You can never tell how good (or bad) a game is going to be from preview material. Screenshots and video can only do so much, and even early hands-on coverage just gives a quick impression of a title. No, I feel you need to sit down with a game, and spend hours actually getting used to it before you can form a complete opinion on it. Thankfully, the hotly-anticipated Namco Bandai/Capcom/Sega crossover SRPG Project X Zone delivers on its promise of a fun, fast-paced crossover extravaganza. It's not perfect, but it gets the job done.
Project X Zone is a follow-up to the Japan-only Namco X Capcom, another crossover strategy-RPG featuring a diverse cast and an action-focused battle system, this time including characters from Capcom, Namco Bandai, and Sega's stables. While I was excited for the idea of actually getting to play a dream crossover like this, there's a reason a lot of these SRPGs don't make their way overseas--they're terribly-designed, fan-pandering cash grabs that confuse an endless grind for challenging gameplay (see also: just about everything Nippon Ichi does that isn't Disgaea, or the standard Idea Factory SRPG).
Here's something I need to make clear right now: Project X Zone isn't a bad game. However, in a world where we have Fire Emblem: Awakening, X-COM: Enemy Unknown, and Valkyria Chronicles, it certainly qualifies as a pretty dumb game for its genre. Strategy, tactics, and formations aren't all that important. You're given plenty of chances to screw up, and you don't really have to plan that far ahead. Healing items are plentiful, and you're given a small army to fight most battles, so you're never really short on manpower or resources. No, Project X Zone doesn't expect you to be a good general, but it does expect you to be a good soldier, as the meat of the game deals with the fierce, combo-based tag-team battles.
Project X Zone's cast is arranged into teams of two (such as Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter, or Yuri and Estelle from Tales of Vesperia), with a third slot open for interchangeable "assist" characters, ranging from famous headliners (like Tekken's Heihachi Mishima) to forgotten favorites (Space Channel 5's Ulala). While you can certainly mash buttons during the game's battle sequences, that'll only get you past the game's early stages. Learning each team's lines of attack, which techniques work best for follow-up attacks, and which assists do the most damage can create almost-neverending combos. Early-on, you can get by with just repeating combos and calling in assists, but as you get farther in, you'll need better timing and knowledge of enemies' hitboxes, which teams you should be putting on the front lines, and which ones hang back for cleanup.
I'm focusing so much on the gameplay because that's the real star of Project X Zone--its story definitely isn't anything to write home about. This is literally how almost every stage starts:
-Fade in on new characters in their home world. Introduce them, set up motivations. If they're not in their "home" world, they'll probably talk about how amazing it is that they're in another world, and how it's a mystery that must be solved later.
-BAD GUYS ATTACK! Characters exchange pleasantries/snarky comments and get ready to fight.
-MORE GOOD GUYS SHOW UP! Everybody talks about how amazing it is that they're in another world, and how it's a mystery that must be solved later.
-Sometimes, the bad guys get to say something here. If they don't, it's usually generic monsters making generic monster sounds. Everybody exchanges pleasantries/snarky comments.
-Cue fight scene!
I'm barely halfway into the game--it's a long one!--and this has been standard procedure in every single chapter. And yet, I'm not tired of it so far! It helps that the pleasantries and snarky commentary are actually pretty damn funny--Dead Rising's Frank West, Resonance of Fate's Vashyron, and Endless Frontier's Haken are probably the best parts of the cast. This is definitely a case of the plot being weak and contrived, but the writing standing on its own two feet and making the whole process more bearable.
I originally thought these were simple "slide across the screen" stills, but they're actually beautifully-animated, unusually bouncy cut-in segments
Between all the dream team-ups and frenetic combat, Project X Zone is a huge melting pot of fanservice (of all kinds, not just the boobs kind). Morrigan and Chun-li team up with a vicious Darkness Illusion into Shichisei Senkuu Kyaku combo, the Resonance of Fate trio can team up with Valkyria Chronicles III's heroes and fill the screen with a hail of bullets, and plenty more. Oh yeah, and for those of you who are connossieurs of shameless fanservice, Project X Zone fills your boobage quota with PXZ original Mii Kouryuji, Endless Frontier's Kaguya Nanbu, Morrigan Aensland and more, all lavishly-drawn in screen-filling "power-up" animations.
Even with the fast-paced battle system and the loads of fanservice, Project X Zone is hampered by some disappointing choices. Characters are locked into their two-person teams (so for instance, you can't pair .hack's Kite with Shining Force EXA's Soma with God Eater's Soma as an assist for a Ridiculously Huge Swordapalooza), but this is more of a deliberate design choice and less of a dumb oversight. Also, as someone who has been hopelessly addicted to everything Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, it's kind of annoying to have to use the 3DS' Circle Pad for character movement on a grid map, and for the cardinal direction-based character specials.
Comparing SRPGs to my favorite genre, Fire Emblem is Street Fighter--it's a codifier, it defines what the genre is capable of. It provides a hearty challenge for experienced fans of the genre, while giving newcomers a good starting point with a reasonable learning curve. With that in mind, Project X Zone is Dead or Alive--it's flashy, it's fast, it's not particularly smart, but it definitely delivers in terms of fun factor. That's about what I was hoping for.
+ Gorgeous sprite graphics and character artwork bring a dream cast to life
+ Battle system is easy to learn, but requires practice and forethought to truly master
+ Tons of references and visual nods to Capcom, Namco Bandai, and Sega games new and old
+/- God-awful story, but general character interaction and banter tends to be pretty hilarious
+/- A lot of fanservice, like almost an uncomfortable amount--watch who you play this around
- For a "strategy RPG," it's actually very light on strategy, tactics, and overall challenge