It's always interesting to experience a new JRPG franchise. On the surface, Exist Archive boasts beautiful looking environments with an eclectic cast of characters but does the gameplay live up to its imaginative world?
In Exist Archive, you're treated to an anime right off the top where you'll watch an explosion in Tokyo that seems to end twelve teenage lives in one hit. It's an interesting start to a story for sure. The plot centres around Kanata, one of the youths who was involved in the explosion and wakes up to find himself in a different land that appears to float in the sky. He quickly meets up with other members of the party who were also involved in the same accident, a mix of his close friends and some strangers. While exploring this land and trying to get the answers to where they are and if they are indeed dead, Kanata forms a bond with a mysterious entity called Yamatoga. This entity wakes him to the power within himself that can be used to fight the monsters that live on the planet he's stuck on. It's quite an unusual setting for a JRPG and although it starts out promising, the evolving story isn't really where Exist Archive shines as I found myself making my own entertainment while the story started to become a little too convoluted for me to enjoy it.
Exist Archive follows a similar style of character development to many other JRPGs. Each teen is essentially going through their own coming of age story while fighting personal battles. When the story decides to focus on a given character, they start to hear voices of their family and friends talking about them while they're missing. This conversation plays through the PS4 controller itself which is a unique touch. You'll then go to a dungeon and collect crystals that let you in on a little more of the character's past. Eventually, you'll find the last crystal in the dungeon which unlocks a new ability for your party and allows you to explore more of the game world.
Unlocking abilities is a large part of Exist Archive and it's extremely slow-paced. Some may enjoy this but I got frustrated when I was over fifteen hours in and still couldn't reach certain parts of the Metroidvania-style dungeons. You'll pick a dungeon from a menu and once you're in it, you traverse the 2D side-scrolling map while collecting items, fighting enemies and trying to reveal as much as you can in order to get bonuses when you complete the dungeon. At first, you'll only be able to walk but after many hours of gameplay, you'll unlock other skills such as double-jump, slide and the ability to freeze enemies and use them as launching pads to reach higher ground. This style of map exploration increases the replay value because once you've unlocked new abilities; you can go back to older dungeons and collect additional items as well as aim for 100% completion and a better grade.
Unfortunately, the graphical design of the dungeons starts to feel repetitive quite quickly. When you're on the main map, you select an area to go to and when you're looking at it from this perspective, the world appears to be quite varied. However, once you enter a dungeon, you'll find that all of them tend to look the same but with a slight change in hue and texture. Don't get me wrong, the actual graphics themselves are beautiful but when I first started playing, I was excited for what was to come yet it just doesn't explore all of the possible backdrops that I've seen implemented in other JRPGs and it doesn't do much of an effort to show off anything new.
The music and sound effects are fitting for a major JRPG. It sounds like it was recorded with a huge orchestra. The character art is unique and each person has their own style that makes them stand out from the others. They also have subtle colour themes to their outfits and weapons which is a nice touch and further shows their individuality. However, when it comes to the monsters, they suffer the same fate as the stage backgrounds. There are only a handful of enemy types and they show up in multiple dungeons re-skinned.
One major problem that I have with Exist Archive is the party setup for battles. When you choose a dungeon from the menu, you'll have to select your party and once you enter the dungeon, you're warned not to exit until you've completed your mission. This is because you'll lose relationship points with other party members and keeping good relationships unlocks abilities and story so it's an important aspect. You'll also lose affection if you run away from a battle. The problem with this setup is that you don't know what enemies are going to be in the dungeon before you enter it which means that you don't know which party members to include in order to exploit enemy weaknesses. If you pick the wrong members, you can have a really hard time completing a dungeon. For example, one enemy is a ball of spikes that can only be damaged with long range attacks and prevents melee members from attacking the other foes.
You'll also always need a healer unless you enjoy grinding and saving up for a ton of items. Therefore, one spot will be the main character Kanata as you can't remove him, one will be someone with a ranged weapon, one will be a healer and then you've got one slot left where you can choose someone who you need to raise affection with or level up. I had party members that I wanted to use but I knew that I couldn't survive a dungeon if I had to swap them for someone else that was necessary so they were pretty much useless.
The battle system itself is a little different from typical JRPGs. You learn skills and choose to set these as battle abilities that can be quickly accessed when you're in a fight. To trigger an ability, you press the corresponding button on the controller for that character. You can keep attacking during your turn until your skill points run out. Each action takes up a varying amount of points which differs in how often a character can execute a given attack. For example, Mayura can only attack once in a given turn when she uses her wind magic ability because it takes a long time to execute and does a lot of damage. However, Kanata can attack multiple times as he quickly slashes away at enemies. When attacks are chained, the attack itself is modified depending on how the character's skills are set up. This can make a huge difference when you're faced with different types of enemies that require certain kinds of attacks such as wide sweeping sword slashes to hit a large group of small enemies, or close-up gun attacks that take out nearby floating enemies.
When I play a JRPG, one thing that I love is exploring a grand world filled with different lands, towns and people. Whenever I see a new town off in the distance, I'm excited to explore it and visit the local shops. However, Exist Archive doesn't deliver in this regard one bit. There are no towns and no locals to talk to and the only way you'll go shopping is to trade in items you collect from enemy drops in order to buy different ones from a certain character. To add to the disappointment, you can't see what your characters currently have equipped even when you're in the menu to exchange items so you have no idea what will actually improve their stats.
Even though Exist Archive is a pretty game that blends Metroidvania stages with traditional JRPG elements very well, it simply fails to deliver when it comes to variety. Its party setup also creates a problem that makes you guess at how to prepare for battle and punishes you when you're wrong. If the developers were to fix its problems and add to the overall variety, I could see it becoming a modern JRPG masterpiece. Until then, I won't be spending much time within Exist Archive's colourful world.
- + Unusual premise with an intriguing setting
- + Beautiful graphics, great orchestral soundtrack and unique character art style
- + Interesting Metroidvania dungeon exploration
- - Not enough enemy and dungeon variety
- - Party setup is impossible to master, leaving some members useless
- - Lack of NPCs takes away from the fun