In most games, your goal is to remain alive for as long as possible. This rather standard plot mechanic has permeated action-based games since the genre’s inception. So as you might imagine, it came as a bit of a surprise when developer tri-Ace decided to buck the trend a bit. In their newest release, Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky, the entire cast is introduced by having them bite the big one. Seriously. From the word, “go,” you have already gone the way of the Dodo. So how do they manage to make that work? Let’s just say that there is more than a little magic in store.
Exist Archive was developed by many of the same folks who brought us the classic PlayStation title, Valkyrie Profile, over 15 years ago. With that in mind, it should come as no shock that this spiritual successor borrows rather liberally from the source material. Taking place in an odd, supernaturally inspired limbo of sorts, the entire cast of 12 has to come to grips with the fact that not only are they dead, but they have little hope of restoring the status quo.
This hodgepodge of different characters from all across Tokyo must band together to try and help recover from the destruction that was wrought by the mysterious Yamatoga; a dark force bent on destroying their newfound home. It turns out that this individual is also responsible for each of their demises. Further complicating things, Yamatoga has embedded a portion of his power into each of the dozen, in hopes that they will one day become powerful enough to inadvertently allow him to rise again. Think that sounds a bit screwy? Well, here is the icing on the cake: This all-powerful being, that at one point wreaked havoc on civilization, has manifested himself into your glove. That’s right. Your glove. Adding one more level to the oddness, he also uses this glove to communicate with the player throughout the campaign.
The real question at hand (pun absolutely intended) is why Yamatoga would try to help these youths fight off an invading force of monsters, when he killed them all to begin with. Is this part of his master plan? Does he have a far more ambitious plot that has yet to be revealed? You will have to check the game out for yourself to find out. Even for a persistent JRPG story skeptic like myself, I found that it actually had a couple of genuinely compelling twists over the span of the 40-hour campaign. But don’t get too excited because this is far from a 40 continuous hours of interconnected narrative.
Over the span of Exist Archive’s plot, it is hard to shake the feeling that you are taking part in a story accordion. Instead of liberally scattering dialog segments and cutscenes throughout, it feels like they decide to do large dumps of exposition in quick succession, which makes the narrative feel rather unbalanced. Furthermore, the main storyline actually feels more like it runs somewhere in the ballpark of a dozen hours, with several more character development focused side-quests mixed in to pad the length. These side missions have little bearing on the primary questline. This is a genuine disappointment, given that so many of these support characters are so well realized.
One thing about the characters that doesn’t disappoint is the amazing looking in-game models. The dysmorphic proportioned designs feel like an anime that has sprung off the page and willed itself into existence. The two-dimensional side scrolling level design also doesn’t do much to dissuade this perception. tri-Ace has melded Archive’s amazing art design with enhanced graphical capabilities of the PlayStation 4, resulting in jaw-droppingly gorgeous visuals. Even more impressive, the game looks just as good in motion as it does standing completely still.
Before you go and get the wrong idea, know that Exist Archive isn’t just a pretty face. The character designs, both narratively and on the combat side, also reveal far more depth than would be initially apparent. For one, each member of the team fights slightly different from all of the others. Sure, there are some with skillsets that share a few overlapping abilities, but this is one of the rare cases where having a large roster doesn’t end up feeling like a series of glorified palette swaps. Also, the customizations of weapons, armor, and eventually skills, are deep enough that you never feel as though there is one specific loadout that is a “God Roll.” Essentially, it is important to monitor the stats that matter most to you and equip a set of gear that caters most effectively to your specific play style.
The combat itself is a fairly straightforward series of events, revolving around maximizing the use of energy, which is replenished at the beginning of every defensive stage. Any sort of action that the player engages in takes away from this limited supply of energy. Want to brace for an incoming attack? That’ll cost you, per character. Want to use an item? That has a hefty energy price tag as well. Plus, you need to be sure to leave enough in the tank to actually lash out when then opportunity arises.
The simple act of attacking is mere child’s play. Each of the four characters in your party are mapped to the face buttons on the controller. Pressing this button launches an attack, which in turn eats away at the remaining energy supply. There’s also a constantly accruing super move meter that is used to pause the battle in progress and launch a completely unhindered shot across the bow of the invading forces. This meter can bank up to four super moves at a time, which can in turn be chained together to launch a fury of different attacks from the entire squad. The one trick to note is that the super meter is eaten away at by taking damage from adversaries. The timing of special attacks are extremely important in order to maximize the impact, while also not risking its depletion in the defensive stage.
Each battle plays out almost identically, with very little variety. This is where Exist Archive’s repetitive nature begins to be a bit more problematic. I realize that the continuous process of level grinding and seemingly replaying the same encounters ad nauseam is a core tenet of the JRPG. However, when there is so little variation in the enemies and their tactics, short of a moderate increase in their HP, the grind begins to wear on you. This fact is further demonstrated by the the level design, which utilizes a very limited set of environmental art assets. The result is an overall structure that feels like stages take place in the same damn place, every mission. Oh, and did I mention that stages can be reused numerous times, featuring only moderately different objectives each time? While it could be argued that this provides the player with additional avenues to grind for levels, it also ends up feeling like they are unnecessarily padding the overall length of the campaign.
Within Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky you will be treated to a game featuring a unique storytelling angle, amazing art design, a roster of a dozen compelling and unique characters and a beefy campaign. It legitimately feels like a successor to the Valkyrie Profile series, from the people that made the series what it is today. Despite its repetitive nature, this is still an adventure that is worthy of exploring, as long as you have plenty of free time on your hands.
Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.