As many regular readers will know, I have somewhat gained a reputation around here as the guy who reviews the random Japanese games that no-one really knows what to do with. I tackled Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus with what I like to think was grace, I played through Knights of Azure without complaining much, and I enjoyed the hell out of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book right up until I forgot to finish it. So, it may come as a surprise to you guys to learn that playing this game made my feelings sway the other way.
The story of Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky is both utterly unique (unique in big comedy air quotes) and the same as many other stories that Japanese popular culture has tackled before. You play as a group of either teenagers or young adults (honestly, it’s impossible to tell) who find themselves in a mysterious world of floating islands (original) after they’re in some sort of gruesome accident. They assume they are dead but don’t let it get them down as they try to figure out what is going on. Along the way the group meet up with other people, and one of their hands starts talking to them, then they meet a witch who tells them they’re on an alien planet.
If it seems like I’m being a little vague about the story, I apologise, but to be honest it was very difficult to get into. The problem is that although many JRPGs have stories that start out insane and only get more mental from there, this game doesn’t have any of the charm that made the other games more endearing, so it’s difficult to care about the magic war that has apparently happened at some point, or the fact that the man who inhabits your hand might be evil.
The gameplay of Exist Archive is the biggest failure of the game, coming in just above the insane story line. There are two major types of gameplay in the game, the first are 2D platformer-esque exploration sections where you make your way around a dungeon in a manner similar to Pandemonium! on PSOne. The second are the battles where you take it in turns pressing a button for each character and either attacking or defending depending on what phase of attack you’re in.
The first sections where you explore the dungeons work very well for their purpose, you get to jump around and explore a variety of locations either avoiding or attacking glowing orbs that represent random battles. As I said before they play a little like Pandemonium! in that although you’re constrained to a single 2D plane, you can walk towards or away from the screen to enter different areas.
The combat leaves a lot to be desired, at least as far as I’m concerned anyway. Each of the four characters that you can control at any one given time are assigned to one of the face buttons. During the attack phase of combat, you have a bar at the bottom of your screen which tells you how many attacks you’re allowed, then you press the face buttons of the people you want to attack with. Then during the defend phase, you press the face buttons of each character to defend against enemy attacks, the only issue with this being that as far as I can tell there’s no real reason not to just press all of the face buttons during the defence phase.
The issue with the combat is that it all feels like you’re not really in control much, almost like the entire system has been completely simplified to make it easier to get into. Unfortunately, this shallowness makes the combat very, very hard to get into, as you really only have one thing that you can do during combat which is press the face buttons for the characters you want to use. As far as I had gotten in the game, there were no special abilities to be used, and you couldn’t even use items during combat.
The only combat variety comes from the ability to assign certain attacks and support skills to each character in the status menu. These can change which attacks you use during each combo of your attack or add certain effects to your attacks, but this still doesn’t feel like it makes much mechanical difference to the combat.
I am more than willing to concede that you might unlock more things to do in combat as you get further into the game, or maybe the game becomes more engaging, or hell, maybe the story stops being completely bonkers, but I am not willing to find out. At the end of the day, the gameplay and story is so unengaging that I barely made it to the point where I actually understood the basics of what was going on.
Graphically, the game is yet another mixed bag of mainly bad things with some great things. The cutscenes are very, very high quality and look amazing. I was honestly surprised that a game with what seems like a really low budget managed to have cutscenes that literally look like they were taken from an upmarket anime series. The issue is that the actual characters are done in a more ‘chibi’ style, meaning that they’re more cartoon-like and have bigger heads on thin stick-like bodies. This difference between the character portrayals in the cutscenes and their character models in the game really ruins the visual design, the entire game would have been so much better if the characters looked like they do in the cutscenes instead of like some sort of merchandise for a completely different game.
The other major issue with the character models is that they somewhat ruin the tone. It’s difficult to be invested in the super serious events going on of people being murdered then brought back to life when the people in question look like they were made by a 3-year-old out of play-dough.
The sound design and music are the only sections where I have no major complaints. Once again the music is an exercise in ‘just being there’ but does a decent job of accompanying the scenes correctly, and the voice acting is of a decently high enough standard that you really don’t notice it too much.
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platforms: PS4, PSVita
Release Date: 18th October 2016