Project X Zone
There is a very particular problem that crossover titles such as Banpresto/Monolith Soft’s Project X Zone must overcome: how do you compile a wish-list of some of gaming’s greatest characters and allow them enough breathing space to truly shine? As The Incredibles’ arch-nemesis Syndrome put it, ‘when everyone’s super…no one will be!’ – heroes are defined by their uniqueness, their mastery of their environments and enemies, and creating a world almost entirely populated by lead video game characters risked diluting them all. Project X Zone takes a big chance with much loved IPs then, but thankfully it just about manages to do its high-profile populace justice.
Things don’t get off to the most auspicious of starts. First there is that name – ‘Project X Zone’. If it was Banpresto and Monolith Soft’s intention for this horrifically generic title to lower your expectations, then it succeeds admirably. Although it is a call back of sorts to the previous game in the series (Namco X Capcom) it still smacks of a place-holder that found its way onto the box as a result of the three publishers involved (Capcom, Sega and Namco Bandai) failing to agree on something more interesting. It’s inoffensive, sure, but it also fails to tell you anything about the game itself.
The sense that this is destined to be nothing more than a workmanlike trawl through videogame history is bolstered further by its opening. As a tactical RPG, the game features systems to be mastered and rule-sets to be learnt, but rather than allowing them to unfold organically through a ‘show don’t tell’ ethos (something that worked amazingly will with genre-mate X-Com: Enemy Unknown) Project X Zone simply throws page after page of text-based instructions at you, describing rules, inputs and systems with very little contextualisation. This makes them very easy to ignore – it’s all well and good a game having depth, but it is a misstep to attempt to convince the player of this within the first moments of play with wordy, uninspiring walls of text. The result of this is an opening that is dour rather than riotously celebratory; and a game featuring this many well known characters should effortlessly slot into the latter.
Thankfully Project X Zone does manage to find it ‘riotously celebratory’ groove with its visual presentation and energetic animation. Although much of the game is played from a fairly standard isometric perspective as you shuffle 8-Bit style sprites around three-dimensional arenas, enter into combat and things switch up considerably, zooming in on the action and presenting the game’s cast in all their glory. It can all be a bit overwhelming at first; not only are you having to cope with so many videogame favourites sharing the same screen-space, the action is also supremely chaotic as multiple characters leap around the screen busting suitably OTT move-sets. The game also does a great job of rendering the characters in a way that feels uniform while still capturing the essence of the characters’ original depiction. Seeing Ghost N’ Goblins Arthur fighting alongside Street Fighter’s Chun Li should look ridiculous but…well… yeah, it does look ridiculous… but in a good way!
The breadth of titles from which Project X Zone draws its cast is also impressive featuring as it does characters from titles as diverse as Street Fighter, Tekken, Ghost N Goblins, Resident Evil, Dynamite Cop, Mega Man, Sakura Wars and many more. Though it might seem a little shallow to focus so much attention on the game’s character roster, it is absolutely one of Project X Zone’s major draws and the game clearly knows this.
Project X Zone’s gameplay lacks the diversity of its eclectic cast, for the most part settling on a steady rhythm of lengthy sections of banter between characters followed by turn-based skirmishes in compact arenas. The former can drag at first, but the rapid turnover of characters and generally high standard of writing make them engaging enough. The latter are uncomplicated affairs, with very few battles deviating from a ‘kill the enemy, don’t die yourself’ mission template.
That’s not to say that there aren’t depths to be mined. The game places a great deal of emphasis on the positioning of your team of characters, and characters placed within a certain range of each other can provide a supporting role during combat (a la tag-teaming Tekken Tag Tournament). Position your team correctly and you can create a force to be reckoned with. Units left on their own however can be more vulnerable. Further complexity is added by being able to assign support characters to your teams that can also jump in to aid that team’s two core members.
This is a set up that, once again, showcases Project X Zone’s grasp of its raison d’être – namely mashing up as many characters in as many combinations as possible. It’s not all window dressing however, as memorising each character’s combat animations is essential to getting the most out of each turn; call in a support character too early and you forego all the damage that would have been caused had you let the previous character’s animation play out. This forces you to be ever attentive even if, in reality, your input amounts to frantic jabs of the action button and fumbling taps on the d-pad.
Where Project X Zone comes unstuck is in its lack of variety. As previously mentioned, objectives rarely rise above ‘kill everything, don’t die’. Though this make the game very lean, enabling the game’s cast to set about kicking ass as quickly as possible, it does feel like some much welcome tactical nuance has been trimmed off with the fat. Unsurprisingly, it is fans of tactical gameplay that will bemoan this the most. Rarely do you feel like you’ve out-manoeuvred an opponent, instead relying on barnstorming your way through the opposition with gangs of well muscled heroes and heroines.
And yet…maybe this is the point? Maybe Banpresto and Monolith Soft knew that we wouldn’t be able to bear the thought that our favourite videogame characters really are nothing more than expendable pawns in one big game. Maybe they knew that – above all else – we love to see them kicking ass. If so, Project X Zone delivers this in spades and, through sheer force of will, just about manages to plaster over its limitations. It is bound to have its critics then, but when you get to see Darkstalkers’ Morrigan fighting alongside Ghost and Goblin’s Arthur and a grandfather-clock, salt and pepper-shaker tossing Dynamite Cop, it’s almost impossible to stop yourself falling just a little bit in love with the whole affair.
Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS; game provided by Namco Bandai
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