X gon’ give it 2 ya…
Japanese RPGs can be intimidating, impenetrable things to the casual gamer. All stats and spiky fringes, they’ve often been the preserve of the type of person that hoards anime and owns a replica samurai sword.
Enter Project X Zone 2. While it’s not dumbed-down to Paper Mario levels, a.k.a ‘Fisher Price: My First RPG’, PXZ2 does appear to be aimed at a less hardcore fan. The main hook for bringing in this crowd is the roster of characters present in the game. Being a joint venture between Sega, Bandai Namco and Capcom, you’ll be greeted by personalities from some pretty huge franchises, along with some fairly interchangeable ones you feel like you probably should know but you’re not quite sure of. It’s like Marvel’s Avengers but with less spandex and more cleavage.
The playable protagonists mostly come in pairs, such as Street Fighter’s Ryu and Ken, Resident Evil’s Chris and Jill, Tekken’s Jin and Kazuya, Virtua Fighter’s Akira and Kage-Maru, Devil May Cry’s Dante and Virgil…. and many, many more; it’s a veritable Who’s Who of videogames. If you’re especially cynical, you could view Project X Zone 2 as nothing more than an advert for other games from the canons of the three developers involved; it certainly reminded me of some choice titles I hadn’t played in a while. Luckily, there’s much more to it than that.
While being the most noticeable thing about the game on first inspection, the sheer number of characters also becomes it’s downfall in places. During the early prologue missions there are so many introductions made and so much resulting dialogue and plot, it’s pretty hard to follow the story and feel any investment in it. Similarly, you’re often left with so many people on screen that moving them around can become a trial in some of the more confined areas.
So, how have all these intellectual properties found themselves fighting side by side? Well, a serious amount of paranormal activity has transformed Tokyo into a sort of intergalactic travel-hub, and people continuously drop in by way of portals from parallel dimensions, time travel or huge flying buses, to eye each other up and inevitably fight. It’s hard to wonder whether all these battles could be avoided if people just stayed in their own universe for longer than five seconds.
You begin the saga as a pair of agents from Shinra, an organisation determined to get to the root of all the unauthorised dimension-hopping and put a stop to it like over-zealous transport police. The agents, Reiji and Xiaomu, engage in some light scene-setting and sado-masochistic banter (no, really) before giving you a gentle introduction to the game mechanics. From there, where the plot goes is anyone’s guess frankly. It’s quite difficult to keep a tab on what’s happening and why, as the story flies around like someone threw a whole series of Dr Who scripts into a blender.
Despite the haywire plot, it’s this ridiculous clashing of worlds that results in the game’s strongest feature. While there is a pretty serious amount of conversation as everyone figures out who each other is and who they want to beat up, the chat and interaction between characters is fabulous. It’s quick, funny and punchy, while at other times just delightfully nonsensical (For example; “When life gives you lemons, close the door and read ‘em all”, “Does my car tingle you, pants-wise?” and “My hips are the cutest”. I have made none of those up. I couldn’t). Dishonourable mention goes to walking-chlamydia Vashyron, who brings a nice cringe-factor to proceedings by hitting on every female on the screen with such zingers as “keep getting prettier” or offering them a job in a hostess club.
Lecherous heroes aside, the characters are strongly drawn and I laughed out loud on several occasions from the frequently daft interactions between them. It’s knowingly ridiculous, and gleefully chaotic, and runs with it; enemies such as Sheath, a Playboy bunny lookalike with a bizarre take on the English language, are particular highlights. Elsewhere there’s knowing references to each hero’s backstory; Chris and Jill from Resident Evil persistently check if they have enough ammo before fights, a nod to their survival-horror origins.
The combat is somewhere around what you’d expect for a handheld RPG. The characters battle in their pairs; the moves are all slickly intertwined into double-teams with the occasional addition of some extra characters who operate as lone agents and pop up to lend a hand every now and then. Upon maneuvering yourself into position on the grid-system to attack an enemy (from the side or back is best for dealing maximum damage), you switch out of the usual isometric top-down view and into a side-on combat mode. Enemy attacks often happen separately to yours without animation or ceremony, so you’re left to pummel whichever poor sap has gotten in your way unimpeded, and juggle them in the air using various combos. You can trigger the most devastating blows and sequences using a single button press, and you’re granted all the time you could need to plan out your attack. You do get the introduction of some time-of-the-essence button taps for combining moves and dealing the most damage, but it’s not especially challenging. However, it is pretty cool to watch the elaborate interplay between the pairs of combatants and the sheer madness of some of the moves on offer. You can upgrade the attacks by racking up CP as you trot along, to make the most of your allocated three moves per bout (although you can flesh these out with support attacks and other peripheral attacks available from nearby teammates).
Graphically, it’s charming and lushly drawn. While the game fails to make any exciting use of the system’s extra dimension, the 2D players look great against the 3D backdrops, and things only fall apart at the busiest of screen times. Given the sheer number of attacks you’re able to launch simultaneously, that’s no major criticism. You can instigate one combo by your ‘main’ pair of combatants, as well as support attacks from lone agents who tag along as previously mentioned, while extra damage can be called in from characters nearby on the map, all at once. It all results in a glorious mess of destruction. When you’re not battling away, the vast number of characters to move around the screen does bring in an interesting extra dimension of tactics as you shuffle your squad around depending on who’s taken the most damage or has the best-suited attacks for a particular enemy. However, it’s still fairly casual, and you can probably hammer through the game without giving too much thought to strategies or considering what in the name of sweet Jesus is actually going on.
Couple the strong characterisation and dialogue with the fairly basic combat and I’m led to believe that this isn’t a title aimed at gamers who want another Fire Emblem. While it makes good use of simple tactics and strategy, it’s a breezy pick-up-and-play adventure that simultaneously has far too much happening at once.
Despite that, the combination of so many big gaming sagas in Project X Zone 2 should lure in many casual players while simultaneously ensuring there’s enough to intrigue the more ardent RPG fans.
This guest review was written by Jonathan Markwell. If you like what you’ve read, you can find his blog at http://jonnafang.wordpress.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jonnafang