Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky is the latest to come from Spike Chunsoft and Aksys Games with some assistance from Tri-Ace Tri-Ace, while being well known for their work on the Star Ocean games, are sometimes forgotten to have also made that amazing cult classic Valkyrie Profile. This is important to note, as Exist Archive may be a spiritual sequel to that very title*.
Exist Archive is the story of twelve teenagers that are transported to another world in either one piece or at death’s door. Guided early on by a disembodied voice who calls himself Yamatoga, it isn’t long before the main group that finds itself together learn that this powerful being was once a source of evil in this strange land. Making matters worse, each of the twelve summoned here contain a portion of his now shattered soul and have been granted the curse of immortality as a result. Immortality on its own wouldn’t be so bad as those close to dying are now fully healthy and can continue living, but these twelve are the only humans present and the one that summoned them here both can’t and won’t let them leave as they cannot permit Yamatoga to go free.
Setting out as a small group and eventually finding more of the twelve in order to join in and help find a way home, Exist Archive plays out in an interesting fashion. It can take some time in order to slide into the swing of things as for a heavy narrative JRPG it comes across as a mission based experience. When on the world map, this “planet” in the rough meaning of the word has multiple areas to visit. Furthering the story can simply be done by moving to the next location available and either letting the cutscenes roll or by exploring the area before a cutscene makes it appearance. In either case, they are always a welcome experience with unique characters and awesome voice actors that really sell the personalities. There were some immediately recognizable voices while others even if I didn’t, were just as good and fit their characters well.
Exploring various areas comes a refreshing change of experience for an RPG as it plays out like a Side Scrolling Platformer or even a Metroidvania at times with abilities that need to be unlocked in order to move further. Jumping up or down onto ledges, using teleporters, sliding down sandhills, or simply running forward towards your goal will take up the bulk of your time while looking for exactly where to go next. The earlier stages are rather simple in design but as the story advances the challenge factor can advance and the way forward is not always the most clear which is where the exploration comes into play.
With every new area that can be explored, this planet’s inhabitants natural or otherwise will be standing between the main group and their goals. These beings can be seen while exploring and there is nothing random in your encounters. Walking up to enemies can be a gamble in order to see who starts first while attacking them on the field will immediately grant you the first turn. If engaging into combat is pointless as you are a much higher level than the enemies because you have a new ability to help explore, them jumping over them or simply using the environment to bypass them will work just as well. If there is no other choice but to fight then starting first is extremely recommended as there is no benefit to going second.
Battle is the heart of Exist Archive and it is both very well designed and a lot of fun to partake in. A fair warning is that things can spike in difficulty and even become frustrating with fights being almost twelve versus four at times but that comes down to party composition and not actual party member levels and equipment. While equipment will play a fair part, having those to deal with certain situations such as a fire, ice, or storm mage will come in handy especially with some of the larger monsters being weak or at least susceptible to magic. Essentially, don’t get overly attached to specific characters as in the end you will more or less need them all.
Battle itself plays out in a your turn / their turn manner. On your party’s turn, each character can perform the abilities that they have set up in sequence. For a basic example one of the sword wielders could 1) Cut -> 2) Slash -> 3) Thrust. This is an oversimplification of what can be done, but each of these moves comes at an action point cost in which the entire party shares a pool instead of each individual having their own.
The manner in which each character attacks is tied to individual buttons on the right side of the Vita, or, on a controller if the PSTV is being used. What makes it easy to know who is being ordered to attack is that as each character is set out in a formation that reflects the controller's button layout. Pressing a button and ordering a character forward has that character launch into their attack with no questions asked. Sending in a second, third, and fourth party member is just as easily done by pressing the buttons that they are attached to. All of this is done more or less seamlessly with melee characters jumping right into it while magic users take a bit more time in order to get ready.
Every character has a different weapon and figuring out the best way to use them in sync will take some time and a lot of experimentation. There can be multiple sword users but one is using a Japanese Katana while the other is more of a European Broadsword. Both of these different weapons lead to different skills that can be used which can change how to approach a situation especially if magic involved. Tossing an enemy into the air for example on an upwards strike while a magic user is performing a spell will cause the spell to miss as the enemy hits the ground when the spell is finished. Instead of this waiting until the spell is cast and then physically attacking works so much better as the target will receive all of the hits and the full amount of magical damage. Or just don’t launch them.
