The X Factor

Okay so Project X Zone (the ‘x’ is read ‘cross,’ as is common in Japanese pop culture loanword-ing) is coming out soon. In fact you can download a demo of it for the 3DS off the Nintendo e-Shop (handy link to a page with a QR code to jump right to it).

Now, I am really excited for the game, but that’s because I’ve (as of now) played everything in its development “pedigree” that Monolith Soft (also the people behind the Xenosaga games and Xenoblade Chronicles) has made. And as I have said before in other venues (such as the latest episode of Gayme Bar) I have a very high tolerance for JRPG nonsense. So there’s that. But I feel like PXZ is actually the end result of Monolith refining their system and approach over 4 very similar games, and having played them, I wanted to talk a little bit about it. At least one person said they’d like to read that, so here it is.

Right. So this series of four games ends with PXZ but it consists of these other three, in chronological order —

Now, of these three games, only the second — Endless Frontier — made it to the US (in that case, brought over by Atlus in an extremely limited printing, so far as I know). All four games are crossovers, and story-wise they are all linked, though there is a stronger link between NxC and PXZ than there is between those two and the two Endless Frontier games. The EF games, property-wise, are basically gaiden/sidestory games to Banpresto’s Super Robot Wars series, specifically the “Original Generation” games that, rather than being licensed anime robot properties, are all Banpresto originals. If you’re an SRW fan and are curious, yes, Endless Frontier and EF Exceed are canonically linked to mainline SRW:OG.

The entire series has a few things in common:

  • They’re “action RPGs,” at least in the sense that their combat is not menu-driven, but decided by realtime actions of the player. Generally speaking, in each game an individual unit (which may be more than one character) has a set list of attacks mapped to a single button, along with the crosspad or analog stick + that button for five total combinations (NxC and PXZ) or a pre-set “order” of five attacks played out by using one button (EF and Exceed).
  • The plots invariably use some sort of dimension hopping or time travel (or both) to bring their casts together and, in fact, returning people to their “rightful” world is an overarching story goal. Typical crossover stuff.
  • Other RPG tropes are part of the package. The games include the typical stuff you’d find: consumables, magic spells or abilities, equippable items, etc. NxC and PXZ play out like strategy RPGs; EF and EF Exceed are map-wandering, random-encounter-y RPGs.

However, there’s also a clear path as games evolve in this series over time. So let’s take a look.

Namco x Capcom

So, to start with, this game is Japan-only. I’m playing it currently, but I’m not done with it. Why? Because it’s a slog. As a strategy RPG each map takes a long time to finish due to sheer density of units (usually your 10-12 vs. their 20+). And boy, is combat slow paced. Let me show you an example —

(start at 6:30 if the video doesn’t do it automatically) You select a unit. You move. You select a victim to attack. You confirm the pre-battle data. You actually fight — the cool part where you control things and see the attacks play out all nifty — and then you select “wait” to end your turn (or use a spell or item first or whatever). Fine. The game slowly churns on to the next unit. If it’s an enemy and they’re near you, they’ll attack. You can just sit there and take it, you can defend yourself (the smart option), or you can “evade” where you automatically take less damage but can skip the defense “mini-game.”

And if you defend… aigh. Then the enemy attacks you with their one attack, repeatedly, while your crosspad turns into DDR for your thumbs. If you hit each “defense” right you don’t take less damage, but you do gain AP (action points, the game’s actions-taken currency), so that your next turn might come around faster.

That’s just the basics. Never mind that both enemies and your units have resource-costing evasions and counters and Multiple Attacks which can hit multiple enemies at once if you set them up properly and yadda yadda… yeah. Combat moved exceptionally slowly.

