Stop me if you've heard this before: The departed souls of supernatural warriors, bound together by fate, arrive in an ethereal otherworld to do battle with a seemingly-omnipotent foe.If it sounds like I'm describing Valkyrie Profile, that's because I am— but I'm also describing Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky, a sci-fi riff on the seminal Norse JRPG that shares much of its DNA.
When 17-year-old Kanata and eleven other youths die in a mysterious accident, they wake up in Protolexa, a foreign world that isn't quite the afterlife. It turns out that each of them bears a fragment of the dark god Yamatoga's soul, granting them immortality and heightened combat abilities. The twelve youths (well, most of them, anyway) simply want to return home to Tokyo, but Yamatoga aims to leverage them in a war against a race of higher beings known as the Chausseur. It's an interesting set-up, but one that suffers from disjointed storytelling. There are no towns to speak of, only dungeons selected from a menu with cutscenes in between. While not especially difficult to follow, the game's script has a tendency to drop neologisms in the middle of conversations without introducing them first, much like the oft-maligned writing in Final Fantasy XIII. The pieces fall into place eventually, but much later than you'd expect.
The cast is generally likeable, though characters fade in and out of the background at regular intervals, only appearing to move to story forward when it relates to them in some way. Their backstories are only touched on via quests to find their Essence Crystals, physical manifestations of the emotions they left behind on Earth. These quests adequately flesh out each member of the large ensemble, though it's a bit unusual how the game seems to ignore some of them until it's their time in the spotlight.
Exist Archive is in some ways beautiful and in other ways visually off-putting. Its floating islands and sun-dappled forests are a sight to behold, somewhere between fantastical and grounded in reality. The characters' striking designs really pop in their artwork, but their in-game models are a strange hybrid of anime sensibilities mixed with Bratz doll aesthetics. They sport astonishingly smooth motion capture animation, which unfortunately ends up looking a bit unsettling with their exaggerated proportions. Exist Archive fares far worse musically; Motoi Sakuraba's score is as dull and uninspired as ever. I am beyond tired of hearing the same instrumentation, the same chord progression, the same synthesized choir, and nearly identical melodies in all of his compositions. I don't universally dislike Sakuraba's work, but it's time for him to do something different.
Combat in Exist Archive essentially uses the same turn-based system as Valkyrie Profile. Each character is assigned to one of the four face buttons, and pressing that button unleashes their attack(s). The player's objective is to strategically combo enemies, juggling them in the air and/or keeping them pinned down with consecutive blows. Smart offense builds up the Demon's Greed gauge, which acts like a super meter that the player can expend to activate each character's ultimate special move. It's a fun system, but not without its caveats. For example, it’s not possible to change characters' attack loadouts in the middle of battle, so if your strategy is ineffective against a given boss, the only way to adjust is to die and try again from the beginning. One especially annoying tactic bosses use is to deploy mine-type enemies that can only be attacked from afar, and if your party lacks a ranged character, it is nearly impossible to break through them. Naturally, this is not a problem with the right party composition, but it's frustrating to run into these brick walls from time to time. I also noticed that my attacks were sometimes lost to strange frame skips or unpredictable enemy physics, issues much less easy to circumvent.
The battle system lies at the core of Exist Archive, so much that the rest of the game is essentially a shell built around it. Dungeons are side-scrolling 2D affairs that feature light platforming elements. As the game progresses, the player unlocks traversal abilities such as double jumping and sliding, which can be used to reach previously inaccessible areas. The trouble is that dungeons, like combat, suffer from repetitive design. I noticed some sections of dungeons copy-pasted into others, with only a different visual filter to distinguish them from one another. Repetition is what drags down Exist Archive above all else.
Perhaps the most unexpected element of Exist Archive for me was a (perhaps unintentional) emphasis on survival posed by limited resources in its earlier stages. Healing items are a finite resource, and when I eventually ran out, I had to perform a delicate balancing act between leveling up and retreating to my home base to recover. I did not unlock an item shop until just shy of ten hours into the game, which dramatically changed the equilibrium of my playstyle. For such a crucial feature to remain inaccessible until halfway through the game is puzzling, to say the least. I remain undecided on whether this is a bane or boon for the experience.
Exist Archive is something of an emaciated RPG that struggles to find a balance between being streamlined and mechanically interesting. Its solid localization and interesting plot are held back by gameplay that becomes increasingly monotonous from one chapter to the next. For all of my criticisms, I didn't hate my time with Exist Archive, but I expected a greater leap forward for a game cut from such prestigious cloth.