Some games are just too damn short. The original Portal, for instance, was a genre-redefining experience that was about half as long as it should have been; its sequel Portal 2 benefited greatly from having a little more meat on its bones. Others, though, are a bit too long; Final Fantasy XIII has a good game deep inside of it, but that’s hidden underneath a tutorial segment that lasts for over ten hours, and even a fantastic game like Dragon Quest VII starts to drag a bit over the course of 80 hours.
Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky, a new JRPG from Spike Chunsoft and tri-Ace, definitely falls into the latter category, but despite these associations still manages to be worth a look. Let’s do that now!
Kanata Kujo is having a bad day. He started it off by dying. If that’s not enough, Kujo and his friends have found themselves stranded…not in the afterlife, but on the mysterious planet of Protolexa. It’s a long way from home, as the game is quick to point out with sweeping pans over gorgeous views, and what’s more, getting back’s not going to be easy. Kujo and his friends aren’t alone on Protolexa; they’re stuck in the middle of a war between the dark god Yamatoga and Protolexa’s caretaker Amatsume, with the monstrous Chasseur hunting them down besides.
Survival’s not easy on Protolexa, but Kujo and pals have a trick up their sleeve; each of the humans carries a part of Yamatoga inside of them. This gives them access to the Xeno-Factor, a sort of super mode that can even the odds, and renders them immortal besides. There’s lots of other capitalized proper nouns and so on, but trust me when I say that Exist Archive does a decent job of making a potentially confusing plot work. I found the game’s story fascinating and often kept playing just to see what would happen next; there’s also a lot to be said for the voice acting, particularly when it comes to Yamatoga himself, who’s probably the chattiest and most memorable character.
As for how it plays, Exist Archive owes a lot to the classic RPG series Valkyrie Profile. Between battles, you’ll control Kanata or another party member of your liking as you run around in 2D platforming areas. Typically your goal will be to find and defeat a boss while exploring as much of the area as possible and gathering loot. Later on you’ll gain additional skills like a double jump that further open up the areas you explore. Enemies roam the areas and touching or striking them will start a fight.
Exist Archive’s strongest tie to Valyrie Profile is the game’s combat system. Battles typically consist of four of your characters against a group of foes; Exist Archive is very fond of large-scale combat, so fights against five or six enemies aren’t unusual. Each of your four characters is mapped to one of the face buttons on the PS4 controller, and by pressing that button you’ll cause that character to launch an attack, costing you some points from a party-wide action point stash. The moves that characters perform are predictable once you’ve used them for a bit, so the idea is to carefully time your party’s attacks so they smash your target at the right moment; a typical combo involves launching an enemy into the air and following them up with plenty of juggling attacks.
There’s a few changes to the formula, of course. Valkyrie Profile’s iconic Soul Crush attacks are represented here as Demon’s Greed attacks, which draw from a similar charging power meter but can be used at will instead of automatically at the end of a combo string. You also need to pay attention to your defense; the same action points that power your characters’ attacks can also be used to order characters to defend against enemy assaults when it’s not your turn. Balancing your point allotment between attack and defense is key to victory; Exist Archive’s enemies become brutally powerful early on and your characters are going to eat dirt if you don’t defend. Later, the system expands further as your characters learn new abilities from each other, gaining access to other classes and their associated movesets and skills.
Combat’s a lot of fun, but something must be said for how long fights can take early in the game. Your opponents are numerous and have plenty of health that you’ll have to gradually chew through. Skilled play can only help so much. Later on you’ll recruit characters with weapons and magic that can hit wide areas, not to mentioned the aforementioned Demon’s Greed powers; these abate the issue a little bit, but it still took a while before I wasn’t dreading each upcoming battle.
The platforming areas also suffer a bit from tedium. While Exist Archive’s environments are absolutely gorgeous, it’s only a thrill to wander through them once or twice; you can fully expect to see each many, many times as you complete missions and grind up levels. There’s a lot of padding in this game, and while I’ll be the first to criticize $60 games that only offer a few hours of gameplay, Exist Archive’s lengthy run time works against it. The plot segments are great, but they’re couched between segments of filler missions and grinding.
The game’s presentation has its ups and downs as well. The environment design in Exist Archive is some of the best in any current-generation game; most of the game is colorful and fascinating, so it hurts a bit that you’ll be going through each stage repeatedly, even to the point of tedium at times. Likewise, while the game’s monsters are great to look at – particularly the boss Chassuer – you’ll be fighting them so often that they can’t help but become a bit dry. If I had only one real criticism beyond this, though, it would be the choice of an SD style for the ingame character models. Exist Archive takes itself seriously most of the time, but it’s difficult to do the same when your characters look like bobbleheads. A more traditional style like what we saw in Valkyrie Profile 2 might have served the game better.
Despite the annoyances, I’d still say Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky is worth a look. Valkyrie Profile had its share of pains as well, but that remains a classic game that any fans of Japanese-style RPGs would do well to check out. The same applies here; Exist Archive is a little too much filler and not enough killer, but the game’s best parts are fantastic and you’d do well to check them out. At the very least, this helps redeem tri-Ace a bit after their last outing, the abysmal Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness.