Developer: Spike Chunsoft/Tri-Ace
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PS Vita and PS4
Release Date: October 18, 2016
ESRB: T for Teen
Tri-Ace has quickly gone from one of my favorite video game developers ever to one I could not be more divided on within a span of a few years. For nearly an entire decade I thought they could no wrong because they struck a good balance between feeling very progressive with their Japanese role-playing games such as the complex Norse-themed classic Valkyrie Profile, to developing more traditional, yet fun, titles like Star Ocean: The Second Story on PS1 -- and this continued with their PS2 output as well.
However, when they transitioned to high-definition consoles by making a couple of mediocre-at-best Star Ocean sequels, as well as lending a helping hand to two generally unwanted Final Fantasy XIII sequels, they have fallen much more out of favor with many individuals -- including myself (with the exception of perhaps the enigmatic gun-toting RPG Resonance of Fate). Still, after a new partnership with Spike Chunsoft, and the proclamation of making a modern spiritual successor to Valkyrie Profile, I could not abandon my naive hope to love Tri-Ace once more with the announcement of PS4/Vita RPG Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky.
Much like I Am Setsuna was to Chrono Trigger earlier this year, Exist Archive has no shame in hearkening back to its key influence of Valkyrie Profile. It reprises a similar semi-active and combo-focused battle system, platforming gameplay elements, and even shares exact same music composer Motoi Sakuraba. But, rather than feeling like appreciated fanfare, Exist Archive frankly comes off as a pale imitation of an ultimately better series.
Probably the most distinct difference that Exist Archive has from its spiritual predecessor is the setting. Valkyrie Profile, the original in particular, is an incredibly somber title in regards to storytelling as it frequently dealt with tragic deaths and the impending end of the world via Ragnarok. While Exist Archive does approach the topic of death like Valkyrie Profile, there is noticeably more levity with how it is handled as the main cast are essentially whisked from modern day earth and are granted immortality on an entirely different planet by a being named Yamatoga.
Granted, immortality is hardly a blessing as Yamatoga is most certainly one who does not have good intentions, and the main characters yearn to return to their home on earth. Regardless of the setup, however, it is hard to care all that much since the cast of characters and narrative itself are rather dull throughout and you spend so much more time grinding in repeated dungeons than seeing any meaningful story development.
I would describe playing Exist Archive as asking for someone to scratch a specific (Valkyrie Profile) itch, only for them to tickle that spot instead; leaving one unsatisfied for many reasons. For example, Exist Archive is not a varied title at all. There is no real world map with towns to visit or any sense of agency when exploring, like the game it apparently wishes to be. You basically just pick a dungeon to go into, and it may have minor exposition, or it may not. Problem is, there aren't actually that many different dungeons, let alone enemy variety, making it feel basically the same from start of finish as you move from one level to another. It also does not help that certain skills you would have right at the start of a Valkyrie Profile title, like the ability to slide or freeze enemies with a projectile skill, you basically don't get for more than ten hours.
The most mixed aspect about Exist Archive is likely its combat system, however. There is a great deal of party customization, from attacks to slot in for each character, and a real emphasis on party synergy as you string together lengthy combos with flashy finishing attacks (or Demon's Greed), which is neat. Except, there is one thing that is likely to drive players up the wall with it, which is the strange and lengthy sort of input lag for like every attack. Not only does it really make timing combos with allies in semi-active turn-based combat system awkward, it just does not feel good in general. This certainly does not bode well for a release that really does not have any aspect to fall back on except its gameplay.
There are parts to Exist Archive that I like, amidst the myriads of disappointment with its game design -- namely the customization. It does take a while to show its true colors, but the game absolutely feeds on its robust party customization. Aside from mix and matching character skills to your preference, characters can gain access to new jobs, passive abilities, or mid-combat skills.
Even cooler than this is a mechanic where, based on the affinity between characters (gained through many battles with the same party members), the party gets access to a thing called "learning" in which they will randomly get another passive abilities from another party member. Meaning, if you are willing have members stick together, you can save a significant amount of level grinding as well have party members play totally different from their initial character class, which is rather cool.
At the end of the day, all Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky really does is remind me of games I would rather play (or sequels I'll never get). It is not nearly as compelling in regards to storytelling as Valkyrie Profile, and its glaring flaws with repetition and the disjointed combat/exploration make it that much harder to stick with it. Sure, the party customization is rather neat, and the "learning" mechanic I would like to see in other games, but for most people I would simply say check out its key gaming influence instead if they have not already.
+ Deep combat system with very robust party customization
+ "Learning" mechanic is a creative way to circumvent the standard level grind
+ Pleasant looking environmental backdrops
+ Reminds me how much I like Valkyrie Profile
- Extremely sparse in variety for dungeon layouts and enemy encounters, making the whole experience feel very repetitive
- Progression is quite slow and basically takes dozens of hours for skills you should have right away
- Neither the characters or storytelling are particularly compelling
- Button inputs in combat feel excessively delayed and have it feel needlessly clunky and awkward to string combos together
- Noticeable load times and visual hitches during gameplay on Vita
- Reminds me how much better Valkyrie Profile is
Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10)
By constantly living in the shadow of a ultimately significantly better games, all Exist Archive really does is feel that much more forgettable when most would be better served simply playing (or re-playing) its spiritual predecessor Valkyrie Profile
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.