There is just something about a contemporary JRPG that makes things feel exciting. Wearing an antibacterial mask and quaffing a potion, all while checking messages on your latest Xiphone 6S feels both surreal and refreshing at the same time.
Tokyo Xanadu eX+ is a high school simulator by day and action dungeon crawler by night which shares an uncanny number of similarities with the Persona series, as well as Nihon Falcom’s other franchises, namely Ys and The Legend of Heroes. The game originally came out for the Vita, with the eX+ now released for PlayStation 4 and Steam it brings a slew of new improvements from better visuals, to additional characters monsters, dungeons, and bosses.
You play as Tokisaka Kou, your typical high school student with a happy, carefree life. However, this all turns upside down when he accidentally enters a mysterious portal which leads to a monster-ridden dungeon. He is one of the rare few able to see the Eclipse, this anomaly which plagues the world. He is accompanied by his skilled senpai Asuka Hiiragi. From then on, the cast quickly grows as they all strive to uncover the secrets behind the Eclipse, all while balancing that out with their typical day to day life.
The story, for the most part, is unfortunately predictable. Things play out more like your typical Shounen anime, with each chapter of the game featuring a self-contained story while expanding just a tiny bit on the main story arc. Even though the main plot is nothing to write home about, the giant cast of characters, each with their own personal backstories, makes more than up for that.
The world feels lively; characters move around town instead of waiting frozen in one spot. The game starts slowly with just the school and central square available to explore, but give it a few hours and it really opens up with a ton of new areas. And as in Persona before it, you can easily warp to any area on the map with the simple press of the square button.
There are countless things to see and do in town. You can spend affinity shards to deepen the bonds with your friends, take up interesting errands which reveal a bit about the world, cook exotic dishes, buy furniture to decorate your room, read up on the local news or dive into history books, and even purchase lotto tickets in hopes of scoring it big. There are also a number of mini-games to help break up the pace whenever you want. There is rarely a dull moment in the game.
At any point in time, you can open up your Xiphone. Using the NiAR app you can check your contacts, as well as track your quests, logs, recipes and read up on tutorials. This integration of the menus and story feels really natural.
When you are not living out your typical anime high school dream life, you will be navigating through hazardous dungeons while taking on disturbing monstrosities. Both combat and exploration are in real-time. Where your traditional JRPG would opt to keep combat simple Tokyo Xanadu goes all out, and it’s all the better for it. You have your quick melee attacks, powerful charged strikes for armored foes, ranged blasts, homing aerial strikes, special skills, team attacks and deadly finishers. Dodging is also key since recovery items can be costly. By dodging at just the right moment you enter a Bayonetta-like slow motion which gives you a small advantage.
While combat can get frantic, it’s a shame that you can have only a single character on screen at a time, while the rest are relegated to support roles. With this being said you can swap out characters with the press of a button. What’s more is that each character has different elemental attributes depending on their equipped Orbal items (yes, the same Orbal technology found in Legend of Heroes series). This means that you will be constantly shifting back and forward using each character to their maximum potential, all while leaving wounded party members as support in order to heal up.
Something needs to be said about the difficulty. While normal enemies are generally a pushover, boss battles on the other can be a traumatic endeavor. It took me multiple tries just to take out the first boss even though I had no problem with the entire level prior to the battle. While ultimately, it’s enjoyable to come out on top after a staggering duel, a number of players are bound to be put off by the uneven difficulty.
Where Tokyo Xanadu eX+ diverges from the popular Persona franchise is in the freedom available. After the lengthy introduction, Persona literally lets you off the leash and had you plan your day, with everything from school life, to part-time jobs, social interactions and dungeon crawling. Unfortunately, here you are kept on a far tighter leash and the game lets you know when it’s your free time and when you have to prepare for a lengthy dungeon expedition. Like in Persona you have a calendar, however here it shows the progress of time rather than to let you meticulously schedule your high school life.
However, this lack of freedom has its merits. The game does an excellent job with its pacing. You never have to spend too much time dillydallying around before the action kicks in, likewise, the dungeons are never so long that they become frustrating.
Considering that Tokyo Xanadu Ex+ is an enhanced port of a Vita title, you should keep your expectations low when it comes to the graphics. Ys fans should immediately know what to expect – simple, but nevertheless effective visuals. Even with the janky textures and sharp edges, it’s hard to call Tokyo Xanadu anything but pretty. The vibrant color palette goes a long way with establishing a visual identity. I had the opportunity to play the game on my PlayStation 4 Pro and the framerate is buttery smooth while the visuals are as every bit as sharp as you imagine.
Even though Tokyo Xanadu borrows heavily from the Persona series, it still has enough personality in it to be wholeheartedly entertaining. While not as deep and brooding as the evident source material, Tokyo Xanadu still managed to be a surprisingly enjoyable experience. The enormous cast of characters with rich side stories made the world feel bustling with life, while the real-time twitch battles meant combat had more staying power than if it went the typical turn-based approach. Tokyo Xanadu might not be the most innovative title out there, but it manages to blend its ideas well enough that every JRPG fan should at least give it a try.