Project X Zone review: Xs and Os

Project X Zone is a massive strategy RPG crossover featuring characters from Capcom, Namco-Bandai, and Sega games fighting it out with each other. It's essentially a sequel to 2004's Namco x Capcom, a heavily Super Robot Wars-inspired collaboration that never received a Western release. In the same vein, Project X Zone caters very, very strongly to fans of Japanese games, and its cast of characters is undeniably its biggest selling point.

Coupled with an entertaining combat engine, these characters and their interactions prop up what is otherwise a very basic strategy game.%Gallery-176869% PXZ features characters carefully culled from a wealth of games from each company, ranging from the well-known (Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Resident Evil) to the more obscure (Batsu from Rival Schools, Sanger from Super Robot Wars, Bruno from Dynamite Cop). As much as I get a huge kick out of seeing Mega Man X and Akira fighting side-by-side, it's the obscure picks that really stir the sheer, giddy love from deep within my gaming soul. In particular, seeing Fighting Vipers' Bahn after fifteen years of non-presence affects me in a very personal way.

The rationale for who is and isn't included is a bit puzzling though, especially when you think of some major omissions. Why is there no Monster Hunter representation? Why does Soulcalibur get completely passed over in favor of jailbait from the mercifully forgotten Yumeria? Where is Sonic, for crying out loud?

The lack of older characters is a letdown too. Namco X Capcom delved deep into company history and had characters from Baraduke, Forgotten Worlds, Burning Force, and even Dig Dug. The oldest cast members of PXZ, in contrast, are Valkyrie and Arthur, both of whom have had more recent appearances. As a whole though, aside from a few unfulfilled wishes, I'm happy with the cast.

With such disparate characters, hopefully you weren't expecting a well-written plot. PXZ is (perhaps appropriately) on the level of high school fan fiction, with the game being divided into "chapters" that are more predictable than your average Scooby-Doo episode. Some characters warp to a new area, enemies and major villains appear, new cast members or plot developments provide a handy deus ex machina, villains run off screaming "I'll get you next time" and everyone gets sucked into yet another dimensional vortex. Repeat for forty-five chapters.

Despite the lame plot, there's still enjoyment to be derived from seeing these characters interact and make all manner of in-jokes ("I wanna remake you into a monster that shoots laser eyebeams!" says Devilotte to Jin Kazama). Pairing up certain characters for attacks yields unit-specific interactions, and story banter drops references to famous lines of dialogue and even some localization follies these franchises have gone through ("You were almost a Jill..." "Shut it, Chris."). Some references even extend to the stages themselves: A few chapters are based on Sega's 1988 arcade strategy title Gain Ground, complete with its rule set and a remix of the main theme playing in the background.

Unfortunately, the fanservice aspects of Project X Zone – the references, the quips – are probably the strongest element of the package. In fact, it's because of the quantity and prevalence of said fanservice that I'm able to put up with some poor game design choices.

Base gameplay is your standard strategy RPG fare. Each chapter begins and ends with some story bits, with some grid-based, unit-moving combat and additional story sprinklings sandwiched in-between. The progression is straightforward, and there's not much to do between chapters aside from equip, save, and re-arrange your party.

Battles, thankfully, mix things up a little. Characters are divided into pair and solo units, and you can attach any solo units to pairs to form three-person teams. Move into range, pick an enemy, and the screen switches to side-view combat, but instead of just watching your commands play out, you input your two-character team's attacks using the D-pad and the A button. You have a set amount of attacks per turn, along with additional "support attacks" assigned to the L and R buttons: L for your team's solo unit, and R to call on a nearby pair unit. Chaining all of these attacks together with good timing results in a fighting-game style juggle that can deliver heavy damage.

Scoring big combos yields item drops and also builds the XP bar, which is shared across all units. With enough XP stored, you'll earn the ability to launch colossally painful finishing strikes or multi-target skills. The XP bar also comes into play when enemies attack you, allowing you to reduce or nullify damage, as well as execute counterattacks.

While the combat itself is enjoyable, it's the whole "strategy" part of the equation that's lacking in PXZ. The game assumes that simply throwing a whole mess of enemies at you is equivalent to crafting a challenging battle. As a result, once you get past the first ten chapters or so, battles start to get really long. Eventually, as more boss villains are introduced, they'll start showing up with hordes of reinforcements mid-fight, making things drag out even longer. It's particularly aggravating when you're dying to meet your favorite characters in the next chapter. (On that note, Mega Man fans, you're not going see X and Zero until the halfway point, so I feel your pain.)

The enemy swarms wouldn't be so bad if it felt like they presented any challenge, but most of your foes are just cannon fodder, easily taken out in a single strike. There are few restrictions on item and technique usage: Unlimited items can be used in a single turn, and they can be used on any unit in the field, regardless of positioning. The same goes for character skills: As long as you have XP to burn, you can use as many as you want in a turn. This renders positioning almost inconsequential beyond combat assists, and since XP-boosting and healing items are plentiful, it's easy to keep everyone healthy. The bosses pose more of a threat – they can often take 30-60% of a unit's max health in a single turn – but once you know this and take precautions, you're secure. Even if any units do get KO'd, it's easy to save them by sacrificing some XP. Just make sure you keep tabs on which units cause an automatic game over when defeated. You don't want to replay an hour of combat because you got lazy and forgot Chris and Jill have to stay conscious to advance the story.

There is at least some variety to mission objectives. You may need to keep a specific unit alive or mount a rescue, or defeat certain foes before a set turn limit expires. These objectives don't change the underlying gameplay, but they serve as a satisfying change from the default goal of annihilating every enemy. Even so, a little variety and a solid combat engine aren't enough to obscure the underwhelming strategy portion of Project X Zone. If it weren't for the charming character banter and cute references, I'd have a hard time making it through drawn-out, brain-dead battles.

In spite of its glaring flaws though, I can't help but love Project X Zone. It embraces and relishes in the legacies and identities of the companies, characters, and worlds it encompasses. If you don't know or care about a lot of the cast, then this will do nothing for you. For others, engaging with characters from the unlocalized Valkyria Chronicles 3, or seeing Tron Bonne after the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3, will hold a unique significance. Project X Zone may be a poor strategy game, but it will still be a very special experience for many.

This review is based on an eShop download of Project X Zone, provided by Namco Bandai.

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City. Her work has been seen on G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan

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