A great idea for a puzzle platformer game that's bogged down by questionable implementation.
Japanese developer Climax Entertainment is primarily known for isometric action games such as: Landstalker (Genesis), Lady Stalker (Super Famicom), and Dark Savior (Saturn). Steal Princess is their latest effort, and with it they stay isometric but give us a puzzle platformer instead of an action adventure game. While it’s a very interesting and challenging puzzler, its control issues and unpredictable difficulty will frustrate many players.
You play as Anise, a well-known thief and princess with an eye patch. Anise has a companion fairy by the name of Kukri (this game's equivalent of Navi from Ocarina of Time), who saved Anise after finding her unconscious in a surging river, due to barely surviving a trap in the palace of the Ancient Demon King. As Anise recovers, she meets up with the king who thinks that Anise is a descendant of the hero who defeated the Demon King. Anise is tasked with saving the king's son who is trapped in the Demon's King Palace, or else be convicted as a thief and locked in jail for life.
Each level in Steal Princess is essentially a self-contained puzzle in a 3D isometric stage. The goal in each level is to destroy a set number of monsters to find a key, and then place the key in a keyhole block in order to unlock a gate that leads to the next level. At the end of each level you are awarded a medal based on how fast you completed it.
The puzzle aspect of the game is a mixture of conquering the level while figuring out what weapon to use to kill each enemy. In the beginning of the game, the objectives and layouts of each level are fairly straightforward. As you progress, the level of complexity in each level ramps up quickly; for example, you’ll have to figure out how to use enemies in order to cross a floor of spikes, or ride an enemy's projectile to the other side of the level, all while dealing with complex level design. The game also throws some weird curveballs, such as switches counting as an enemy. If you are stuck in a level, Kukri occasionally gives you vague hints to help you to solve the puzzle.
Anise only has two inventory slots. One slot is permanently occupied by Anise's whip, which can be used to stun enemies, latch on to an airborne enemy, activate switches, grab enemies from a long distance, and so forth. The other inventory slot can hold any item, but once Anise picks up another item the original item is dropped on the ground. The only exception to this rule are gems; these are stored in a separate gem inventory, and Anise only drops a gem when an enemy hits her.
Steal Princess features over 150 levels, and while some level layouts are repeated each level has a unique puzzle. There are occasional boss fights, with the battle being a puzzle itself since players must figure out where the boss' weak point in order to defeat it.
While the game is full of clever puzzles, it also has really frustrating levels. Part of this frustration is that the controls feel loose; there are some levels that require very precise platforming, yet it's very challenging to pull it off since you are playing on a 45-degree isometric playfield with mediocre controls. There will be times when you will inadvertently fall into pits or other hazards, and you will sometimes miss landing on a platform. Occasionally there is a large object that blocks your view, but since you can't rotate the camera you ultimately have to figure out what's behind the object through trial and error. There are three different button configurations, but they are irritatingly only listed in the game manual.
Another issue is the lock-on mechanism. It always locks on to the closest targetable enemy or object, and if there are multiple targetable objects it will lock-on to each item frantically. This behavior can causes your target to change at the last minute when you attempt to hit or latch-on to it. The only way to bypass the automatic lock-on is by using touchscreen controls, but that means you have to deal with controls that are even more imprecise.
The biggest feature that Steal Princess offers is its mapmaker mode. The mapmaker itself is very robust, allowing you to take a pre-existing level template and populate it with enemies, weapons, the location of the keyhole block, and the exit gate. You can also set up enemy movement patterns and even the victory condition.
There are a few key issues with the mapmaker, however. The biggest one is that everything is locked in the beginning, which means you can't even create a basic puzzle consisting of a key, a keyhole box, and an exit gate. To unlock things for the mapmaker, you have to collect various gems in each level in order to purchase them. Sharing levels is limited to local wireless, and online friends if you have exchanged friend codes. You also have only six slots to use for saving custom levels.
Steal Princess has potential thanks to its interesting puzzles, but it is ultimately brought down by poor controls, varying degrees of difficulty, and the fact that practically every aspect of the mapmaker is locked at first. If you can look past these issues, you’ll find a challenging, but flawed, puzzle title.