Dying has been a part of playing video games since the early days of the arcade, but few games in that time have killed you off right at the beginning of the story. By the time the opening credits for Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky finish rolling, our avatar – a teenage boy named Kanata – has been caught in a terrible accident with his friends and has been transported from modern Tokyo to what appears to be a magical afterlife. Goodnight, sweet prince.
While the opening gambit of the game is novel – Kanata has barely had chance to say hello before he's unceremoniously bumped off – seconds later things start to get a little more formulaic when our hero meets up with an enchanting amnesiac girl who is compelled to accompany him on his journey to explore his strange new reality. This dichotomy of interesting ideas and adhering to genre stereotypes pervades the game throughout the entire playing time, and that left us wishing that there'd been a greater emphasis on innovation rather than succumbing to the norm. There are some philosophical quandaries at the heart of Exist Archive that warrant further elaboration, but they're sadly lost amidst a sea of genre tropes and frivolous vignettes.
Exist Archive is, essentially, a hybrid of 2D platforming and a turn based Japanese role-playing game. You'll control Kanata in a bare-bones two dimensional platformer, and when you happen across an enemy the game will transition into a turn-based battle. The platforming sections offer little in the way of challenge and are ostensibly only there to give you something to do between fights. There's some bonuses within each level, such as items or weapons you'll find in treasure chests, but the disappointing lack of variety in the locales you'll visit means that exploration will probably seem like more of a chore than something you'll feel compelled to undertake. As you progress you'll gain abilities that will allow you to traverse previously unreachable areas of the map, but there's nothing you'll find there that will inspire awe or wonder.
The battle system is intriguing in concept, but collapses into a grind before it ever has a chance to truly impress. As your party grows, each character in your group will be assigned a face button. During the attack phases of battle you're given a set number of action points, and each action taken by one of your party members will deplete the total number of action points by a certain amount. Using recovery items or deploying a magical attack will use a lot of action points, while a quick attack with a sword will use only a small number. Tapping the face buttons dedicated to each character will command them to act in the order that you press them, allowing you to chain attacks together in an impressive number of combinations. While defending, pressing the face button tied to a character will cause them to guard, and timing your blocking helps to reduce damage taken and preserve all important action points for the next round of attack.
The early going of the game is incredibly forgiving, and gives you an opportunity to play around with creating combinations of attacks that will prove invaluable later on. Certain characters have attacks which lend themselves naturally to being the first wave of your assault, such as launching an enemy into the air to be juggled, while others, such as those that wield magic, will be suited primarily to dealing massive damage to enemies that might shrug off gunfire or melee attacks.
The fast paced, combo based battle system initially seems like it will lead to some tense, tactical encounters later in the game but unfortunately the combat never lives up to that potential. Enemies throughout the game rarely behave in ways that are unique or surprising, and so the battles become an exercise in repetition with few memorable moments throughout the forty hour campaign. The battles are essentially the same routine over and over again, with the difficulty curve not being tied to increasingly complex enemy tactics, but simply more hit-points and more damaging attacks to deal with. This problem is exacerbated by some absurd difficulty spikes that force you to replay missions in order to grind up a few levels so you can defeat the previously unbeatable enemy in exactly the same way as every other monster you've faced.
Repetition is, unfortunately, a constant problem with Exist Archive. The game is broken up into bite-sized missions that require you to make your way through a dungeon and defeat the boss. Sadly, there's a startling lack of variety in the level design, so much so that you'd be forgiven for not even knowing if you'd already played a mission before or if it was a new one. This would be an issue in itself, but then when you consider the necessity for grinding through missions you've already done in order to raise your strength for future challenges, and the copy-pasted enemies you'll come across during battle, everything that you're doing will quickly start to feel like busy work in order to pad out the time between story updates.
Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky is an advertisement for the mantra that less is more. There's an enjoyable ten hour game here, but it's buried in a repetitive and frustrating forty hour experience in which the majority of the content not only feels superfluous, but actually detrimental to the whole. The story it tells might be good enough to justify grinding through the uninspired battles and platforming sections were the game dramatically shorter, but as it is the sporadic narrative can't save what is a largely tedious affair.