- Developed by Monolith Soft & Banpresto
- Published by Namco Bandai
To play Project X Zone is to be in a state of constant awe–in awe of its existence, and in awe that it ever saw the light of day outside of Japan. The game pits characters from over two decades of games from three different Japanese developers: Capcom, Namco Bandai (the game’s publisher) and SEGA. It’s a crossover that shouldn’t exist outside of the realm of fan fiction, and the sheer number of Japanese icons included should make it impossible to translate. But it does, and it’s here.
Project X Zone‘s origin story begins with Namco Bandai approaching Capcom about a “dream crossover.” The two had previously collaborated on Namco x Capcom, but the “dream” expansion to include SEGA called for something bigger, thus “Project X Zone”–a place for all of the industry giants’ most iconic characters. Diegetically, this super-mega-crossover is made possible by cross-dimensional time travel, but, as the game frequently reminds us, not even the main characters understand what’s going on. And that’s ok, because it doesn’t matter why the worlds of our heroes collide; what we want to see is how our favorite characters combine their powers.
If it sounds like I’m focusing more on the narrative trappings than the gameplay, it’s because I am. Project X Zone is a competent but shallow tactical RPG with a gentle learning curve–surely not enough to sustain the hours it requires for completion. Players progress through a series of battles by moving around the game board, and defeat enemies by stringing together combos dictated by the d-pad and A button. Landing hits on an enemy in succession builds up the character’s XP bar towards the ability to use bigger, more spectacular attacks–complete with unique, lovingly rendered animations. The kicker, though, is that players earn bonus XP by teaming up different combinations of characters for an “X” bonus. The more hits all of the characters successfully land on the enemy, the more bonus XP the player will earn, thus implicitly encouraging players to try out new, increasingly strange combinations of characters. Of course, it’s easy to progress through Project X Zone by simply mashing buttons without understanding the XP system. For most players, I suspect that seeing what kind of silly victory dialogue ensues is reason enough to try out different characters. Thus, Project X Zone commands player attention not through challenge, but through how it chooses to dress that challenge, pitting new and unexpected combinations of characters against one another–or forcing them to team up. Even when repeatedly raising your XP becomes tedious after many hours of play, it instantly transcends into something endearing when its payoff includes Darkstalkers‘s Hsien-Ko winding up a pitch for Dead Rising‘s Frank West.
The scale of Project X Zone is impressive even if you aren’t familiar with all of the characters–which I am not. Many of the characters hail from internationally successful franchises–like Capcom’s Dead Rising and Namco Bandai’s Tekken–while others were either never localized outside of Japan or twisted beyond recognition.The most jarring of these is SEGA’s Dynamite Deka, which was released as a sequel to a successful original property in Japan but localized outside of its native country under the Die Hard franchise. This results in the surreal image in Project X Zone of Bruce Willis mingling with the likes of Chun-Li. It creates a strange but delightful kind of dissonance between the Western player and the text. It’s both familiar and inherently foreign. Regardless of whether I understand a reference or in-joke, I find that I almost always appreciate the context as a love letter to something uniquely Japanese. It owns its history, and I can appreciate it for that.
Arguably the most interesting aspect of Project X Zone is that it becomes a space in which the iconic characters we know and love (and some that we don’t) are afforded a kind of self-awareness that would border sacrilege in their native franchise. For example, earlier this year, I rolled my eyes at Resident Evil: Revelation‘s attempt at meta-humor, but I found Jill’s exasperated response to yet another “Jill Sandwich” joke genuinely charming. Unfortunately, sometimes this self-awareness takes the form of “ironic sexism;” it mostly stays along the troubling lines drawn by most anime and games in which the only difference between the heroes and villains is that villainess women are aware of their sexuality while the heroic remain blissfully unawares in their loincloths. It becomes a joke when characters from other franchises notice their unpractical, scantily clad state. Sometimes the humor reads as cruel, other times its a little more silly, like when Street Fighter‘s Ken very seriously refers to Kaguya Nanbu as “the sexy princess.” Either way, it’s usually at the female character’s expense, and it feels like a missed opportunity to poke at one of the common thematic threads holding them all together.
Mostly, though, I’m just amazed that I have the opportunity to play it. Not only did Namco Bandai localize this niche-as-niche-can-be title, but it did a fantastic job. I imagine keeping the original Japanese vocal track helped to keep localization costs and deadlines manageable, and it’s very impressive that the English-language written dialogue maintains the playful tone and in-jokes (most of which I admit to not getting) of the original while also giving each character their own voice.. I’m only about a half way through now, but I look forward to seeing what else the game has in store.