Because of the your turn / their turn approach, there is time in order to calculate out your party’s actions without worrying about a time limit. Spamming the entire action gauge can be done however even if an enemy falls the party will continue to hit it. There is a bit of a bonus that can come from this such as extra experience that can be gained on the combo count but when there are eight, nine, or ten other enemies on the field? Stopping the attack and allowing the party to replace itself would be the wiser course of action. Stopping the attack will have all party members play out their remaining action and retreat in order to either select another target, use an item, or end their phase which is an option.
If the enemy is still standing, or if the party ends their phase, then it becomes the enemy’s turn in which is still a hands on experience. After the end of your turn and the start of theirs, your party receives another batch of action points which can be used to defend themselves. The principle is the same as when you are attacking in which pressing the button of that character will cause them to defend themselves reducing the amount of damage taken up to a certain point as guards can be broken. Eventually skills can be learnt to either counter an enemy's attack or to better defend which can speed things up even more into the later portions of the story. Once an enemy’s turn is over however then it’s simply a rinse and repeat until it’s done. The only thing to keep in mind is that action points unused in either phase carry over to the next.
With how smooth combat and exploration is, it’s a bit of a disappointment at how laggy and cumbersome the menus can be. Each and every menu can take a visible second or two in order to load and within combat it seemed to be even more of the case. Because combat has all the buttons allocated to character attacks, the menu both inside and out is based off of the start button.
In combat pressing Start will bring up the sub-menus allowing characters to use a different magic spell than the one equipped if they are magic users, or use items in order to heal a member of the party. With the second or two that this can take each time, it’s almost better to either play closer to the edge or use items and spells in order to heal everyone at the same time. I’m not sure if this was a design choice or if it’s a lack of power of the Vita/PSTV compared to that of the PS4 but it could break the smoothness that the rest offered. It will be interesting to see if it is the same case.
Pressing Start on the field will bring up the rest of the game’s menus from options to skills and equipment. Other than the second or two that it takes to load, there were some design choices that make the experience take more time than it should have essentially making it more a of a chore than anything else. Instead of having a quick and easy way to get to a character’s equipment, it is instead inside of a tab inside of their Set Up options. It’s more of sub-sub-menu and I wish it had been higher on the list because with all the equipment that can be found on the field especially when going into new areas, it really shouldn’t take that long in order to go in and hit Optimize. Items are a bit of the same being a further tab instead of the first one when you load that part of the menu up. Generally things feel too far away from where they should have been.
The last thing that I felt worked against Exist Archive more than for it is how long it takes in order to get access to certain features such as the Skill system. Not only do characters receive very little points per level, but by the time that this opens up it’s already been hours into the story and the points that are given are enough for either one of two things. The first is to level up a character’s specific class which grants them more combat skills and new abilities to learn, while the other is learning the abilities that are already present. Abilities can be anything from adding a counter to the guarding skill in combat to modifiers for the first, second, or third attacks of a character in battle such as adding a launch attack. These are all great features but they come fairly late to the game and even if they couldn’t be learnt right away, it would have been nice to see all of these present much earlier in order to prepare for them.
Even with the menus and submenus being what they are however, it’s not enough to mar the great experience that Exist Archive has to offer. Running sideline to the main story is a Speed Run Mode that allows for you to once again try your hand at some of the major bosses that you’ve defeated. The point of this is not only bragging rights as the rankings are posted onto PSN leaderboards, but rewards are given for defeating your foes within certain time limits. With some of the rewards being permanent stat boosters? It’s worth time though keep in mind that any item used in Speed Run comes from your actual inventory and does not come back if you run away or defeat the boss.
Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky is a great RPG for the Vita. While the menus can seem to get in the way at times either because of loading or because of what you need is a few tabs over, the rest of the experience from the exploration, to the combat, over to the character interactions and dialog is solid and worth the many hours that it provides.
*I know that there is a Valkyrie Profile 2, and while it’s not bad, it doesn’t have the same cult following as its predecessor.
Sony PlayStation Vita
Sony PlayStation 4
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Article by Pierre-Yves