Capcom, Namco Bandai, and Sega loyalists, as well as tactical RPG enthusiasts, let out a collective squeal of jubilation when Project X Zone was announced for stateside release, and rightfully so. The game, co-developed by the competent coders at Monolith Soft (Xenoblade Chronicles) and Banpresto (a subsidiary of Namco Bandai), is a crossover fan’s veritable wet dream, jam-packed with a roster with over 60 characters from all three of the aforementioned publishers’ most cherished overseas franchises. The narrative devices implemented in order to bring such an elephantine lineup together are the game’s sketchiest aspects, as Project X Zone features a story so shamelessly convoluted it makes the equally cameo-heavy Kingdom Hearts series seem straightforward by comparison.
As heaps of combatants, some more instantly recognizable than others, are introduced at blinding speeds, the writers must continually play catch-up, spinning ludicrous reasons as to why the likes of Devil May Cry’s Dante (the original Son of Sparda with locks of white, not the mulish brunette from DmC) is suddenly partnering with Darkstalkers’s Demitri Maximoff, or how Endless Frontier’s Haken Browning and Kaguya Nanbu have come to lend a helping hand to Super Robot Wars’s Sanger Zonvolt in the middle of a crisis. If Project X Zone was strictly a brawler, establishing coherent storylines wouldn’t be as important, but being that this is an undertaking of the role-playing variety, at least a few satiating morsels of explanation should be required when Ghost ’n Goblins’s Arthur promptly materializes to lend a helping hand to Shining Force EXA’s Tomo and Cyrille in dispatching Riemsianne La Vaes. No big deal, though, because in the midst of its constant stream of anecdotal chaos, Project X Zone manages to be quite the addictive TRPG, compounding stunning sprite battle animations with a comfortably non-complex movement system that allows the on- and off-grid antics of the game’s numerous memorable characters to flourish wildly. For uninformed players, there’s even the thoughtful addition of a consistently updated in-game encyclopedia, complete with mini-bios and series of origin, dubbed the Crosspedia. It’s always available post-duel to answer such pressing questions as “Who the hell were those people I just fought?”
The campaign progresses in episodic fashion, avoiding random encounters, sprawling overland maps, and extended periods of travel between combat. This suits the game’s unapologetically slapdash pacing well, and lets its plethora of idiosyncratic personalities bounce off each other in a whirlwind of partially controlled calamity. Characters are grouped in twosomes, with the occasional solo unit stepping in for stylish assistance opportunities. Project X Zone gets major points for working in a quasi-fighting game component to its battles. Instead of each brawl being carried out in a largely turn-based or one-button-press manner, altercations are done in semi-real time, with players executing combo commands and calling for support in the same sequence of inputs. This sustained fleetness leads to expedited building of the XP bar, which, when at 100% capacity, has the ability to prompt an all-powerful special move that fills every inch of the 3DS’s top screen with layer upon layer of dazzling luminosity. Maneuvering around on the grid map is akin to something like Final Fantasy Tactics, but extra leeway is given as techniques like breaking objects, defending, or initiating extensive counterattacks don’t register as full offensive turns.
There’s no getting around the fact that Project X Zone walks the path of repetition after 20 or so chapters of formulaic, albeit gorgeous, beat-downs, but it’s a credit to the strength of the iconic stature of the characters that seeing their bafflingly scripted journey to its end becomes an unavoidable errand. While battles with special winning conditions surface sporadically, there’s not enough strategic depth to favorably compare this game to something like Fire Emblem: Awakening, which still stands as a high watermark for the genre. Yet, Project X Zone offers something in exchange for its spells of cheeky shallowness: the chance to see a prodigious, eclectic assortment of Capcom, Namco Bandai, and Sega’s finest Japanese-speaking mascots knocking each other senseless in the most whimsical ways imaginable.