Project X Zone and a new beginning at Namco Bandai

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

Project X Zone Signal and a new beginning at Namco Bandai
Out of all Namco Bandai's crossover strategy games (and there are even more than you think), I can honestly say that I wasn't expecting to see Project X Zone announced for a North American release.

I knew that it was anticipated in some quarters, mainly for its solid sprite art and crossover with Sega and Capcom. I knew that it would enjoy solid word of mouth with hardcore RPG fans. But Namco Bandai has always been coy with the crossover strategy games, no matter how much buzz they would generate. Seeing one actually get announced kind of makes my head spin.

Now, before I get into why Project X Zone has a chance to be pretty good, I think it's fair to temper expectations a little bit. Namco Bandai has been down this road before, most notably with Namco X Capcom on the PlayStation 2. That game, which is basically the predecessor to Project X Zone, wasn't very good. It had a nice cast, but it took too long to clear individual maps, and it was really repetitive. It had plenty of flash, but no substance to speak of.

Project X Zone borrows a lot from Namco X Capcom, so it's fair to wonder if it will have the same failings. Frankly, the jury is still out on that front. I did, however, get a chance to play it a little bit last week, and I enjoyed what I saw. It may even be a signal of good things to come for Namco Bandai.

The general idea behind the game is simple. Like most other strategy games, the map is presented from an isometric point of view, and the goal is to clear out all of the enemies. Characters travel in pairs, and when fighting an enemy, they work together to form combos using strong and weak attacks. It's also possible to add in a third character who can provide assists that prolong air time.

The effect is nice enough, but one thing that both Namco X Capcom and its pseudo-sequel/spinoff Endless Frontier suffered from was that it took too long to kill enemies. At least early on, that hasn't been an issue with Project X Zone, and the localization specialist who has finished the game swears that the battles move at a good clip. As I said, the jury is still out.

If Namco Bandai does actually manage to nail the pacing this time around, then Project X Zone could end up being a very fun little strategy game. As the Super Robot Wars series has shown repeatedly over the years, Namco Bandai has a knack for mixing disparate franchises, and the cast figures to be robust as ever. Within the first five minutes, I spotted Ryu and Ken, the Tekken guys, and Sanger Zonvolt from Super Robot Taisen, and a quick glance at the cast list shows that we can also expect the likes of Sakura Taisen's Gemini Sunrise, Jill Valentine, and Resonance of Fate's Zephyr (no Sonic though, which is genuinely shocking).

For fans of those series, Project X Zone will at the very least offer plenty of inside jokes (it's always fun to see Flynn from Tales of Vesperia interacting with Ryu and Ken), and some very nice 2D sprite work. Like many Namco Bandai SRPGs, it's comfort food. It will be fast, it will be pretty, and it will occasionally be funny.

Project X Zone and a new beginning at Namco Bandai
Having said all that, I'm not so much excited for Project X Zone itself as what it might mean for the future. As I mentioned already, Namco Bandai has been rather coy with its strategy RPGs. Heroes Fantasia, Super Robot Taisen, and SD Gundam G Generation have all remained locked up in Japan, with seemingly no hope for overseas release. Will Project X Zone signal a new era for Namco Bandai?

Obviously, Namco Bandai isn't saying much of anything. When I quiz its representatives on the issue, the best I can get is, "Well, if we can release a game with this many properties in the U.S..." I'd like to believe that means something. I really would.

Because in the end, the big prize is still out there. Super Robot Taisen Original Generations has been out on the PS3 since November, and by all accounts it has done very well over there. If Project X Zone is really indicative of Namco Bandai having a more open mind on localizing its crossover games, then I consider it the best news of the year. If it isn't, then I suppose a super team-up between characters from Devil May Cry, Valkyria Chronicles 3, and Tales of Vesperia isn't a bad consolation prize.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.