At its best, Project X Zone was that game that had me saying on more than one occasion, "Oh hey, those those guys are in here too?"
Those guys could refer to Vashyron from Resonance of Fate, or maybe Kurt Irving from the tragically unreleased (in America) Valkyria Chronicles 3. Some 60 of these playable characters come together for Namco Bandai's latest crossover strategy romp, some of them known, a lot of them not. It's charming to see these forgotten characters in one place, rendered into attractive sprites; a respite from oblivion for some of them.
Now if only Project X Zone were a better game.
It's attractive, no doubt about that. Every attack is faithful to what is seen in the original games; and while the elaborate supers aren't a huge step above what's possible on the Nintendo DS, they have an appropriate amount of visual punch. But soon enough, it becomes clear that there's nothing to be found behind all of the pyrotechnics; no depth, no strategy, and very little game to speak of. And that's something that even a handful of fan-pleasing cameos can't fix.
Turn-based button mashing?
What Project X Zone boils down to is a fairly typical turn-based strategy game with a combo system bolted onto it. Pressing one of a handful of button combinations will get Ryu and Ken to start launching Hadoukens and Shoryukens; hitting one of the shoulder buttons will cause a support character to jump in to help; then it's off to the races. The only goal is to attack as many times as possible.
It's simple, it's interesting to the eye, and it makes for good trailers. At times, it almost feels as if you're playing a sort of RPG Street Fighter. But then you find yourself using the same set of combos again. And then again. And then some more.
Project X Zone has two problems right off the bat. First, as you probably gathered, it's incredibly repetitive. Every pair of characters has a different set of attack animations; but you, the player, are inevitably pushing the same buttons. Second, it's time-consuming. Unlike most strategy games, once the animations get boring, they can't really be switched off or skipped. You're in it for the long haul.
Pretty soon, what was once kind of a charming little strategy game becomes a complete bear to play. Seeing two dozen enemies sprout up on the field along with a couple bosses, a common occurance by Project X Zone's midpoint, inevitably results in a sigh of resignation, rather than a burst of excitement. That's because as early as Chapter 10, maps can take an hour or more to clear, and it's really just you doing the same attacks over and over again, with very little variation.
Now, to be fair, map attacks help to take the edge off a tiny bit in the later going. But it takes quite a long time for those attacks to become available in quantity; and by that point, most people are apt to have had their fill of dialing up combos.
A strategy game without the strategy
What bugs me out about Project X Zone is the way that it takes a lot of the joy of party-building out of the experience. Crossover games are supposed to be about mixing and matching my favorite characters, right? So why do I have to keep Frank West and Hsien-Ko together forever?
The obvious answer, that the pre-cooked combos would be impossible to create otherwise, isn't a particularly satisfying one. Even being able to drop in detached solo units like Vashyron and Sanger Zonvolt doesn't help that much, since most of them are just shy of interchangeable. An additional skill here and a few attacks there isn't going to make a world of difference.
And so we come to Project X Zone's biggest problem: It just doesn't have a lot of strategy. Certainly not to the extent of Namco Bandai's other famed crossover series, Super Robot Taisen, where it's possible to swap pilots, put points into various robot attributes, and pick from a litany of passive and active skills. The only really meaningful decision to make in this game is whether to use some energy from the XP bar to cast a healing spell and launch a map attack, or to save it for a combo-finishing super attack.
With so little customization or strategy, Project X Zone quickly becomes rote, and not long after that, boring. And sadly, almost no amount of attractive sprite work and fun animation can save a dull game. The story isn't much of a help either, since it's not much more than a bumbling roadtrip through time and space that's designed to justify the use of, say, a tile set from Valkyria Chronicles. But hey, one of the villains is a catgirl in hotpants, if you're into that kind of thing.
What disappoints me the most about Project X Zone is that it could actually be really great if done properly. Look at the aforementioned Super Robot Taisen, which is practically an institution among mecha fans and creators alike. Or heck, consider Super Smash Bros., which is one big loving tribute to Nintendo history.
Project X Zone, by comparison, feels hurried, thrown together, and above all, shallow. For that reason, I can't really recommend it to anyone, even that odd cross-section of anime, gaming, and furry fandom that ought to be Project X Zone's target demographic. True, it's nice to see Valkyria Chronicles and Resonance of Fate get their time in the sun; but if you really want to see what Vashyron looks like in sprite form, you're better off heading to YouTube.
The Nitty Gritty
Visuals: Project X Zone's battle sprites have a solid Neo-Geo-like quality to them (though the map sprites are pretty bland), and many of the super attacks are energetic and faithful to their respective series. The visuals can be beguiling at times; and, at least initially, they help to obscure the disappointing gameplay.
Music: High energy remixes from Street Fighter are probably the most recognizable tunes in Project X Zone, but there's some good anime-inspired electronica as well. For the most part, they match well with the frenetic action on the screen, though it can be a little jarring when a new song starts each time it's a different character's turn.
Controls: The controls seem complex at first; but look a little closer, and it quickly becomes clear that the same button presses produce the same results for every character. Thus, combos are something of a rote exercise in pressing Left + A, waiting for a moment, then pressing Down+A. That said, they are reasonably responsive, which makes the timing easy to nail even, for action gaming illiterates.
Lasting Appeal: Project X Zone is actually a pretty long game, with more than 40 chapters, all told. Chances are, however, most people won't get that far. That's because Project X Zone becomes extremely repetitive well before the chapters hit double digits, an issue compounded by the fact that useful skills and map attacks don't really become available in bulk until the latter half of the game.
Project X Zone is apt to suck in a lot of people with the promise of its large roster and entertaining 2D graphics. But it takes only a few chapters to realize that the battles are repetitive, the mechanics are shallow, the story is terrible, and the pacing is egregiously slow. Even determined fans will have a hard time sticking with this one. For all the charm of seeing Valkyria Chronicles in sprite form, the gameplay doesn't even rise to the level of mediocre. Avoid this one.