It's a fashion statement.
Code of Princess was my Handheld Game of Show at E3 this year. I was pretty excited by the announcement of a release date, and briefly crushed when we learned Atlus was making no promises as to what outlets were getting review copies. Luckily, the next day brought good news. In the last few days, I’ve had plenty of time to become acclimated to the game, largely thanks to my wife being away for grad school. Despite the few flaws it has, Code of Princess is a wonderful game made even more so by Atlus’ localization efforts.
Code of Princess is, at its core, a brawler. I’ve read multiple comparisons to Guardian Heroes—a game I’ve never had the pleasure of playing. But if it’s anything like Code of Princess, I’m there. Code of Princess has several gameplay modes: single-player and local/online multiplayer are the two umbrella categories. We’ll talk more about online multiplayer later. Single-player is divided into the main Campaign mode, Free Play, and a variety of bonus missions. Campaign is the meat and potatoes of the game. You take four playable characters (and several NPCs) through the game’s ridiculous story, which involves trolls, treants, mechanical monsters, ninjas, and an evil sealed demon lady who, of course, becomes unsealed. Although there are only four playable characters, their gameplay styles differ so substantially that you’ll quickly find a favorite. I, of course, went with the titular princess, Solange, who wields a ridiculously large sword.
Should you find yourself being decimated by the opposition, it may be time to take advantage of the game’s RPG elements. Your characters level up; with each level, you earn skill points you can use to beef up your stats, including health, strength, defense, magic, “piety,” etc. Additionally, you’ll earn new equipment (weapons, armor, accessories) to customize your stats. Money dropped from enemies can be used later at a shop run by an Egyptian cat named Marco Neko. Should you need to “grind” (and you will), hop into Free Play mode or take on some bonus missions. Replaying boss encounters usually nets a good XP return. Even with minimal grinding, you can beat the campaign in just a few hours. Then you can take on the bonus missions (many of which are very hard) or replay the campaign with a new character. Or you can start playing online.
Online multiplayer provides some obstacles. First, there’s almost nobody online—probably because this is a niche Atlas game. Second, connecting to other players (like Neal Ronaghan) is hit or miss. When you DO connect to other players, the frame rate drops significantly with each player who joins after the second one. I have yet to play a four-player game, but the three-player PvP match I encountered looked something like a slow-flashing strobe light. It was brutal, and made me not want to play online. I did play a few co-op matches with a guy who’s character was less than half what Solange was at the time, and he actually stopped playing with me because I was decimating everything on screen.
The game’s crowning achievement is its localization: every line of dialogue is spoken, and every voice actor gives a great performance. The story itself may be silly and predictable, but the wonderful script elevates it. You’ll chuckle at the unusually appropriate grunts from the party’s strongman, laugh when a blind samurai asks the rotting zombie-necromancer on a date, and groan whenever Solange tries to justify her skimpy outfit (“it’s designer!”). Even one of the game’s villains, a ninja, provides many of the game’s most over-the-top moments, driven home by the voice actor’s excellent delivery. The funniest character may be Allegro, the playable bard, who continually breaks the fourth wall (he’s level 99—he swears!). This game’s localization is on par with that of the Mario & Luigi games—no expense spared.
The game’s production values are similarly impressive. Character models seem to be cel-shaded to a certain extent, though they are clearly polygonal. Everybody animates absolutely flawlessly, down to the smallest detail. Backgrounds are impressively modeled as well, but do tend to repeat way too often. There are a few unique areas in the bonus missions, though. In case you were unaware, battles take place on a three-plane playing field, so you can take a break from combat, focus on other enemies, or set up a combo for when your pursuer jumps to your plane. The 3D effect makes this three-plane conceit visually impressive, though the game is prone to periods of graphical stuttering during sequences involving lots of enemies, collisions, and particle effects. The music, however, is disappointing not in its quality, which is fine, but in the frequency that tracks repeat. The game’s soundtrack CD has a whopping eight tracks, so this concern may be purposeful, and unappreciated.
There are, of course, some minor downfalls. Chief among them is the finicky online behavior, which I’m hoping is a bug that can be worked out. I’m not thrilled at the player’s inability to skip the cut scenes during retreads of Campaign missions or Free Play, as the scripted sequences prior to or after gameplay can be lengthy. The other unfortunate flaw may be more generally applied to brawlers at large: they can be very repetitious. Once you figure out the best combos or special attacks, it’s just a matter of rinse, repeat in almost every stage. Sure, sometimes you’ll be asked to protect NPCs instead of just killing everything in sight, but even that mostly involves killing everything in sight! This is where the game’s RPG elements attempt spice things up, but if you’re fundamentally opposed to the genre, Code of Princess might not be for you. It’s also never fun when you blow through multiple waves of enemies only to come to the final wave of overpowered hulks or a cheap, juggling boss who kills you, which results in a lot of lost time. But, again, that’s a caveat of the genre at large.
Code of Princess is an exceptional game, and despite its repetitiousness. You’re constantly unlocking new characters and equipment, and you can play with friends and foes online—you can even play as the barmaid from an early Campaign mission (all she can do is punch and kick). And while you are, technically, doing the exact same thing in every mission (kill stuff), the game’s multiple modes and levels of challenge provide a stunning amount of content. If you can get online with a friend to kick around some of the bonus missions, it’s impossible NOT to have fun.