The setup for Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky makes the game sound like just about any other JPRG, with a teenage boy finding himself mysteriously transported to a magic-filled planet in which he, and an amnesiac girl, must become heroes. But the game quickly takes a decidedly mature turn, explaining away the magic as the product of highly advanced technology and the teleportation as the basic function of the planet Protolexa’s “astral filament”—or in layman’s terms, a reincarnation machine.
However, while the gravity-defying planet’s composition—a ring of floating islands filled with dungeons that players will dive into—is explained away as the product of a hypothetical Dyson sphere, Exist Archive itself can be justified only in an equally hypothetical sense. The game is meant as a spiritual successor to Valkyrie Profile, but without its complexity, and what could have been a mature plot is bogged down by Star Ocean-like skits, including one memorable scene that’s so deplorably lowbrow that the developers literally introduce it with a trigger warning (a “Notice of Naughtiness”).
Exist Archive constantly undercuts its positive features with cheap gimmicks. For instance, the game’s many dungeons are a series of two-dimensional platforming challenges. New areas become traversable as you earn abilities ranging from the expected double-jump and air dash to the interesting bind combo, a method of chaining together the frozen essences of on-screen foes to aerially boost to new heights. While such abilities are fresh, the maps are little more than clones of one another, each with a faintly different Instagram-like feature; the Viridian Isle is basically the Isle of Dusk, with a slightly varying hue, and the Sunlit Forest is merely a dryer version of the Everdamp Forest. This similarly applies to the combat, as the enemies barely exhibit more diversity. With the exception of the spiked Geln/Dalon (depending on the color) that must be defeated by a ranged hero, the game’s baddies are all more or less unremarkable fodder, meant to be slaughtered en masse.
Because this is such a grind-heavy game, its more repetitious sequences stand out. Comparable titles like Persona 3 have the decency to bury such material within relationship-building social activities, growing characters both in and out of combat. Exist Archive rarely has characters interact, relegating whole swaths of backstory to contextless soundbites from each character’s unseen friends and family back on Earth. It’s not uncommon to go three or four dungeons in a row without a single new development, which is unfortunate, as the game’s strongest moments are those in which the party’s leader, Kanata, has to choose between advancing the agendas of Protolexa’s guardian, Amatsume, its would-be conqueror, Zenobia, or the immortal spirit Yamatoga, whose essence has been split across the 12 protagonists.
Mostly, though, the characters are introduced with an easily identifiable gimmick—Ren Ogama is a gamer who breaks the fourth wall, Disgaea-style, and Yui Mitosagi is a Power Ranger-like TV star who keeps striking poses—and then more or less relegated to their unique roles in battle. That’s especially disappointing given that the game’s entire 20-hour second act involves gathering Essences for each character. These crystallized emotions, which Amatsume can absorb in order to repair Protolexa, are the perfect means for providing backstory, but they’re presented at best as vague vignettes: Namero is actually some sort of bodyguard for Suzaku’s mobster birthmother, and Mitsuhide aspires to live up to his grandfather’s expectations.
With all these deficiencies, it falls to the combat system to keep players engaged, offering some semblance of complexity that the rest of the game lacks. Those who enjoy optimizing abilities will find much to do here, as each character class is able to learn a staggering number of abilities; there are countless possible four-person parties. As for those who just want to get into the thick of fighting, attacks are both flashy and useful, with every frame of animation not only rendering a move, but suggesting how to combo out of it. For instance, the Grenadier can easily launch enemies into the air, but it takes a whip-wielding Taskmaster to keep them there. This applies to defending against enemy attacks too; the need to carefully time each character’s defense ensures that there’s not a dull moment in a fight.
Sadly, though its combat is eye-catching and its sci-fi setting shows sparks of originality, Exist Archive is bound to end up as a footnote in gaming history, perpetually overshadowed by the titles that it so earnestly emulates.