Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky
Hands-On Preview
"Though the prospect of returning to each of the dungeons doesn't excite me, it's the combat and design of the game that's keeping me invested."

Exist Archive has had a lot of expectation thrust on it. When it was released in Japan late last year, it was being billed as the spiritual successor to the PS1 darling Valkyrie Profile. And who's to blame when many of the tri-Ace staff who worked on that classic returned, along with veteran composer Motoi Sakuraba to make this game? While I haven't played the spiritual predecessor, I can tell you from the first few hours of Exist Archive that it's shaping up to be an intriguing experience.

Exist Archive follows a group of 12 Japanese youths after they've died. You control Kanata Kujo as he wakes up on a remote planet, with no idea how to return to Earth, merely guided by the mysterious Yamatoga, a being whose true intentions are unknown. As the youths begin to band together, they start to uncover the truth surrounding their untimely end.

At the outset, you're thrust straight into one of the game's many dungeons. These dungeons are simplistic in design, with a strong focus on basic platforming. In fact, they're almost identical in design to Valkyrie Profile's dungeons, even borrowing a bit from the Metroidvania genre. Kanata can run, jump, and attack enemies that appear on the screen to gain an advantage on them. So far, I've found the platforming to be very awkward, with gaps between land precarious and barely reachable. More than once I've had to climb back up to the top of an area only to fall again.

Before you enter a dungeon, you're transported to a menu in which you'll spend a lot of time looking over. This menu details your story and side quests and lets you choose where you want to go. Many of the story quests will find you treading over old ground, so get used to the scenery as you'll be seeing a lot of the same. Most of the sidequests in the early parts of the game involve returning to your most recent dungeon just to follow the exact same path and fight the exact same enemies. It doesn't bode well for the rest of the game, and I can only hope there's some more variation to come.

Fortunately, the game's shining star is its combat. Just like the dungeons, Exist Archive borrows from Valkyrie Profile, but in the best possible way. You control four characters on screen, each of them is assigned a button. During the attack phase, you can press any of these buttons to send a character careening towards the enemy, and rack up combos of deadly magic and powerful attacks to subdue your foes. It's really satisfying to wipe out a large group of enemies with one round of deadly blows.

On the flip-side, there's a defensive mode where the enemy attacks and you have the chance to guard against them. Again, each character is assigned a button, and you press their respective button to stand guard. Sometimes I've found it difficult to judge who's going to be attacked, but the game isn't too punishing and more often than not you're able to kill the opposing group before they can get a scratch on you.

What's just as impressive is the amount of customization available to each character. When one of your party levels up, they get skill points which can be used to learn a range of offensive, defensive and support moves. These can be equipped on each character to give them roles that best suit your playstyle. For example, Kanata can learn to counter enemy attacks when he's guarding, or equip an ability to increase the drop rate of weapons. It leaves a lot of room for experimentation to find out what works best for you.

So far, I'm looking forward to playing through more of Exist Archive. Though the prospect of returning to each of the dungeons doesn't excite me, it's the combat and design of the game that's keeping me invested. I'm looking forward to seeing just how much the battle system evolves as I gain more characters and the difficulty increases. Exist Archive is available now, so be sure to check back soon for my full review.

© 2016 Aksys Games, Spike Chunsoft, tri-Ace. All rights reserved.

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