The 2013 American release of Project X Zone brought a decent amount of excitement with it. While the idea of combining iconic franchises and their respective characters into a single crossover title is nothing new, few of them packed as many unique properties as this 3DS strategy RPG. A follow up to the Japan-exclusive PS2 title Namco X Capcom, Project X Zone let players team up dozens of characters from several veteran publisher’s past libraries, with a flashy and unique combat system serving as the backbone.
And yet, while the game generally wasn’t considered bad, the critical consensus definitely had a general sense of disappointment. The story was shallow, the strategy elements felt undercooked, and for all the fan-service and energetic animations, the core gameplay never tried to mix things up over the very lengthy campaign. The result was a title that was decent to pick up and play from time to time (Possibly why it was released on a handheld), but also one that became mind-numbing when you attempted to marathon it.
Now, Namco Bandai and developer Monolith Soft have once again collaborated with Capcom and Sega to produce Project X Zone 2, a game that, while looking and playing near-identical to its predecessor, addresses many of the complaints that fans had the first time around. While the title still retains some issues that stop it from being a must-have game, there are some noticeable improvements that streamline and increase the enjoyment of certain aspects, ultimately resulting in a sequel that provides a general step up in quality.
The overarching story primarily focuses on supernatural investigators Reiji and Xiaomu, who were created as the protagonists for Namco X Capcom but relegated to supporting status in the first Project X Zone. While investigating the mysterious appearance of giant gold chains in a Japanese city, it soon becomes apparent that the problem extends to other dimensions and even time periods, and it isn’t long before the two team up with numerous familiar faces and set off to explore dozens of unique areas, taking on legions of monsters, their old nemesis Saya, and such antagonists as M. Bison and Resident Evil‘s Nemesis to stop an evil scheme and restore order.
Many playable characters from the first game return, including the likes of Chris Redfield, Tekken‘s Jin Kazama, and Mega Man X. Many other recognizable characters have also been added, including Phoenix Wright, Ryo Hazuki of Shenmue fame, and two of the leads from Yakuza. Nintendo also incorporates their own characters for the first time, with Chrom and Lucina from Fire Emblem Awakening being included, as well as Fiora from Xenoblade Chronicles teaming up with returning heroine KOS-MOS. Several other old and new faces make appearances as enemies and cameos as well, with other 70 unique characters in total.
It’s still novel to see so many franchises in one title, but it will also leave many wishing they were in a plot worthy of such a massive team-up. Much like the original, the main story progresses at a snail’s pace, with few surprises but plenty of exposition. You typically get a wall of dialog text before, midway through, and after each level, typically just to give a brief history regarding each character’s past, the current situation, and tiny hints regarding each villain’s motivations. In the original Project X Zone, you could boil down almost every conflict before the last few levels to a hero asking a villain what their plan is, followed by the villain delivering some variation of “Wouldn’t YOU like to know!” and teleporting away. This unfortunately hasn’t changed.
It’s to Project X Zone 2‘s credit that it still manages to make a good chunk of its story reasonably entertaining, and that’s mainly due to the character interactions and dialog. The original game’s cast threw in some decent quips occasionally, but mostly stuck to fairly bland conversations. There’s a much bigger tongue-in-cheek feel this time around. Characters express how absurd some of the people and situations they encounter are compared to their own adventures, and the writing generally feels like there was more of an effort to give it some personality and a sense of fun. Characters like Xiaomu also provide many references and jabs at Japanese media and geek culture in general; expect her to reference anime, many aspects of video games, and the idea of fans ‘shipping’ characters, among other topics.
Those who grew comfortable with how to play the original game will find that the gameplay fundamentals are essentially unchanged. Players take turns with the AI-controlled enemies moving units consisting of preset character pairs along a map, and when a battle is initiated, input is limited to pressing the A button both individually and in conjunction with the four base D-pad directions for different possible attacks. Certain other characters can be summoned via the shoulder buttons for assist attacks, and landing hits gradually builds up a meter that can have most of its energy used up to initiate a much more powerful special attack.
While those rules remain unchanged, a lot of different components have been revamped. The original game allowed for characters to use each battle move once with no repetition, but here, you can use the same attack the whole time, though turns are now limited to three attacks total. The reward for not using certain moves results in them being charged by the next turn, allowing for increased damage.
To help streamline things, all characters now share one XP meter for special attacks instead of having just individual ones. The new SP meters for each character allow them to pool their own separate points and spend them on mid-battle buffs, as well as defending and countering enemy attacks. Attacks also now deal more damage if characters face enemies from the side or behind when they approach them on the map. Finally, for those seeking a little more control with character progression, a menu between levels allows for points accumulated through battle to be spent on upgrading individual moves and adding passive abilities, along with a store to buy stronger equipment and items.
The only notable gameplay addition that falls flat is the Mirage Cancel, which uses up the same amount of energy as a special attack but with very different results. Pressing B during a regular attack will shortly slow down an enemy’s speed, allowing players to properly time their next move and maybe get some more critical hits in the process. Honestly, this mechanic feels cumbersome, and upon realizing that special attacks typically deliver far more damage with no risks, I stopped using it entirely after the first few levels.
All this results in a game that, while still a bit too easy and needlessly lengthy, is a more engaging and substantial experience. One of the definite highlights remains the battle animations. While cutscenes are limited to static character portraits and the map environments and characters still feel lifeless, the pixel art style used when fighting enemies is a treat for the eyes, with detailed animations that switch between an old-school 2D game and more professional, anime-like sections for special attacks.
The only downside to how lively they are is that it can be easy to lose things in the shuffle and screw up your input timing, since it’s possible to score more hits when attacking at the right moment. There are also a lot of familiar remixed songs from the series that get represented, though unfortunately, many tracks for returning characters and the primary story are recycled. Battle scenes and key story sequences are also voiced, though in Japanese only.
The original Project X Zone was an ambitious but flawed game, and while the same can technically be said for its follow-up, there are still enough clever changes to make it worth a look for those with mixed opinions of the original, as well as a must-play for those who genuinely liked it. If we end up getting a third game, I hope the developers put more effort into the main plot and presentation outside of battles. That being said though, this sequel still feels like a definite improvement and I can certainly recommend it.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which was provided to us.
Project X Zone 2 still isn't the home run of a crossover one would hope for, but with a wittier script and improved gameplay mechanics, it's undeniably a step in the right direction.