Beyond The Veil
HIGH Decimating a boss with a perfectly-timed 300-hit combo.
LOW Arriving in the same damn lava cave for the twentieth time.
WTF Wait, you’re saying I can’t even damage this boss with my current team?
Exist Archive isn’t the first game to open with killing the main cast and then immediately moving the action to the afterlife. It does, however, offer a singularly interesting conception of that afterlife.
In this world, it’s a place of absurdly intricate eldritch technology, where the souls of the dead are collected, processed, and then distributed into the cosmos to be reborn. This is managed by a supercomputer who (naturally) looks like a mechanical anime goddess. The player is put in charge of a team of teenagers who all died at the same time, and it’s up to them to discover exactly why that was, and whether it’s possible to return to their old lives.
In addition to its strong premise, Exist Archive benefits from an innovative dungeon exploration mechanic. With fairly standard JRPG character leveling and combat, this game needed something to stand out from the crowd, and the 2D dungeons built around light platforming certainly accomplish that.
Players are dropped into lushly-built areas in which they’re free to run and jump around, either avoiding or challenging the floating red phantoms that represent a fight waiting to start. Each dungeon is full of well-hidden nooks and crannies, and the game slowly metes out new mobility upgrades and techniques over the course of the adventure, inviting the player to replay levels and explore previously-hidden areas. It almost gives off a bit of a Metriodvania feel at times.
The combat has a few fresh ideas of its own — the player’s party is built from four characters drawn from a total of up to twelve, and each one is mapped to a face button on the PS4 controller. The player chooses three moves for each character, which they use in sequence each time their button is pressed, as long as the team has enough action points left to afford it.
The combat is designed around building large combos — push the same character’s button twice, and they’ll perform two attacks which may not chain together, but use another character or two between those presses and their attacks will act as a bridge, keeping the combo growing. This provides experience point and damage bonuses, and there’s some fairly deep strategy involved in building the correct team for specific situations, while also making sure that they’re equipped with moves that chain together well.
There is a downside to this system, however — Exist Archive harshly restricts the kinds of teams which will be useful in a given dungeon. For example, some areas are filled with monsters that can only be harmed by ranged weapons or magic, and the game offers no warning about which types populate which dungeons. If players have brought the wrong characters into an area, they’ll have little choice but to escape, swap characters, and then start the dungeon over.
Exist Archive offers one way around this, with a clever ‘learning’ system in which characters that become friends will gradually teach each other their skills. While the player can’t swap a character out in the middle of a dungeon, they are able to change a swordsman into a gunslinger or a magician, provided that they have extra weapons in their inventories to equip.
It’s an interesting idea, although it requires a lot of fiddling with menus and doesn’t become necessary until very late in the game. The option is nice to have, but rather than re-spec’ing my team before every mission, I eventually found myself just using a team with at least one member who could take on each type of foe. It never really felt worthwhile to tailor my loadout specifically for the fight I was going into.
While the world and combat are nice, Exist Archive‘s best feature is its characters and the story they inhabit. The faces here span a wide variety of archetypes, all of whom have interesting interactions with one another. Some were friends before arriving in ‘heaven’, some were strangers now gradually forming a makeshift family like a posthumous Breakfast Club, and more. They have intriguing backstories that are revealed through sidequests, each one offering insight into key moments from their lives on earth, as well as glimpses into how their friends and families are reacting to their deaths. It’s well-written and manages to be affecting at times.
However, while Exist Archive manages some strong notes, it has one big problem — there just isn’t enough variety in its content for a game of this length.
There are dozens of dungeons in total, but only five different dungeon types, and each one has a relatively small set of geographical features — the fifth set of floating verdant islands the player explores will look suspiciously similar to the first. Likewise, there just aren’t many enemy types on offer, and the game starts recycling bosses surprisingly quickly. Sure, there are new colors and attacks, but I found myself fighting the same creatures an absurd amount of times, even for a JRPG. It quickly turns into a slog.
With its clever story and well-written characters, Exist Archive deserves a lot of credit. The 2D platforming felt like a breath of fresh air, and the combat’s nuances are deep enough to be worth investing some time in, despite some excessive grinding. Best of all, it clearly flags the points at which its various endings branch off from one another, giving curious players a chance to save their game and make a clear decision about what course they want to pursue.There’s a story worth experiencing here, even if there isn’t quite enough game to support it.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Spike Chunsoft and Tri-Ace, and published by Aksys Games. It is currently available on Vita and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains Blood, Fantasy Violence, Language, and Suggestive Themes. As the warnings suggest, there’s some blood and swearing, but the really questionable content revolves around one of the twleve characters from earth, who happens to be a serial killer. His storyline goes into some pretty dark territory, and it’s really not suitable for younger teens. In an interesting choice, the developers offer the player a chance to ‘opt out’ of one of the story sequences, and plot-irrelevant comedy scene in which all the characters pause for a moment to weigh in on one woman’s extremely cleavage-y costume.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no audio cues of note and all dialogue is subtitled.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.