Reiji and Xiaomu (NxC)
Reiji and Xiaomu (NxC)

In terms of story, the English patch for NxC I’m playing is… imperfect, and I haven’t played the game all the way through, but generally speaking, the plot focuses around two characters, Reiji Arisu and his partner Xiaomu. They work for an organization called “Shinra” that deals with supernatural threats to society. They’re opposed by an organization called “Ouma,” embodied in the game’s villain, Saya. In an attempt to free a demon that was sealed in the Abyss of Time (or something), Saya has basically let free villains from all sorts of worlds. NxC‘s cosmology is basically a set of parallel dimensions: the “Material World” (our world), the “Divine” and “Demon” worlds, and the “Spirit World.” The many Namco and Capcom characters all come from various dimensions, and are already crossed over WITHIN dimensions (so Chun-li’s investigation of Shadaloo from Street Fighter involves her knowing about the Mishima Zaibatsu from Tekken). Early in the game Reiji and Xiaomu, along with a bunch of Material World-ers, are tossed into a Flux (a rip in space-time) and end up in the Divine World. The game is about Reiji slowly acquiring allies (in the form of crossover characters) and working his way home/stopping Saya. Simple enough (ha ha). Of course, each world’s maps and locations are ripped straight from the games, everything from the bridge of Xenosaga‘s Woglinde spaceship to the Infernal Village/Makaimura of Ghouls and Ghosts.

I say again, NxC isn’t exactly bad… just glacially paced. If everything moved more swiftly, the game would be a hell of a lot better. And seeing your favorite characters interact can be fun. One of my favorite characters, Morrigan Aensland, has a lot of great lines teasing the various pure virginal anime girls from other series about their sexuality, for example, and watching Ryu punch out the cutesy bad guys from Klonoa is pretty great.

But the important thing is that NxC was the first, and it’s where a lot of the form took shape. Now, let’s move on to…

SRW OG Saga: Endless Frontier

Okay. So EF is not a broad, sweeping crossover like NxC. In fact, almost all of its major characters and locations are Banpresto original characters, though they are in many ways riffs on existing SRW characters. The main characters, Haken Browning and Kaguya Nanbu, are directly referencing Kyosuke Nanbu and Excellen Browning of the SRW series (as are Reiji and Xiaomu of NxC, more indirectly), while Aschen Broedel turns out to not only reference SRW’s Lamia Loveless (and to share her voice actor) but in Exceed she turns out to be the prototype Lamia is based on (both are cyborgs/biomechanical androids of a sort). However, Reiji and Xiaomu from NxC are playable, as is KOS-MOS from the Xenosaga series.

EF1's cast minus Reiji and Xiaomu. From L to R: Haken Browning, Kaguya Nanbu, KOS-MOS, Aschen Broedel, and Suzuka-hime
EF1’s cast minus Reiji and Xiaomu. From L to R: Haken Browning, Kaguya Nanbu, KOS-MOS, Aschen Broedel, and Suzuka-hime

Rather than a strategy game, Endless Frontier is a map-travelling, random encounter-style RPG that takes place in the titular Endless Frontier, a collection of small, connected, themed worlds (like the uber-Japanese Kagura Amahara, or the sci-fi/western fusion Lost Herencia). Without spoiling too much of the plot, since you can actually PLAY this game in the US, Haken and company get mixed up with troubles occuring across the scattered Endless Frontier, to which malfunctioning dimensional technology has thrown KOS-MOS, Reiji, and Xiaomu. Story-wise, the game takes place after NxC (when KOS-MOS, the last to be recruited, shows up, Reiji and Xiaomu recognize her from before). In the process various SRW storylines intersect, meaning you’ll get the most out of this game if you’ve played some of the US SRW titles (like the two GBA Original Generation ports).

As for the combat system, this character trailer for Haken shows it off pretty well. Rather than NxC‘s dial-a-combo where you used the d-pad and the attack button to freely choose from your 5 attacks (which were set), in Endless Frontier there is only one attack button. You choose 5 attacks (from a total by endgame of 7-8) and slot them into a pre-set order. When your turn comes up, hitting the attack button starts the chain, and tapping it again moves to the next attack in the chain for a total of up to 5 attacks (each attack costs “COM”, which refills a bit each turn). As you can see in the video, the ideal is that you attack once and then keep the chain going, juggling the enemy.

