant dialogue — the reservations we have about the game are easily outweighed by how much Project X Zone does exactly right. The combat is smart, the animation fantastic, and the sheer sense of joy that comes with seeing Mega Man X fighting side by side with KOS-MOS and Erica Fontaine never gets old. It's a once in a lifetime chance to see so many worlds coming together, and this massively satisfying (and decidedly tongue-in-cheek) title makes the most of every opportunity. If you have even the slightest interest in Project X Zone, the odds are good you'll come away happy.