On paper, Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky has a unique introduction with the explosive death of protagonist Kanata. Moments after his demise, he awakens on a lush planet-shaped cluster (if it can be called a planet without proper shape) consisting of a myriad of floating islands. Then he meets a girl, Mayura, who’s in a similar predicament, the only difference being that she recollects nothing from before she awoke in this strange place. Somewhere between his death and assumed rebirth, Kanata obtained the spirit of a deity, Yamatoga, who has been bound to Kanata’s right arm. Along the way they find other humans who have been brought here to this assumed planet by the same mysterious means, but it doesn’t take long for the mystery to begin to unravel as Yamatoga acts as the literal Deus Ex Machina and aids in the group’s search for the truth to their predicament.
This formula is a burden in the early hours due to the time it takes to get anything done. Damage is low when compared to the health pool of most bosses, the act of navigating zones is slow and repetitive, and the compensation for undertaking it all is a stipend until more combat options, or in this case more players, are discovered as the story progresses. Once the narrative fleshes out more, the rewards become more relevant and frequent. The drop rate gauge, a percentile that increases with each attack, grows the longer fights go on, justifying long battles and elongated missions for the sake of phat loot. But before that though is the struggle to quell boredom with it all. Fights take a long, long time, especially bosses, and overemphasized character and enemy animations take even more time.
Then there’s the overall technical issues with the PS Vita version that are impossible to ignore. There is a natural input lag to the game as a whole, which isn’t too cumbersome to get around; but as the game progresses the increased amount of on-screen activity worsens performance even further. I cannot say that the game is broken in this department, especially when compared to some other performance travesties on Sony’s handheld (here’s looking at you, Borderlands 2); but the pace of the game itself is affected, which only makes an existing issue look even worse.
I said “on paper” earlier because the start up to this game was even fun to write about. The premise is strong and there’s plenty of room for potential’ but the opening hours suffer from issues with narrative flow, the primary culprits here being the mission-based gameplay and the subpar voice acting across the board. For the longest while I had trouble comparing Exist Archive to that of Valkyrie Profile, even though the aesthetic and style ebb from the same roots. Even with Exist’s top notch art style and graphic fidelity, especially on a handheld, comparative divide between the two games is felt the most at the beginning. Exist’s narrative is broken up into missions, and the first couple hours consist of jumping from mission to mission while the characters slowly build up little by little to the first real revelation of their circumstances, which in hindsight has a somber yet potent intrigue to what has happened to these kids.
Yes, that was a wall of negative to start things off, but I wished to approach this review like I experienced Exist Archive: fighting through the frustration to see where its potential went. Like many genres, repetition is commonplace in JRPGs, so I need not delve too far into that basic concept. What makes the hurdle that is Exist Archive worth the effort are the combat and how characters progress. Progression is based almost exclusively on engaging in countless battles (hence the aforementioned sameness earlier), but instead of trying to disguise it, Exist Archive has made attempts to make a true and memorable game out of it. While currency is a late game factor, it doesn’t play much into the game as a whole, so gearing and skilling up are both the rewards for beating opponents.
The leveling system is traditional, earning experience and thus gaining levels, but obtaining abilities and skills are unlocked and leveled through another combat reward, Ability Points (AP). Play style customization comes into effect here, allowing the improvement of existing abilities as well as offering new ones with their own advantages. This means that a crowd control character with sweeping attacks could better juggle opponents while the rest of the pack picks off enemies. But none of this is worth it without phat loot; and as is the case with the previously mentioned rewards, weapons, armor, and accessories are all rewards from combat. Here’s where the drop rate gauge comes into play: Through defeating enemies, the drop rate increases via an on-screen percentile tracker, so more and better equipment will be rewarded the higher that gauge gets. The path to success is paved over the hundreds of fights along the way, but Exist Archive does a good enough job of juggling rewards with effort, and that goes double for the later portions of the game.
The part to combat that makes Exist Archive ebb the likes of Valkyrie Profile is the execution of combat itself. A combat bar displays all dispensable points for each turn, and the player must utilize the abilities of all party members within that constraint. Abilities can be chained in many cool ways, and the combat bar can even be used during the Guard Phase to help defend against enemy attacks. This gives room for risk and reward in the sense that allowing your players to take more damage during the Guard Phase means more combat points to use during the Attack Phase and vice versa. Stringing combos and juggles with all the animations of each character becomes an act of timing and practice, because just mashing all the buttons will leave combo potential lost and some mistimed juggling could leave some attacks not landing at all.
All in all, Exist Archive does as much good as it does bad. The combat itself holds a lot of potential for fun and enjoyment, but the general narrative is struck with mediocre voice acting, slow pacing, and performance issues that lessen both the potency of gameplay and the vivacity of the art style. There’s a lot to be had here, but the PS Vita version of Exist Archive could have used some more attention. Really, with a combat style like this that rewards so much, a dip in graphical integrity for the sake of performance would have made it all the better in the long run. Still, in the proper hands, there’s plenty of real estate to dig into; but if you’re truly on the fence about this game, perhaps the PS4 version would hold up better.