Think of it as a Justice League for games. Project X Zone contrives to throw 60+ characters from Namco Bandai, Capcom and Sega games into a strategy-RPG that’s more interested in fan service than tactics. It’s a celebratory showcase of glorious sprite art and animation which works hard to entertain its audience despite labouring to provide any kind of depth. It’s at once accessible yet ultra-niche, a game that welcomes newcomers with the simplest of systems, yet one whose world will prove baffling to all but the initiated. Put it this way: if the names Sanger Zonvolt and Haken Browning prompt anything more than a vague, hazy recollection, you’ll find a lot to like here.
The plot does little to disguise its ludicrousness. To summarise: portals are transporting various characters between game worlds, for reasons too convoluted to explain here. As one heroine puts it, “this is all so needlessly complicated”, just one of many examples of the script having its cake and eating it; it pokes fun at the dubious costume design, yet is happy for its female characters to remain underdressed. More successful are the myriad references to obscure Namco, Sega and Capcom franchises that will cause a swell of nerdish pride in those who get the gags.
Yet the story is merely a flimsy excuse for a whistle-stop tour through locations familiar to fans of the featured games, as well as a handful of real-world Japanese districts. These are the settings for grid-based strategy battles in which your increasing collection of characters – split off into pairs – takes on an increasing number of enemies. Not that their numbers make much difference to strategy – each skirmish sees your current couple launch a series of attacks with simple button presses, calling upon adjacent units for assistance, or an additional Solo character who you can assign to any pair with a squeeze of a shoulder button. With the ability to use several items before each turn, and many characters possessing healing moves (albeit at the cost of their XP meter which can be spent on a spectacular special), the difficulty curve is almost comically shallow. Button-mashing may not be the most efficient way to progress, but you’ll rarely need to think too hard.
It’s style over substance, then, but what style! Resonance of Fate’s leads cartwheel and somersault into action with guns and grenades; Frank West teams up with a giant Servbot; Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins’ Arthur lobs lances and loses his clothes; and all are exceptionally drawn and animated with some of the best sprite work we’ve seen in a long time. It’s the videogame equivalent of a firework show: you’ll marvel at the pyrotechnics, but while your eyes and ears are in for a treat, there’s little here to engage your brain.