I try to keep my monthly gaming budget regulated, lest I spend the last week of the month dining on instant ramen. But that wasn’t always the case. In 2005, Jump Super Stars for the Nintendo DS enticed me with a mesmerizing mishmash of characters from Bleach, Death Note, Dragon Ball Z, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, One Piece, and Naruto. The concept of a fighting game staffed with combatants from my favorite anime proved irresistible, and I ended up paying a hefty import premium, knowing that licensing issues would prevent a stateside release. In the end, the thrill of a Shonen Jump crossover easily outweighed the consequence of a sodium-laden, Maruchan-fueled diet.
Thanks to Namco-Bandai’s localization of Project X Zone, 3DS owners won’t have to face the dilemma of an extravagant import price just to behold the extraordinary unification of personalities from the SEGA, Capcom, and Namco Bandai mythoi. But Project X Zone is more than just a remarkable roster of gaming luminaries. Look past the convoluted plotline and you’ll find one of the most captivating, eye-catching battle systems in portable gaming.
Naturally, any storyline is going to experience difficulty assembling such a divergent cast of characters. Project X Zone’s obligatory ploy is found in the Portalstone, a rock that has the power to transfer beings across dimensions. Although players might be able to follow the byzantine tapestry of characters, allegiances, and betrayals through the game’s first few stages, the story becoming increasingly convoluted as players persevere toward the fortieth chapter. In its favor, the title does make a number of thoughtful concessions, from eschewing archetypical timewasters, such as overworld exploration and random battle encounters. Mercifully, even grinding is noncompulsory. For players who aren’t conversant in Project X Zone’s expansive collection of source material, the game’s Crosspedia offers an exhaustive and evolving compendium of background information.
Even for players with a constricted knowledge of characters and motivations, the game references a broad swath of media- alluding to television, film, and politics. Those that are a little savvier should delight in the game’s interactions. Hearing Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine, and Chun Li recognize Frank West for his photojournalism is likely to elicit a smile, while hearing the uneasy banter between a duo of Demitri and Dante is certain to induce laughter. Cleverly, Project X Zone habitually shirks seriousness, finding comedy in Sir Arthur’s inclination to drop down to his strawberry-adorned skivvies, and occasionally having characters break the fourth wall to comment about the absurdity of the storyline. Much of the game’s enjoyment stems from seeing how each persona will play off each other- as characters display everything from admiration, repugnance, to the occasional lascivious thought.
The payoff for each conversation is a trip to the battlefield, where friends and foes take turns shifting across the grid-based arena. Venturing in the proximity of a foe allows the game’s pairs of personalities to square off, with a duo sharing the top screen with an antagonist. Brilliantly, combat works on multiple levels. At its most basic, players use the circle pad and ‘A’ button to select from an arsenal of moves, as they try to juggle a foe with character-specific attacks. For those looking for a more nuanced encounter, a number of options exists. Much like a tag-team fighter, players can call in the assistance of allied units or even adjacently placed teams- which can issue up additional amounts of punishment on adversaries.
A fully charged EX meter allows friendlies to initiate a devastating attack; the twist is that that gauge also regulates defense stances. Smartly, players don’t have to watch enemies whittle away at the health of their party members. Instead, Project X Zone employs a swift and strategically nuanced system where gamers spend EX to either counter, partially defend, wholly defend, or accept the full brunt of the incoming blow. In execution, this design decision keeps skirmishes moving quickly, while the game’s fluctuating battle conditions and optional items prevent things from growing stale.
For menu twiddlers, Project X Zone doesn’t disappoint, allowing players to equip and trade stat-boosting power-ups and organize their partner combinations. Compassionately, the game’s save system bestows fifteen slots to gamers, allowing players to either revisit key points or accommodate multiple family members willing to share the same cart. Visually, the game is unswervingly adept. From a competent conversion of polygonal characters into 2D portraits to the stutter-free battle system where enemies coil riotously and fling off damage quotients, Project X Zone is a visual pleaser. Most amazing are the animations of the game’s characters, who replicate the animation of attacks of their individual games. Seeing Air Arthur toss his blue napalm, axes, and emit his golden-armor lightning or Bruno Delinger smash a grandfather clock over the face of a foe is guaranteed to charm veteran gamers. Musically, themes from source games have been remixed, but still issue up poignant pangs of nostalgia.
Look past Project X Zone’s convoluted metanarrative, and there’s a lot to like. From beguiling dialog between SEGA, Capcom, and Namco Bandai personalities, an engrossing combat mechanic, and the ability to accommodate players of all skill levels, the title is a must-own title for role-playing aficionados. It’s one rare instances of a fan-service title that good enough to enthrall gamers who can’t differentiate between Ken and Ryu, and deserving of a permanent place in your 3DS library.