About ten hours into Project X Zone, a turn based strategy game for the 3DS, I witness an awkward exchange between Valkyrie, a character from Namco Bandai’s late ’80s arcade game Adventure of Valkyrie, and a pair of soldiers from Valkyria Chronicles 3, a strategy game released by SEGA in 2011. Valkyrie asks the soldiers their names, and one of them replies “I’m 07, she’s 13.” Excited, Valkyrie responds: “I’ll be a number, too! I’ll be 17!” The female soldier scoffs. “I think we already have a Number 17, though.”
This exchange is a perfect example of Project X Zone’s approach to mashing up the characters and stories of countless Namco Bandai, SEGA, and Capcom properties into the ultimate crossover fanfic, which is to say, it’s a bunch of charming nonsense. Shortly after the exchange, Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter and Ichiro Ogami from Sakura Wars show up and argue about parallel timelines, while Morrigan Aensland from Darkstalkers sticks her butt out and giggles and Kaguya Nanbu from Endless Frontier bends over, dangling her impossible-to-ignore breasts at the screen, just so we don’t forget this game has been rated T for very serious teenagers.
Every time I had to sit through one of these incorrigible, pandering story segments (which are pretty much indistinguishable from one another across more than 40 missions), I’d question why I was putting myself through this. I’m not incredibly knowledgeable on Namco Bandai’s back catalog, so many of the in-jokes were lost on me; and as an adult brought up to respect women, I’m pretty grossed out by the juvenile fetishism of the female body that makes up so much of the game’s “narrative.”
And yet, I kept coming back…though certainly not for Project X Zone’s deep, strategic gameplay, which mostly amounts to moving around on an isometric map until characters are close to an enemy, then pressing a button at the right time to deal optimal damage. No, what kept me playing Project X Zone long after I became numb to its shallow gameplay and juvenile sex stuff were its utterly breathtaking battle animations, which showcase some of the most technically complex, brilliantly chaotic, and just downright gorgeous sprite work I’ve ever seen.
Project X Zone’s battle animations, which draw comparisons to the Marvel vs. Capcom fighting games, make the action in those games look tame by comparison, and beg the question: with such an obvious focus on these animations, why wasn’t this a fighting game to begin with? The answer, perhaps, is that the on-screen action is just a little bit too chaotic. Whereas Project X Zone’s single-button battle actions make it a snap to throw up to five characters at a time into the paths of hapless enemies, building up Cross Points and unleashing devastating Ultimate Combo style moves, it just wouldn’t be feasible in a fighting game. Players only have so many hands.
And that’s really all there is to it. Over more than 40 hours of gameplay, you’ll watch more than 60 popular characters from Namco Bandai, SEGA and Capcom’s most beloved franchises rough up bad guys like there’s no tomorrow, drawn in some of the most beautiful sprite work you will ever see. Maybe you’ll be annoyed by the 25 hours it takes to unlock your favorite playable characters (I’m looking at you, X); maybe the repetition, shallow gameplay, and juvenile obsession with boobs will keep you from appreciating what Project X Zone has to offer. Or maybe you’re just looking for some mindless fun, in which case, there’s enough here to keep you busy for weeks. Just remember that, like all mashups, Project X Zone thrives on fan service. If you’re not already obsessed with Street Fighter, .hack, Mega Man, Shining Force or Tales of Vesperia, there’s nothing here that’s going to convert you.