"If Battle Princess Arcadia were an anime archetype, she would be the tsundere."
The phrase "2D side-scrolling action-RPG with storybook-inspired visuals" could describe any number of games. Odin Sphere, Dust: An Elysian Tail, Dragon's Crown, even the turn-based Child of Light come to mind, along with a slew of other titles. Looking to find a place at this table is NIS and Apollosoft's Battle Princess of Arcadias. If Battle Princess Arcadia were an anime archetype, she would be the tsundere (girl who's hostile at first but has a sweeter side). This attractive game is off-puttingly mean at first, but as you break down its harshness and get to know its play mechanics, Battle Princess of Arcadias softens into a fun little romp for about 15-20 hours.
The graphics can easily lull you into false sense of security and lead you to think that this game will be an easy ride. The storybook-inspired backgrounds are pretty and spark of a child's imagination, such as the motif of water fowl that pervades the main castle. The characters themselves look like bright-eyed characters out of a children's anime series. The enemies, even the largest and most intimidating, have an exaggerated cartoony look to them. Unlike stalwart VanillaWare, however, the sprite animations are somewhat stiff, like paper dolls or cardboard cutouts, leading to occasional collision-detection issues.
The music also lends an air of innocent sweetness to the game. The goofy town theme, the shimmery title theme, the enchanting overworld theme, the delightfully atmospheric stage themes, and the catchy J-Pop vocal themes that accompany several boss battles are all enjoyable to listen to. The music offers a very "happy fun times" vibe that fits the game's cute aesthetics without revealing its more devious side.
The nonsensical plot feels arbitrarily put together and directionless, especially in the early going. Even though the plot tightens up a bit later on, there are still some disjointed elements and plot points that are either poorly explained or left hanging. The basic idea of the plot is that the world is in danger and it's up to the naive-yet-powerful princess Plume and her motley crew of wacky B-list companions to save the day.The characters represent the more annoying exaggerations of typically overdone archetypes and are all slow on the uptake in their own absurd ways. The localization reads smoothly, but the game's silly script tries way too hard to be funny and ends up being exasperating instead.
Outside of music, battles are awash in clashes, swipes, and Japanese battle cries. Yes, the game's battles and cutscenes are voiced, and the only voices available are the original Japanese ones. There is no third-rate English dubbing to be found here. The voice acting itself offers the kind of over-the-top cartoonish tomfoolery you would expect.
The gameplay can be broken down into three different types of scenarios. Combat scenarios are your basic sidescrolling beat-em-up stages in which you select three characters who you can instantly switch in and out of play. Skirmish scenarios are where you select 3 types of brigades (different characters lead brigades with different weapon specialties that work against enemy brigades in a rock-paper-scissor format) and three party members to act as leaders. The party members fight the enemy brigade leaders while their brigades fight in the background. The third scenario is the Siege, in which you select 3 characters that face down a big bad boss with their brigades. Siege and Skirmish scenarios both have a Morale meter that serves as a Limit Break-style meter that, when filled up, allows damaging attacks. These "Limit Breaks" are called Brigade Arcana in Skirmishes and Showdowns in Sieges.
The game's early going requires a fair bit of level grinding. Plume amasses a ton of companions into her entourage, but only those who engage in Combat, Skirmishes, or Sieges gain any EXP. In town, money must be invested to level up their brigade soldiers, whose levels cannot be higher than their party member leader. This grind can be draining on your wallet, since Skirmishes operate on a rock-paper-scissor paradigm, and early skirmishes pit you against foes that you lack a weapon advantage against. It doesn't help that once new party members join Plume's entourage, their levels are pretty low. Progress would be smoother if newbies entered the party with levels commensurate to Plume's current level. Since Plume is the main character that players will likely use often, she becomes exponentially more powerful than the others. When my Plume's level was in the 30s, the next highest leveled character was maybe 14 or 15, and some were still in the single digits. That being said, once the game hits the halfway mark, money is in greater supply and there's no need to skimp on brigade training, even if Plume is capable of bulldozing entire battalions by herself.
Control is slightly loose, with sluggish and floaty jumping mechanics. Not helping matters is a clunky, awkward, and unintuitive menu interface. Switching between the item use and brigade AI command menus requires holding down a shoulder button while pressing a face button, and the shoulder button needs to be held down while horizontally cycling through commands, making for some awkward hand positions. This would not be much of an issue if the action paused while menus were open, but, alas, it does not. Being pelted by ridiculous amounts of enemies from all directions while trying to navigate cumbersome menus is poor game design and made many early battles incredibly cheap. I wish there was a "wait/active" toggle option like in the old-school days of Final Fantasy's ATB (Active Time Battle) system wherein the "wait" option paused the action while I cycled through menus. For a fast action game such as this, I expect taut and responsive controls and an interface that doesn't fight me while I'm fighting baddies (especially flying enemies or those with ranged attacks).
Boss battles need to be handled with extreme care, because bosses have a ton of HP, regenerating shields that need to be destroyed before direct damage can be dealt, and have attacks that can wipe out most of your HP. The defend command is your best friend in Battle Princess of Arcadias. Defending makes you practically invincible, so defending can be a matter of life or death when bosses can cut your HP by half or more and eliminate more than half your brigade in one fell swoop.
At least there is no Game Over or real penalty for dying. If you fall in a battle, you keep the EXP you gained and the game just takes you back to the overworld. This makes the game playable, though more masochistic players would probably rather there be legitimate Game Overs to punish you for your mistakes. I am not one of them — if Game Overs existed in Battle Princess Arcadia, I would have shelved it very quickly due to its clunky gameplay mechanics and cheap enemies.
One exploit I discovered early on, and used for some boss Sieges, was to keep defending until the Morale meter filled up, unleash a Showdown, defend to fill up the meter again, Showdown, and repeat till the boss went down. Skirmishes were quite difficult early on, but I discovered that power-levelling Plume, her brigade, and the two other leaders/brigades I used most often early on was more effective than hedging my bets from the start. Once I figured out these and other ways to work the gameplay systems, what was initially a cheaply sadistic game became a bit softer and more enjoyable, like cracking a tsundere's tough shell. Although working the system is not a "get out of jail free" card, it does make the occasional bouts of grinding feel more rewarding than being killed all the time.
Battle Princess of Arcadias is not a bad game and I gleaned some enjoyment out of it, but it's too flawed to fully recommend. During the early going, being cheaply bombarded by enemies while simultaneously fighting floaty controls and a clunky interface with a cast of phenomenally stupid characters in a throwaway plot was not my idea of a good time. That being said, as I played the game more and got to know its systems (and how to exploit them), it did get easier over time and I started to have fun with it. But once I finished the main game, I did not care to do much post-game content, because the game did not interest me any more. If you are interested in games like Battle Princess of Arcadias, I would recommend the better games of this ilk, such as Dragon's Crown, Child of Light, or Dust: An Elysian Tail.