In my first evening of playing Project X Zone, I witnessed Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine (from Resident Evil) teaming up with Chun-Li (Street Fighter) and Morrigan (Darkstalkers) to fight Lord Raptor (also from Darkstalkers). As Akira and Pai (Virtua Fighter), I saved Jin Kazama (Tekken) from Juri (Street Fighter) and Dural (Virtua Fighter). That was all in the first couple of introductory levels, and if you haven’t guessed by now, Project X (pronounced “cross”) Zone is absolutely freaking insane.
Featuring dozens of characters from the historical stables of Capcom, SEGA and Namco Bandai, PXZ barely tries to tie all of these cameos into a cohesive plot. It’s a story of other dimensions, eras and worlds and rarely does it make sense. Random portals appear and transport our heroes and villains to and from familiar and more obscure locations, with no logic or motive. But when you’re dealing with so many characters, from so many thematically different series, it’s understandable that this game never even tries to make sense.
Yes, this game cares little about narrative and character development, but it also revels in the spectacle of its battles and the joy of encountering your favourite forgotten video game characters. PXZ’s beauty is in its utter lack of respect for narrative standards – and that’s part of the fun, with a range of snappy dialogue peppered with obscure references to each character’s franchise. It’s never meant to be taken seriously and I found that to be a positive; it’s uncomplicated, unashamed fan service, and all the better for it.
So Project X Zone is a Strategy RPG, much like GIAG favourite, Fire Emblem: Awakening, albeit a very simplified take on one. You control units of two characters in a turn-based battle against the heaps of enemies that are thrown in front of you. Project X Zone differs from many SRPGs as you are given direct control of your units instead of manipulating a cursor; this direct control also carries through to its battle system.
Attacking enemies switches to a side-on view in combat. In these chaotic clashes, you have a small window of opportunity to place as many attacks on your opponent as possible, using a very simple combat system that relies on single button presses and single directional inputs. Each attack throws your opponent around the screen like a ragdoll, and constant juggling of enemies results in more damage inflicted. Your unit of two can also have a third member assigned as a “Solo” character that can be called upon with a press of the L button to lay the smack down, freezing the enemy so more of your teams’ attacks connect. Should your attack position be near an ally, you’ll also be able to call them with R for yet more damage possibilities.
A blue XP bar (not to be confused with experience, which levels up your individual units) governs your ability to use an impressive special attack in battle. When the XP bar is at least 100% (out of a possible 150%, filled by successful attacks), pressing Y in combat launches a special attack that evokes an impressive combination of in-game graphics and short anime-style overlays, that are as colourful as they are deadly. Outside of combat, this XP bar is used to perform a variety of unit-specific abilities, such as healing and extending attack range, as well as providing some defensive abilities when enemies attack you on their turn.
The simplicity of combat makes for a more accessible experience for newcomers, but unfortunately it’s this simplicity that is PXZ’s downfall; once you get into the rhythm of juggling enemies, you’ll use the same moves in the same way, over and over again. Each of the game’s 40+ missions throw absolutely tons of enemies your way, but your tactics will rarely change. Most of these missions are overly long (many running for at least an hour) and don’t feature enough variety, making for a repetitive game that causes even the exciting combat scenes to become a time-consuming chore.
PXZ is also not a particularly challenging game, partly thanks to the simplistic combat, partly due to the wealth of healing options at your disposal, and partly due to the ability to quick-save whenever it’s your turn. Sadly, the real challenge comes with trying to withstand the unnecessarily long, similarly structured missions.
It’s a real shame, because everything else about the game is highly entertaining, especially in terms of visuals. While environments and effects are made of polygons, all other assets are drawn in a glorious sprite style, all in a consistent manner that is stunning to look at, especially in battle. These 2D sprites are particularly gorgeous when 3D is enabled, as characters whizz around the screen at frantic paces. It could be argued that there is sometimes a little too much going around on-screen at once, but once you start getting into the rhythm of combat, you can marvel at the beautiful visuals. The anime-style special move animations are also a brilliant idea, adding another layer to an already impressive presentation.
The battle environments themselves are also great, evoking memories of the many classic franchises involved, from a perfect representation of Dead Rising’s Willamette Mall, to a level inspired by SEGA’s long-forgotten Gain Ground, to a cracking reinterpretation of the usually-2D levels in Ghouls & Ghosts. Suitably familiar music accompanies these classic settings, while much of the game’s textual dialogue is backed by Japanese voiceovers, further cementing the claim that PXZ really knows its niche target audience. Those who find the speech to be a bit grating can at least turn it down/off in the options (and I count myself among them).
As mentioned earlier, the dialogue is mostly entertaining, but considering all the recent discussions in videogame media regarding gender equality and a need for more positive female role models in gaming, I regularly found that the dialogue in PXZ left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. The majority of female characters are portrayed as stupid, slutty, or both,; while 90% of the time are treated like objects by the male cast members (including a running joke, where Frank West is continually taking risque pictures of each new female encountered. It was amusing the first time, but quite grating on the tenth occasion). It’s something that I genuinely found off-putting at times, and that’s speaking as someone who’s not easily offended.
VERDICT: It was a brave move to give a Western release to such an admittedly niche title and despite the game’s issues, I’m glad they did. What we have here is a simple Strategy RPG that should act as a great introduction to the genre for newcomers. Unfortunately, while its combat is initially exciting, the enjoyment doesn’t hold up after multiple chapters of the same gameplay.
However, fans of SEGA, Namco Bandai and Capcom will love the eye-meltingly brilliant visuals, the entertaining dialogue (misogyny aside), and the mere experience of seeing their favourite characters come together in the same game.
DECENT. A 6/10 indicates that, while this game could be much better, it still has a fair amount to offer the player. It might be an interesting title sabotaged by its own ambition, or a game denied greater praise by some questionable design choices. Don’t avoid it outright, but approach it with caution.