What you don’t see in the video are the Support and Chain skills. Because your party has 7 members but you can only have 4 in the party, the remaining three go into “Support Reserve.” On a given character’s turn they can call in the current support character once, who does a signature attack to add additional hits and damage. That character then rotates to the end of the reserve, so that the next time someone calls in a support, you’re continuously cycling through your reserve. Because you want to squeeze as much damage into your turn as you can, support attacks are used almost constantly (and they are generally speaking without cost to use, so why not?).

Also, depending on the turn order, if another party member is next in line to act, you can chain your turns together by calling in your ally much like you would a support unit. In that case the first character’s turn ends, and the second character immediately leaps in with the first attack in their set list. Ideally, you can use this to continue juggling your enemy and stretch a combo out — the longer you keep an enemy in the air, the greater their cumulative damage taken becomes. However, if you let them drop to the ground, many enemies will “Forced Evade” and pre-emptively end your turn before you can attack them again. Also some enemies start with a “Block” shield; you must do [x] amount of successive hits to them before the shield shatters and they begin taking damage.

On the defensive side, gone is the defense “minigame” from NxC. Instead you simply take damage when attacked. However, offensive and defensive “spells” (for SRW fans, these are “seishins” or “spirit commands”) that heal, grant you extra defense, and have other buff effects can also be used.

What Endless Frontier‘s combat system lacked in sophistication, it gained in swiftness and kinesis. Combat moved swiftly and, if you were the type who enjoyed watching your characters do cool martial arts stuff, seeing your characters do things like Kaguya’s “fill the screen with crescent-shaped boomerangs” or Aschen’s battery of rocket-powered punches and kicks was great fun. Which brings us to…

SRW OG Saga: Endless Frontier Exceed

So I’m not going to explore Exceed‘s plot in detail, because I played it in Japanese and thus don’t understand 90% of it. However, it adds more callbacks to the SRW series in characters and locations, including a new pair of main characters, Aldy Nash and Neige Hausen. What I want to talk about instead is the combat system.

Exceed took Endless Frontier‘s system and improved and streamlined it considerably. For starters, many characters from EF who had awful support attacks (such as Suzuka-hime) had theirs redesigned to hit more accurately and be less difficult to work into combos. Secondly, and most importantly, they added the idea of the “Support Unit.”

This video is an exhibition of the various Support attacks, either from party members (before the 1:04 mark) and from Support Units (1:04 and up). A Support Unit was a full character — usually an existing storyline character from EF, or a new crossover character such as NxC‘s Saya or Xenosaga‘s T-Elos and MOMO — who effectively became equipment. Each “main” character could “equip” one Support Character, who gave three benefits:

  • A Support Attack that could be used on that character’s turn, just like the rotating Support Reserve (which came back from EF)
  • A passive stat boost of some kind.
  • A % chance to activate a buff of some kind on the character’s turn, such as extra evasion, or increased crit chance, etc.

Thus there was more customization involved for each individual unit, since Support Units could cover stat deficiencies (a speed buff for the powerful but slow KOS-MOS, for example) or enhance strengths, and since the main thrust of combat continued to be juggling the enemy, specific combinations of a Main Unit’s attacks and a Support Unit’s support attack could yield major results. An example is T-Elos’ “U-Teneritas” attack, which keeps the enemy locked in place; combined with an attack of Suzuka’s which normally throws the enemy around (reducing hit count), you can instead maximize the damage of that attack. For more story-oriented players, mixing “appropriate” support and main units — linking Saya to Reiji or Xiaomu, for example — were also possible.

Beyond support units, Exceed also gave players more use of the “special” gauge that in EF1 was mostly used to deliver a powerful special attack that used up the gauge entirely. In Exceed the gauge can power certain abilities and spells that affect the field, give buffs, or attack; it can also be spent in lump chunks to “Forced Evade,” just as enemies did in EF. Finally, in addition to being able to call in the next attacker for a chain attack, you can also call in the next person in the reserve to defend for you before an attack hits, so that carefully cycling your roster in and out can help you survive long fights better.

