Princess Debut is part relationship simulation, part rhythm game, and all fairytale.
"I HATE BOYS!" If this review had been written half-way through my playing of Natsume's Princess Debut, that exclamation would have been the tagline. Yet what else could I say when, with just 15 days before the big ball, my dance partner prince stopped showing up to practice, exhibited a distinct lack of self confidence, and still played practical jokes on me every chance he got? Maybe I should've gone with someone more sensitive, like Liam, or that dark brooding Luciano… but I was stuck with boyish, carefree Vince! "OOOOH!"
Part ballroom rhythm game and part relationship management sim, Princess Debut is a game whose appeal grows the more one is willing to live the game's fairytale. It's how one plays the game off the screen, as well as on the screen, that matters.
Yet at first glance, Princess Debut is a rhythm game in the manner of Elite Beat Agents (Ouendan in Japan), set against the more manageable pace of ballroom music and using the stylus to trace simple to moderately complex patterns. Indeed, though the game uses ballroom dancing, players don't need to learn each dance's particular beat; they only need to adapt to the tempo so that they can pace themselves and keep on time with the simple patterns they trace with the stylus. However, those who count out the 1-2-3 of the waltz, or a 1-2-cha-cha-cha, can confidently start on time after breaks in each song, time the developers set aside so players could catch their breath while the music plays on. The game offers 20 songs in ten different dance forms, from Viennese Waltz, to Samba, to Quickstep.
This gameplay proves extremely accessible, simpler, easier, and slower-paced than Elite Beat Agents. However, when players pursue a high score, something they cannot avoid since they'll be forced to repeat each song's performance more than once, constant concentration is necessary to never miss a beat and garner "great" ratings instead of "good" ones. Another difficulty players will face is unlocking the full catalog of the game's songs and routines by playing through story mode several times.
While tracing is done on the bottom screen, players can glance at the top DS screen for a 3D view of the characters dancing, and for icons denoting the upcoming patterns they'll trace. The 3D figures on the top screen move gracefully thanks to the motion-capturing of real dance professionals for the animations. On one hand, this means that the figures on the top screen don't represent any errors or successes made by the player, and that sometimes the costumes players choose can clip with a prince's legs. It's also disappointing that, on closer inspection, the motion-captured dance routines are repeated three times during a song instead of running its entire length. But on the other hand, what you see on the top screen is impressive, professional ballroom dancing, something worth taking the time to watch in the game's separate movie mode. The developers even included an option to display the steps in terms of footprints from the female partner, though it's unlikely anyone could pick up the complex routines by such a method.
The game's second half comes into play in Story mode. Given only a month to prepare for the big ball, the player must charm one of six possible princes into being their dance partner, nurture the relationship through daily events and careful dialogue choices, and practice dancing as much as possible in order to level up and unlock new songs.
Some of these activities could be considered a trivial layer of gameplay; truthfully, there are times when Princess Debut consists of visiting the various settings available and finding small activities or trivial opportunities, like picking the petals off a leaf in a "does he love me?" game accompanied only by bright 2D anime-style art. However, the game also presents the player with meaningful events and meaningful choices from time to time. Sometimes a choice between three seemingly innocuous dialogue choices can be deceptively dangerous (how was I to know that Prince Klaus would get upset when I mentioned how all the girls were chasing him?), or even game-changing. I actually panicked and reset the game when, after driving my partner away by responding in what I believed was justified anger, I was once again in the market for a prince. One wonders what drama lies behind the friendly facades of the other princes, or if I really could have caught another prince to dance with me in the seven days I had left.
The combination of the two games - rhythm game and relationship simulation - propels the game's story mode through all of the dancing and drama. But it's not all a smooth ride; when starting the story mode, players will need to unlock all of the songs all over again, playing each song four or five times before a new one is made available. Each complete story mode playthrough takes about four hours, and the obvious intent is for players to revisit the story mode more than once as there are additional songs and costumes to unlock and a total of six princes to pursue.
Thankfully, all the songs and costumes that the player unlocks are made available outside of Story mode in Practice mode and Movie mode. Another mode, the Ballroom mode, challenges the player to do six songs in a row, each time besting a set score to move onto the next score.
At a glance, Princess Debut is a very easy rhythm game paired with a Story mode centered on the chasing and charming of princes. But if you choose to live in the fairy tale, its unique take on the music/rhythm genre, vibrant visuals, and lightly melodramatic storylines prove enchanting in their own right. The right sort of player with the right sort of mindset can find a happy ending in Princess Debut. I know for a fact that by the time I put the game down, my Princess Elena and her Prince Vince, after much drama, found theirs.