While it offers a very unique role-playing game with a fantastic setting and some gorgeous visuals, a few issues hold Exist Archive back from greatness.
|Physical English||Yes – NA only|
World-building & Story
A group of youths trapped in the wreckage of a collapsed building contemplate their last seconds of life together in the opening moments of Exist Archive, before being beamed away by a pillar of life to an unfamiliar landscape in the sky. Is this heaven or something more unbelievable?
It’s quickly established that they were in fact saved by an alien warrior named Yamatoga, whose soul was scattered after his defeat and resides in each of the youths, who were transported to his planet of Protolexa at the moment before their deaths. Upon discovering this, they work together to find the remaining pieces of Yamatoga’s soul (there are twelve in total) in order to find a way to get back home – even if it becomes increasingly apparent that this may not be possible without dire consequences.
The main plot in Exist Archive is straight out of the JRPG rulebook – the group quest to find crystals which will reignite memories of both their past and those they were close to and can be given to a being called Amatsume to give her the strength to be able to send them home. It’s not especially engaging until the final act, where a number of branching endings provide an interesting look at all the outcomes there are to this situation – although one thing it does get right is to inject a healthy dose of comedy every now and again, which works really well.
What’s far more engaging is the way the title explores the concept of grief and the thought process of the people who are left behind after someone dies. By voicing their thoughts, you’ll discover how they’re coping with the loss – some like Ren’s family turn it into an opportunity to do something worthwhile, while others like Koharu’s family are far more heartbreaking as they struggle to cope. It’s rare to see a game tackle these kinds of issues and it’s definitely commendable what was done here, even if there is the occasional missed opportunity along the way.
The cast here each bring something different to the table and it was enjoyable to get to know them over the adventure – whether it be the backstory of the main group consisting of Kanata, Koharu, Mitsuhide and Ranze or the jolly optimism of Ren, they’re each memorable in their own way. I particularly enjoyed Yui, a kind-hearted girl who lives her life as an acting superhero to inspire a group of orphans she cares about, who is completely at odds with the driven-by-vengence Kiriya.
Yet their ability to shine is held back by stilted dialogue which is consistent from beginning to end, rarely evolving much beyond a few banal sentences shared by the cast between each mission. I never got a proper feel about who everyone was beyond their backstories despite there being plenty of opportunity to do this – the game focuses more on combat and exploration than it does on developing its cast.
Seeing them interact and discover this alien world for the first time is a highlight though – Exist Archive presents some gorgeous landscapes and really nails the feel of being the other side of the sky. Sweeping green hills mix with colourful underground caverns formed by solidified lava and even the ruined city the group live in feels different – this is a very unique world and one I really enjoyed spending time in.
It’s just such a shame that more time isn’t spent exploring the characters, plot and world – there’s plenty here, but it doesn’t feel nearly enough considering the game’s length and some ideas definitely aren’t explored as fully as they should be. There’s a fantastic base in Exist Archive, but it really needs more to fully flesh it out.
Presentation & Sound
I found Exist Archive to be a gorgeous game full of impressive elements, but I suspect there will be plenty of people out there who are put off by some of the stylistic choices made.
The game kicks off with a moody and atmospheric anime-style opening cutscene that absolutely sets the tone for the game – dark and brooding, yet filled with magic and fantastical elements. There’s only a handful of other scenes like this throughout but they’re all gorgeous and a joy to watch – animated well and could easily pass for a professional anime in their own right, I only wished for a few more of them.
They do serve to be a jarring juxtaposition to the in-game models, though. See, in the anime scenes each of the cast have normal proportions, but in-game they’re exaggerated with bigger heads and smaller bodies (although not chibi). I didn’t mind this at all but can see it being an issue for some people – at least the character designs are absolutely stunning, done by Mino Taro of Love Plus and Root Letter fame. Each has a distinct colour palette associated with them (green for Kanata, blue for Mayura) and I was a big fan of their unique clothing and hairstyles.
The models move well in game, whether it be the swinging of swords in battles (I particularly liked Mitsuhide’s aerial acrobatics and Ranze’s wide ranging sweeps) or Kanata jumping in the environments – although the latter can be a bit janky at times. Enemy designs are on point and you’ll come across a variety of little devil creatures, birds, wolves and dragons although they get massively overused in the campaign – each area has more than a fair share of re-skinned foes which become tedious upon your hundredth time seeing them.
In terms of environmental design, Exist Archive is massively on-point. When you first arrive on Protolexa you’ll discover most of the landscape consists of flower-filled fields and sweeping blue skies, but exploration will uncover things like densely layered forests of underground caves carved out of solid magma. They all contain an absolute tonne of detail (particularly in the background elements, although things like floating particles are present in the foreground too) and are generally gorgeous to look at thanks to their varied colour palette.
The issue is that they just don’t evolve beyond this initial impression – you’ll see variations of the same fields, forests and caverns throughout the campaign with only slight details and colours changed. Later on a couple more ideas are added such as deserts which house the remains of civilizations and a set of futuristic castles make a welcome change of pace, but I would have enjoyed a lot more variety.
All this beauty has a price too and that unfortunately is performance. By no means unplayable, there’s often a notable lag or slowdown during field explorations and also in the menus – which makes the game feel unresponsive at times (although things stayed stable during combat). I’d also read reports of crashes and while I personally didn’t experience these, I did encounter some graphical and sound glitches that took me out of the moment at times.
