Project X Zone is a turn-based strategy game with an attack component that makes John McClane from Die Hard look like a wussy. That’s it. Review over. If that hasn’t convinced you that Project X Zone is one of the most awesome gaming experiences to come out of this generation, then you have no soul and I don’t want to talk with you anymore.
OK, it’s not actually John McClane, its Bruno Delinger from Dynamite Cop, which is essentially Die Hard the arcade game. But it’s close enough! If everything I have said up until now has filled you with both a feeling of “WTF” and “holy crap that’s awesome,” then Project X Zone, the newest entry in, believe it or not, the Super Robot Taisen series, is the game for you.
Here’s a bit of backstory: Super Robot Taisen (otherwise known as Super Robot Wars), was a series of games that put some of our favorite giant robots up against a common foe. Yes, this meant that robots such as Gundam Deathscythe, Big-O, EVA Unit 01, and Voltron, all appeared together in a series of turn-based strategy games. However, these games never made to America because of a huge pile of licensing issues. Eventually, we got one game in the series localized, Super Robot Taisen OG Saga Endless Frontier on the DS, because it only used characters from its parent company, Namco Bandai, and other self-made characters for a self-contained story.
OG Saga also featured two characters, Reiji and Xiaomu, that American audiences had never heard of before, but Japanese audiences knew as the main characters of Namco X Capcom, an offshoot of the Super Robot series that used similar systems. But, instead of giant robots, it put together characters from Namco and Capcom games in a fight against an ultimate evil. It also never came overseas due to licensing issues. Project X Zone is the successor to that game and by some strange act of black magic, it managed to come to the U.S. despite all the problems that have plagued its predecessors. There! Now you are all caught up on the history of this awesome crossover franchise.
Project X Zone is a fan fiction writer’s dream. A horrible evil force has appeared, causing characters from different universes to start crossing over universal boundaries into each other’s worlds. It’s up to the heroes from these many different universes to band together in order to and fight this evil. But wait.. villains from these many different universes have also banned together in order to fight for the side of darkness and blah, blah, blah.
It’s all very cliché and filled with just about every crossover fan fiction trope you can possibly imagine. And let's be honest, you aren’t playing Project X Zone for the story anyway. Its pacing is slow and every plot twist, (if you can all them that), is predictable. If you are a fan of self-indulgent fan fiction you will get a kick out of how corny the narrative is.
That being said, even though the story is bad, the character writing is good. It’s pretty cool to see Street Fighter’s Ryu trade martial arts banter with Virtua Fighter’s Akira. It makes the 10-year-old in you that used to have, “Who would win?” arguments on the playground squeal with glee.
Enough about the story; let’s talk about gameplay. For anyone who has played a Super Robot Wars title, this will seem familiar. This is a turn-based grid-style tactical RPG. That means taking turns moving units, attacking the enemy, healing up your forces, and using your brain to outsmart the enemy A.I. Think Fire Emblem, Shining Force, or Final Fantasy Tactics.
However, things completely change when attacking the enemy. Instead of simply watching an attack animation, you now have to time different attacks together to start comboing the enemy to death. Don’t worry, it’s nothing as complicated as, say, traditional Street Fighter combos. It’s just directional inputs and buttons that need to be timed in order to keep the opponent stunned.
Each unit is actually a two-man team and each attack is actually a series of auto-comboed hits performed by both characters. This is the coolest part, as characters go through all their classic attacks at just the push of a button. Dante performs some outstanding Marvel vs. Capcom 3 combos, X and Zero pull out their weapons from PlayStation-era Mega Man X games, Yuri and Estelle pull off Shining Fang loops, and Ryu even has an FADC (Focus Attack Dash Cancel), Dragon Punch into Metsu Hadoken! Most characters also have an ultimate attack which does tons of damage to the opponent, a ranged attack which can hit certain opponents in an area of effect, and a variety of other skills that act as buffs, heals and debuffs. You can also call in assist characters to help you during battle, though they only have one attack, as well as other teams that are nearby on the battlefield.
Every attack consists of tens to even hundreds of hits. So to make up for this, enemies have to have huge health bars. Unfortunately, this does cause the difficulty of the game to feel a bit imbalanced. If an enemy isn’t being comboed, then they can block your attacks, barely taking any damage at all. If you don’t combo together all of your different attacks, you will find it hard to build the Cross Gauge, which is used for special skills, assists, buffs, healing and reviving dead characters. You’ll also find it near-impossible to gain XP, which is scaled-based on how long your combos are. If you don’t have some fighting game chops in you, you will find the game to be quite punishing. Long combos are essentially necessary and it will be difficult to complete the game without them.
The game also likes to be cheap with its enemy spawning as well. There will be plenty of times when it looks like you are done with a battle, only to find that the game will spawn tons of new enemies on the next turn. Several battles feature enemies spawning behind you without any warning. Other enemies feature nearly impossible bosses that you need to swarm with your units to take down.
Still, there’s something charming about a game so old-school hard. When you clear a mission in Project X Zone, you feel like you seriously earned it, and that’s important in a game where you aren’t particularly looking forward to the next story cut-scene. You can’t sleepwalk your way through these battles, and that’s good because the battles are the main draw of the game.
Project X Zone does suffer some problems in terms of unit management though. The game is incredibly linear, quickly shuffling you from one battle to another. There’s no real way to grind in Project X Zone. If you neglect a unit too much, you will find that it will quickly start lagging behind and will become useless in future missions.
Heck, there’s not even any real way to equip your units either. Even the items you can use are limited to what is dropped by enemies or found in chests. They are so scarce you will be tempted to hoard them, even up until the end of the game.
You can swap assist character between units before battle, but the game frequently forces you to change your army's makeup from mission to mission. So what little planning you can do is invalidated every couple of levels as units move in and out of your army constantly.
Project X Zone will be most enjoyable for gamers who can recognize the many different characters that you can control. Everyone knows who Ryu is, but fans of .hack, Valkyria Chronicles, Sakura Wars, Resonance of Fate, or even the original Namco X Capcom and Endless Frontier will love seeing these obscure characters get a chance to show their stuff. Heck, even Ulala from Space Channel 5 gets in on the battle!
The music also changes every time you take control of a unit. You’ll be listening to hard rock music riffs when Dante enters the battle, but the game will switch to the choruses and wind instruments of Yuki Kajiura when you take control of KOS-MOS. The backgrounds that you fight on also come from the many and varied properties. I never thought I would see the Darkstalkers “Fetus of God” stage again!
Project X Zone is undeniably a fun game, but your level of fun may vary depending on how much you enjoy spotting game references. If you are the type of person who wants to see Alisa Boskonovitch chainsaw a giant Metool in the face, then Project X Zone will have you drooling all over your 3DS with each anime-styled battle cutscene. However, if you don’t know what this means, or similarly have no idea what the other characters, places and attacks I referenced throughout this review are, then Project X Zone is at best a pleasingly-difficult strategy-RPG with an interesting battle system that will frustrate you at times, but keep you playing till the end. Regardless, Project X Zone is an amazing and unique experience. You’ll never play another strategy game like this!
This review is based on a digital copy of Project X Zone provided to us by the publisher.