Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky

"It felt like it was going to be a winning formula early on. 40 hours later, and I'd lost a lot of that optimism."

I concluded my preview of Exist Archive in a hopeful manner. While I was worried that the game's formula of re-entering dungeons and fighting hordes of enemies would get boring, I was nonetheless excited to see where the game would take me after the initial five hours. tri-Ace's game had a lot of promise to live up to, borrowing ideas from its spiritual predecessor Valkyrie Profile, and presenting players with Metroidvania-style dungeons. It felt like it was going to be a winning formula early on. 40 hours later, and I'd lost a lot of that optimism.

The story of Exist Archive is set in a kind of afterlife. 12 Japanese youths arrive on the mysterious Protolexa after getting caught up in a series of accidents in Tokyo. Kanata Kujo awakens to find he has an ally in Yamatoga, a spirit whose soul has been shattered into 12 pieces, and placed inside each of the 12 kids. Together, Kanata and the others must find a way to resurrect Yamatoga and return to Earth.

While interesting in concept, Exist Archive suffers from heavy-handed storytelling. The game switches between Kanata's narration and interactions between the characters, but a lot of the time events and terms aren't explained, and there are many blanks left to be filled. Also, with 12 playable characters, it's inevitable that some of them are going to get shafted, but the majority of the cast are largely forgotten, save for some small flashes of humour. Most of their personalities are ripped straight from a textbook JRPG, which feels like a huge shame as the character designs in this game are fantastic. Part of the reason I leapt at the chance to play this game was because of how much I liked the character design, from the neon-striping on their clothes to their intricate and varied outfits.

In fact, much of the game looks great on paper. The concept and visual designs for Exist Archive are beautiful and intriguing, presenting this afterlife as myriads of forests and caves, all surrounding a mysterious tower that's the centre of Protolexa. The backdrops are colourful and vibrant in comparison to the few dull shots you get of Tokyo, while I found the character models a little jarring. Their slightly chibified appearance rubbed me the wrong way, and again I felt this spoiled the great character designs. Sakuraba's soundtrack is an adequate accompaniment for your journey, but if you're a veteran tri-Ace or Tales of fan, it's nothing you're not used to.

Exploring Protolexa gets very boring very quickly. Once you begin to delve deeper into the game's onslaught of dungeons, you'll realise these environments share a small selection of designs. There are forests, desert ruins, lava caves and deserted towers, and aside from a different colour palette and a change in map layout, these all feel extremely similar and repetitive. There's also very little cohesiveness between them. Rather than adventuring through them as you would in a Castlevania title, you select each one from a map. This is perhaps down to the mission-based gameplay, where you select your next task from the world map, but it makes the whole game feel disjointed.

What definitely shines throughout the entire game is the battle system. Exist Archive pits four of your characters against a group of enemies, and each character is assigned to one button. If you press their respective buttons, they will attack. While you start off with a limited amount of moves, as you progress through the game the ability to stack sky-high combos increases and each victory is more satisfying and rewarding. You also gain Demon's Greed, which gives the party an array of super moves that look fantastic and allow you to mow down your opposition. There's a good range of options that allow you to experiment with different party members and get a feel for the combat.

My only gripe with fighting enemies is that there are so many of them in each dungeon. While you don't have to battle everything you come across, there are times you have to spend grinding because the game jumps in difficulty from time to time. Battles can take anywhere from around 2 minutes to 10 minutes, and this can be really frustrating in the early parts of the game since you don't get access to a shop until midway through, and you'll be burning through your items really quickly. My biggest bugbear with the grinding came when I hit level 60 — I felt as though Exist Archive was reaching a natural conclusion as I'd almost gathered all the pieces of Yamatoga together, but in actual fact I was barely halfway through. By this point, I was already burnt out, and the prospect of wading through another 20 hours didn't bring me any joy.

Exist Archive can be challenging at times, but the difficulty never scales too much. You'll find that some enemies are immune to physical attacks, some that counter, and some that damage close-ranged fighters if they go near them, so you need a varied team with a wide skill set to progress through the game. These skills are hugely important for progressing. Each character is assigned a role in the group, such as lancer, gunner, wind mage, etcetera, and they learn specific abilities, such as extra magic bullets for the mages, or counter attacks for the physical attackers. Later on in the game, your party begins to share these abilities out — including their specific jobs — meaning you can customise your party however you want.

It's getting to the customisation that can be frustrating. The game's menus load extremely slowly, and there was a delay in the game recognising my input and actually executing it. Customising characters is locked behind the "setup" menu, where you equip your armour, change outfits, and arrange skill sets. I feel like this process could've been streamlined, as it feels like there's too much going on at once. You have to level your characters skills up on a separate screen, only to move to a different menu in order to equip them — surely this should've been put together, rather than force the player to sift their way through a few more screens. Add in the load times and it's easy to see why I was getting impatient at times.

I feel I've been a little harsh on Exist Archive. tri-Ace and Spike Chunsoft haven't made a bad game here, but a lot of the time it feels like they've cobbled together a few good ideas but not matched the quality of what's come before. I can easily see people getting engrossed in the battle system, training their characters beyond level 100, exploring the game's three endings, and taking on the challenging postgame, but by the time I'd taken down the final boss, I was worn out. It's much better than tri-Ace's previous efforts this year, but it still feels like the company are way off their best. Still, if you're a fan of Valkyrie Profile's combat and dungeon crawling, give this one a try. If not, or if you're new to either of these aspects, this isn't the best place to start.

This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.

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