Most gamers in the West have likely never heard of 2005's "Namco X Capcom," a tactical RPG developed by Monolith Soft for the PlayStation 2 that was only released in Japan. That game brought together characters from various Capcom and Namco games, ranging from "Ghosts N Goblins" to "Tekken," to combat the forces of evil. The game was never localized, and seemingly faded into obscurity as a quirky one-off that U.S. gamers would never get to experience. Fortunately for curious fans, the follow-up to "Namco X Capcom," "Project X Zone," has made its way to the States, complete with an expanded roster of publishers contributing characters.
"Project X Zone" blends the vast and varied worlds of a host of classic game franchises in a truly unique way: by culling characters for some of Namco Bandai, Capcom, Sega's biggest franchises, "X Zone" creates an experience that can't be rivaled, on any system. A mysterious force is forming strange rifts that are pulling characters into alternate realities, and making them team up and face off against the evil powers behind the temporal portals. As the story unravels, famous faces from well-known franchises like "Street Fighter," "Mega Man," "Valkyria Chronicles," "Space Channel 5," "God Eater," and "Tekken" (just to name a few) all appear on the side of both good and evil to hash out the future of all of the different universes involved.
The game plays out like a fairly traditional tactical RPG, in the vein of "Final Fantasy Tactics" and the "Fire Emblem" series. Each board is divided into a grid, and each character, all of which are actually a duo of fighters with an optional solo member, move a certain number of squares to face off against the baddies that are spread out on the board. Once a battle is initiated, the characters square off against the enemy, with the player controlling their attacks, choosing which moves are best used in succession until their turn is over. After each battle, combatants are awarded XP to level up, and increase their overall stats, unlocking additional moves and skills. All of the characters on both sides take their turns to move and attack, and then repeat the process again, until everyone is defeated or certain objectives are completed.
It doesn’t take too long to figure out that the most interesting element of "Project X Zone" is its characters. The combined muscle of Sega, Capcom, and Namco Bandai is out in full force in "Project X Zone," and it's likely to be the thing that gets most gamers invested in the title. While independently of each other, Capcom, Sega, and Namco have all released crossover games of some kind, but "Project X Zone stands alone as the most wide-reaching. Seeing fan favorites like "Mega Man Legends"' Tron Bonne team up with KOS-MOS & T-elos from "Xenosaga," or Bahn from "Fighting Vipers" fighting alongside Akira Yuki and Pai Chan from the "Virtua Fighter" series is easily the game's biggest selling point.
On the gameplay side of things, as long as you're a fan of tactical, turn-based RPGs, you'll feel right at home in "Project X Zone." At the grid level, the gameplay should feel familiar to fans of other games in the genre, but it's the attack layer that offers a nice break from the standard formula. Everyone in the game is represented with beautiful sprites, and they all have exceptionally well developed attack animations - so much so, that it's easy to want to watch them time and time again. The player can score additional attacks and critical hits if the moves are selected at the right times, which causes the game to incorporate an interesting action element into what is traditionally less engaging gameplay. As the characters level up from their battles, more options are available to vary the combat, which helps to make the battles, which could become repetitious over the lengthy span of the game, feel new and compelling as the story progresses.
While the gameplay in "X Zone" is continually engaging, the story proves to be a bit lacking. The ever-expanding cast of characters spends most of their travels trying to figure out what is causing parallel worlds to cross and collide, and, more importantly, who is behind it. It's a pretty simple story, but it gets lost somewhere in each battle, as most of the conflicts in the game seem to be set up just to add another group of fighters to your growing roster. In fact, most clashes early on in the game are there primarily to introduce you to new characters, as they help to build the story - the downside here is that after a certain point, these introductions become more redundant than anything else.
As your army grows it means there are more and more soldiers on the ground, which, in turn, causes battles to be that much bigger. The game very quickly escalates from short battles that are easy to complete in one sitting, to matches that can take well over an hour. Sure, every individual attack sequence is enjoyable to participate in and watch, and that alone can extend the playtime, but for a portable game, it becomes quite a commitment to complete each skirmish in their entirety in one sitting. Thank goodness for quick saves.
Crossover games on the scale of "Project X Zone" are a truly rare sight. Three major game publishers offering up characters from more than twenty different franchises to do battle with each other on this scale has never been seen before. The characters included are all treated with care, and featured in ways that are so outlandish when compared to their source material, that you need to see it to believe it. Fan service aside, "X Zone" offers up solid, engaging tactical gameplay that is on par with some of the other, more established, franchises in the genre. The team at Monolith Soft clearly knows what they are doing when creating a strategic game like this, and even if it didn’t include a wide assortment of some of gaming's most recognizable charters, it would still be a fun game to play. But, really, who are we kidding here? "Project X Zone" exists because people want to see match-ups like Chun-Li and Morrigan teaming up to fight Ayame from "Sakura Wars" together. "Project X Zone" is far from your typical game, and it offers a weird, wild world that hardcore 3DS gamers should enjoy from beginning to end.
'Project X Zone' Score: 4 out of 5