In short, Exceed didn’t substantially change the base from Endless Frontier, but it did develop it and streamline, creating a much smoother combat experience.

Project X Zone

So now we make it to PXZ. Having only played the demo, I nevertheless have a pretty good feel for how Monolith applied the lessons of the past three games. The game is clearly a spiritual, if not direct, successor to Namco x Capcom, as evinced by the return of Reiji and Xiaomu, some familiar settings (in one promo vid, Ryu makes a comment about “that event” in Roppongi, referring to NxC), and the fact that rather than the OG Saga series’ map exploration, PXZ is a strategic RPG played out on a grid map.

However, gone is NxC‘s clunky combat system. For the most part (going by the demo), PXZ plays like the OG Saga games once combat starts… mostly. The “choose your order of attacks” style of NxC returns, but there’s incentive not to spam one attack over and over; if you use each of your individual attacks once, you get a bonus attack you can spend on whatever attack in your list you like. Since each unit can only make [x] attacks on its turn, adhering to this bonus condition means more damage for you.

It’s also worth noting that NxC involved some units that were two people (e.g. Reiji and Xiaomu; Shion and MOMO; Stahn and Rutee) and some that were one person (Dmitri, Ryu, Jin Kazama) and even some that start single and become dual (Chun-li becomes Chun & Cammy; Morrigan becomes Morrigan & Lilith). Even the EF games had one duo unit (Exceed‘s Axel Almer & Alfimi). In PXZ, all “main” units are duo units consisting of two characters fighting together. However, the “support unit” introduced in Exceed makes a return in the form of the “Solo Unit,” which acts almost entirely the same way: an “equippable” third unit that offers a passive stat boost, a support call-in attack, and a conditionally-activated buff.

This video shows all of X and Zero’s (from Megaman X) attacks, including the support attack from their solo unit, Tron Bonne (from the Megaman Legends series). As you can see, the “Block” shield from Endless Frontier is in effect here, but there’s at least a visible gauge to tell you when the block will break.

Unlike Namco x Capcom, in Project X Zone the strategy map interface is considerably smoother. Instead of selecting every option from a menu, characters can be moved freely on the map within their movement range, with their attack range overlaid as orange highlights on the movement range. Choosing where to move and what to attack is thus considerably easier/faster than it was in NxC. It’s also worth noting that instead of Endless Frontier‘s support reserve, nearby units can be pulled in for a “support attack” (much like the solo units) to add extra hits.

The defense mini-game is gone; however, you can choose to defend yourself by spending resources (specifically the “Cross Gauge,” which also fuels special skills and powerful attacks) in three ways: “Counter,” which gives you a free hit on the enemy after you take damage, “Defend,” which reduces damage, and “Full Defend,” which effectively no-sells the enemy attack (but is expensive). When enemies attack, only the big flashy attacks of boss-type monsters get full animations. Otherwise, the damage reporting happens on the map with no need for a lengthy cut scene (another streamlining effort from NxC).

In short, PXZ is a pretty clear case of Monolith having toyed with and perfected these systems over time, and I actually think the result is going to be a pretty fun game provided the premise of an action-strategy RPG crossover game of familiar (and some not so familiar) characters is one you’re interested in at all. Hopefully this will help you understand some of the design decisions in PXZ if you buy it and then go, “Why the HELL did they do this?”

PS: When Atlus brought over Endless Frontier they wisely left in the Japanese voice acting. Combat dialogue and win quotes — of which there were many — went sadly misunderstood unless you spoke Japanese. Namco, however, not only did the same thing (I imagine voice re-recording wouldn’t have been cost effective given the amount of spoken dialogue) but they added text boxes for win quotes and other major in-combat utterances. So, you’ll at least understand what they’re saying!

 

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