Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky is a fascinating attempt in RPG turn-based combat, 2.5D side-scroll platforming, and storytelling. The game reaches in a lot of directions to offer a considerable amount of options in gameplay. However, there are plenty of risks that come with this approach: 1) Stretching itself too thin when trying to meet so many different demands, resulting in lesser quality overall. 2) Inundating the user with too many superfluous functions, ultimately ending in a less enjoyable experience due to the amount of time wasted just trying to figure it out. 3) The more things you try; the more things you have to fail. It could be more a matter of player preference, but I personally would take a game that does one thing exceptionally over another game that does ten things fairly okay. With all that in mind, let’s see if Exist Archive managed to succeed more often than not.
Starting with the combat, Exist Archive takes a fairly unique approach when it comes the player’s move set. Basically, the character’s themselves are your attack options, activated by pressing the face button that correlates to their position on the battlefield. You can, of course, rotate their position on the field, which alters the amount of damage they deal and take whether they’re on the front or back line. More than just their position on the field however, their damage and effectiveness is reliant on a variety of systems in the game, from equipped weaponry to class level, the type of character you choose and what they’ve learned so far to aid in the fight.
There’s a huge layer of customization in this respect, offering many choices of class, equipment, actions, and skills. Within “equipment” you have the options of one weapon, one armor, and three accessories to raise an individual character’s base statistics. “Action” gives them the allotment of three attacks and a powerful special move. In combat, these attacks are dependent on the number of times you use a character in a given round. Their first use will call their first attack, second use causes the second attack, third the third, and then it resets back to the beginning to repeat once again. If you want to have a more well-rounded character with a decent range of attacks, you’ll want to fill each slot. If you just want to have a character with a one move focus, you can do that as well. As for “skills”, characters will have an attack, guard, drop, and two support slots for extra abilities. These abilities are pretty much as their slot titles suggest, giving you the chance to do or take more damage, have better drop chances, passive heal quicker, and so on. “Skills” and “actions” can be unlocked by leveling up a class and spending skill points that are earned through leveling up a character.
In battle, you control each character as they take turns exchanging blows with the enemy. The amount of damage you can deal or actions you can take per turn is dependent on a system of Action Point (AP). Basically, you’re given a quantity of AP to spend, an amount that you receive at the start of the guard phase rather than when you’re on the attack. That is because it cost AP to guard the characters, leaving it up to you as to whether or not you want to lessen the blow for a character at the cost of being able to do more during the attack phase. Furthermore, it becomes a game of noticing patterns and timing when the enemies make their move, so part of your job is to trigger a character to guard the moment you know who they are going to strike. After the defensive stage is over, it’s time to go on the aggressive. Use whatever remaining AP you have to deal as much as you can to the other side and hopefully finish them before they can hurt you once again. Or you can use some stat boosters and heal up, but I find that concentrating on damage just happens to be more efficient.
When it comes to dealing damage, there is a variety of ways to dish it out. Some characters can deal high damage to a single target while others can affect a larger area but deal less harm to any one enemy. Then there’s mages that can do huge blast damage in a small area, but require a lot of AP and some cooldown after use. There’s all this and plenty more when it comes to making your opponents hurt, thanks to a handful of different characters and the abundance of skills that come with them.
Aside from the combat, let’s get to the other half of the core gameplay: platforming. Sadly, it seems this aspect of the game was just a clumsy way to get you from point A to point B, something to fill time between fights and item/party management. The only important thing you need to be focused on when traversing dungeons is to get the drop on the enemy. This goes with my personal strategy of dealing as much damage as possible while allowing the opponent to dish out very little, as it’s crucial to have the first move for thinning out as much of the enemy horde as you can. If not, you run the risk of taking obscene amounts of damage depending on what you’re up against. Aside from initiating battle, the platforming is brain-dead simple while still being unbearably stagnant when it comes to actually upgrading your traversal abilities, and the greatest and most stinging example of this is that it takes almost TEN HOURS to unlock DOUBLE JUMP.