At least sound is better – there’s an impressive amount of English voice acting here and most of it is pretty high quality, although it’s the soundtrack that takes the cake with its sweeping orchestral themes. It’s perhaps not the most catchy I’ve ever heard, but it certainly fits the setting perfectly.
Gameplay & Content
While it is touted as a spiritual successor to the Valkyrie Profile series, I never played those games so Exist Archive remained a completely unique experience to me. Mixing 2D platforming with enjoyable turn-based combat there’s a brilliant gameplay base here – it’s just a shame it’s hidden under an almighty grind and repetitive elements.
The first thing worth noting is that the entire game is mission-based – you’ll be selecting where you want to go from a menu then after a brief loading screen you’ll be taken there, which means there’s no towns to explore or overworld map, just dungeons. While not a massive problem per se, I was disappointed that I wasn’t allowed to explore more given that there’s such a unique world here, but this is hardly a deal-breaker and certainly ensures you can navigate where you want to go a lot quicker.
When you dive into a dungeon you’ll find a 2D platformer meets metroidvania except with 3D graphics, where you’ll need to jump between platforms and make your way through the labyrinth zones to find the crystal hidden within. The platforming here isn’t particularly precise and can be a little finicky at times but it works – you’re only held back early on by the lack of movement skills Kanata has, pretty much limited to just a single jump.
As you find crystals and return them to Amatsume you’ll be given new movement abilities which quickly change how much you can interact with Exist Archive’s world – for example you gain a slide, double jump and air dash and these are used to get to areas that were previous out of reach. The best of all is the ability to freeze enemies in place which can be chained with all your other skills to cover some serious ground and this is when the game is at its most satisfying.
See, you enter combat by touching enemies which are shown in the levels as floating red spirits – making it like a Tales game where you can avoid fights if you want (although most often you’ll accidentally do this while failing at a jump which can be a little frustrating). You can also attack them to gain an advantage (i.e start first) or later on trigger greed mode which forces you to fight waves of foes but awards massive exp multipliers which makes grinding a lot easier (and you’ll definitely need to grind here, although more on that later).
Battles take place in what appears like traditional turn-based style but quickly reveals some neat twists which make things a whole lot of fun. Everything is governed by an ‘action points’ bar which refills at 100 AP per turn and everything you do consumes this – attacking, healing, using items etc. After the player has their turn in ‘attack phase’, the game enters ‘guard phase’ which gives you chance to react to enemy attacks and reduce the damage you take, but this too consumes AP.
As such, combat contains a large element of resource management as you have to budget for both attack and defence by considering what’s coming next. You can spend all of your AP at once to, allowing all characters to strike simultaneously which can produce some insane amounts of damage but you have to time this carefully to avoid ground–based attacks missing foes that have been hit into the air and vice versa.
There’s a couple of other areas of nuance to the combat – such as the ‘demons greed’ gauge which is filled by hitting enemies and allows powerful super attacks, but is diminished the more damage you take in guard phase. The main thing is just the actual enemies though – each requires a different strategy and it’s fun working these out, such as Cobals with their high dodge and magic resistance that require you to juggle them with a spell and then strike them in the air with physical attacks.
There’s a thorough but standard equipment system here that allows you to build characters how you like, but the most unique thing about Exist Archive is its skill system. Each character learns class-specific abilities by spending skill points but these can be shared through ‘learning’ – which is when two characters have a high friendship level and literally teach each other new things. Friendship is raised by doing side content, which gives you plenty of incentive to explore everything on offer.
Herein lies the biggest problem with Exist Archive though – the repetitive nature of playing. You’ll be fighting the same kinds of enemies in the same dungeons doing much of the same platforming throughout and there comes a time when it becomes a little much and you’ll wonder when the end is but there’s a long game here, around 50+ hours for the story alone. There’s also some really nasty difficulty spikes which require some serious grinding to overcome which will send you back to the same dungeons even more in hopes of levelling up and finding new healing items.
Yet I did persevere with the game (at least up until a point about 40 hours in) – although the combat becomes repetitive the wide variety of characters on offer means there’s always new classes or skills to try out and it’s incredibly rewarding to figure out ways of taking down a wave of enemies in just a few hits. You’re also encouraged to go for 100% completion by exploring all of a dungeon and finding all the treasure pods, which was a surprisingly decent way to keep me engaged (plus, it gave me a few extra trophies).
It’s just a shame that Exist Archive doesn’t realise its full potential – this absolutely could have been a top-tier Vita game with a few tweaks. As it stands there’s a title here that I enjoyed enough to see through, but not one I could recommend to everyone unless you can stomach some repetitive grinding to overcome some harsh difficulty spikes.
It is worth noting that there’s a tonne of DLC on offer here, most of it cosmetic which I found easy to skip – although the ability to dress Kanata up as Monokuma from DanganRonpa was something I thought was really neat (although sadly I couldn’t do it on my EU account since I’d imported the game from America.
I’d also note here that there is a minor online element in that you can get more items if you play certain ‘hot spot’ zones while connected to the internet, but this is superfluous to the experience and not at all needed to fully enjoy what is on offer here,
Exist Archive is a gorgeous game with a fascinating premise that explores some interesting themes with care and backs it up with fun exploration and unique turn-based combat. Underneath the hood there’s some technical problems and issues with storytelling, repetition and difficulty that ultimately hold it back from greatness – this is still one I’d recommend you check out, but don’t expect a completely polished experience.