The Hollywood ensemble piece is a shaky thing. For every Oscar-winning study of racism with Don Cheadle in it, there's a gaudy crime caper sequel with Don Cheadle in it. Project X Zone strides carelessly over that unstable ground and somehow, despite the weight of its 200-odd Namco, Sega and Capcom characters, never falls through. And it doesn't even have Don Cheadle to support it.
The in-game reasoning for assembling this many characters in one place is flimsy at best, but the decision makes much more sense looking from the outside. Seeing characters you recognise meeting, swapping in-jokes and battering fresh hell out of familiar enemies is a base thrill, but thrilling is undoubtedly what it is.
Virtua Fighter characters rub shoulders with Tekken and Street Fighter rivals, Devil May Cry's Dante forms an uneasy partnership with Dracula's nephew and Space Channel 5's Ulala performs dances of laser-speckled death.
The Odder Couple
Peculiarly, this is ostensibly a strategy RPG. Nabbing the genre's character-stuffed toybox grids and populating them with pairs both matched (Ryu and Ken) and mismatched (Dead Rising's Frank West and an 18th-century Chinese zombie), Project X Zone's battles play out in customary style. Speed stats determine how many tiles can be moved over, items and activated skills can be used once per turn and engaging in battle triggers a perspective shift to a 2D, side-on scrap.
During the shift you finally spot the difference. Where SRPGs normally play a canned animation (think Fire Emblem's battle scenes), Project X Zone hands you some agency. Each pair has up to five standard moves, all of which are themselves ostentatious combo strings - it's effectively 'press button to have EVO champion take over'. Status effects and damage totals are affected by how well you chain together each one; learn to juggle an enemy well enough and a completely unremarkable attack could be a 60-hit combo.
Then there are the Support Characters, lonely types who can be appended to any pair like pieces of equipment, offering them an extra attack, not to mention the ability to freeze enemies in place, eliminating any need for timing and allowing for prolonged pummelling.
Add to that the fact that, much like Fire Emblem: Awakening, attacking within a tile's distance of a friendly pair offers you yet another attack, meaning you can have up to five characters onscreen. It results in the following fights being both completely spectacular and utterly incomprehensible.
While you're doing all of this you're building up the aforementioned Cross Points, which can be spent to unleash a devastating special attack, usually around 10 seconds to resolve and guaranteed to finish all but the steeliest battles with a satisfying K.O.
It all looks incredible, too. The sprite art is the most accomplished we've seen in years and the reverence for the characters it depicts is clear throughout. Virtua Fighter's Akira and Pai perform intricate tag-team kung fu routines, Resident Evil's Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine show scant regard for their survival horror heritage by unloading every weapon you ever desperately prayed to find ammo for and Arthur from Ghosts 'N' Goblins always loses his armour. You'll even get interested in the characters you've never heard of, of which there are many.