Navigating the map is also fairly slow, as well as using any other menu in the game. It’s plain archaic to have such a large focus on managing robust item and party systems in an RPG without having near instantaneous response times when maneuvering the menus. While operating the systems in the game isn’t so slow that I’d throw my Vita into a wood chipper out of sheer frustration, the sluggishness is apparent and definitely starts to weigh on the player after time. The annoyance is only amplified by the amount of time that needs to be spent going through skills, equipment, and whatever else. Alongside the lethargic operating system, the load times are a bit long as well. Much like the systems, it really is more of a hindrance than anything else, and probably bearable to someone who, unlike me, actually has patience.
Before I delve into the story and aesthetics of the game, there are a few things I still need to touch on. Throughout the game you slowly unlock more systems and abilities to make use off. For platforming, you’ll learn things like double jumping and sliding, as well as enemy stunning and flight. On a more meta level, you’ll unlock things such as the ability for characters to learn the skills of others with whom they possess a bond with. From the start of the game there is an “affection system” that really serves no purpose until this point. By grouping certain characters in a party, their affection for each other will grow as you progress through dungeons together. This can unlock skills for characters that would normally be unable to obtain them, and is quite a practical use for a “pairing” system such as this.
There’s plenty other abilities to be unlocked as the story progress, but it also kind of feels like a drip feed of content. If I were able to progress faster through the game, it would feel like a nice, quick stream of new functions that would keep the experience constantly fresh. Disappointingly, it feels like the farthest thing from constant, perhaps partially due to the sluggish menus and loading times. It also doesn’t come off as very rewarding, so much as just a random new gameplay addition periodically tossed our way.
The story is pretty straight forward. You and a bunch of your other friends die for some reason. You wake up in this weird, spiral world, alone and unsure of what happened or what to do now. So you go on and explore the environment, eventually meeting up with your old friends as well as some quirky new strangers. You all find yourself having incredible fighting abilities thanks to some immortal spirit that is now possesses everyone. The spirit talks but doesn’t always have a lot to say, and he’s ambiguously evil. At some point you find out there might be a way for you to get back home, so you go around fighting more monsters and collecting “essence crystals” for the sake of leaving this place. There’s a myriad of fantastical made-up words and lore that doesn’t really sink in, partially due to the way it’s presented to the audience (blatant exposition style).
Another reason for the story not being quite compelling is that the world doesn’t really give off a sense of history or belonging. Most of it just feels like a place existing in a primal era, with no establishments of intelligent beings and society in sight (for a while). Areas in the game lack any sort of liveliness or originality between each other. Sections are often reused and barely differentiate from others in terms of aesthetics. There are lava areas and grassy meadows as well as a range of other places, but none of them feel exclusively their own. They don’t feel like THE lava area or THE grassy meadow. Instead, they’re completely unmemorable and fail to tell any sort of story or invoke any kind of feeling through the environment. As for the lack of belonging in this world, this sense does fit for the narrative, but after a while it’s just kind of unenjoyable.
The characters are what truly carry the story, but even so they’re not all that interesting. There are four characters that I actually like and none of them are the main protagonist. What’s cool about how we understand these characters is that we actually get to know them through more than just watching their actions and reading their dialogue. In the story, they stumble upon a way to hear their families and loved ones from their past life. Through what we hear from those people in mourning, we begin get a picture of what these character’s lives were like before they died. It also offers them a much needed opportunity to reflect upon themselves, which is particularly enthralling and bittersweet.
In conclusion, Exist Archive has a lot of cool ideas as far as gameplay is concerned. While the traversal is not very enjoyable, the impressive combat system and layers of customization more than make up for it. The story, world, and characters are sadly unmemorable however, and pairing that with the slowness of its narrative pace and mechanical performance makes for a somewhat inconsequential experience overall.