For years, no game has perfectly emulated the successful gameplay of the original Guardian Heroes since its release for the Sega Saturn almost two decades ago. It’s a cult classic that’s achieved near legendary status as one of the best beat ’em up games in existence. A recent rerelease on the Xbox 360 exposed the game to a new generation of gamers, and now 3DS owners will get a chance to see what they are missing thanks to Agatsuma, who has taken many of the things that made Guardian Heroes a success and transferred them to a handheld experience called Code of Princess. Unfortunately, something may have been lost in the transition.
The heroine of the game, Solange Blanchefluer de Lux, is a princess exiled from her home, the Kingdom of DeLuxia, after being unfairly criticized and shunned for a monster attack on her kingdom. During the crisis, the obviously evil Distron army usurps the princess’ power, forcing her to flee with her family heirloom, the DeLuxcalibur. It isn’t long before Solange gains support from a ragtag bunch of misfits including the gentlewoman thief Ali Baba, totally not a zombie girl Zozo, and the cowardly bard Allegro. With the help of her new friends Solange swears to reclaim her kingdom.
The plot is about as deep as a puddle, but Code of Princess doesn’t just adhere to anime and JRPG-inspired tropes, it revels in them and pokes fun at itself for doing so at every opportunity. The entire cast is made up of stock anime clichés and archetypes that catapult each character’s specific trait to parody levels. The main character is — shall we say — immodestly dressed and every other mission people are telling her to put on a damn shirt. The result is cheesy dialogue that would make even the most cynical of gamers chuckle once or twice in a story that would otherwise be considered rote and by-the-numbers. Atlus’ localization doesn’t fail to take note of this; the anime opening retains the Japanese vocals, though the characters are still voiced in English rather competently, even if the execution is somewhat generic. The soundtrack is similarly uninspired.
Adding to the effect are character designs from Kinu Nishimura, an artist who has garnered fame for her work in Rival Schools, Street Fighter, and, more recently, the Zero Escape series. Her character art is detailed and well-designed, though she has a penchant for drawing buxom ladies and macho men, so anyone with delicate sensibilities should take note.
The problem, however, is the game’s actual graphics. The characters and environments look fine when close up, but when zoomed out they just barely represent their original designs. Unfortunately, most of the game takes place zoomed out. Part of the problem is that the 3DS’s resolution is not meant to render these models at such a long distance, or with such large fields. The unclear graphics hamper the experience by making it difficult to distinguish your character from other players and sometimes even enemies.
The gameplay is lacking in more areas than one, which is a shame because all of the elements that make a great game are here. Code of Princess is a 2D beat-’em-up; instead of a full range of motion, characters can only move left or right, but there are three concurrent lines at any given point and players can switch between them freely. Only four characters are available at the outset, but more are unlocked as the game progresses. Each character plays very differently as well, such as strong but slow Solange or swift footed Ali Baba, and characters have their own signature moves and abilities to rely on when they level up. Gaining levels allows players to allot points to attributes like strength and speed and gain new attacks as well. Completing quests provides gold to buy items that enhance the abilities and attributes of characters that equip them.
Unfortunately, these gameplay elements never come together to form a cohesive whole. The game’s many aspects never feel satisfying, only tedious and cumbersome. The RPG elements are half baked and poorly thought out — it seems like they were only added to pad the experience so that players would have to grind in order to get past obstacles that can only be solved by throwing higher level characters at them. The attributes are basically meaningless and the equipment is largely ineffectual, not to mention too expensive for the paltry sums of money the player is awarded with each victory.
This would be forgivable if combat was fun and satisfying, but the game fares equally as bad on that front. Each character has two basic attacks — one that’s slow but strong and another that’s weak but fast — as well as their own special abilities. It’s rare that a special ability is required, however, and most battles are won by jabbing one button over and over, provided you’re at a sufficient level. The controls for battle are also somewhat floaty and unresponsive, with characters suffering a delay just to turn towards an enemy. The game’s notion of challenge boggles the mind; most stages just throw swarms of smaller enemies at the player, while others include a single more powerful monster among the smaller enemies, so instead of relying on skill or careful playing, players are forced to level until they are strong enough to progress, making the process intensely tedious and monotonous – two words no action RPG wants to be associated with.
One would think that when playing with others these problems would be somewhat alleviated, but unfortunately it gets even worse in multiplayer. The graphical problems are compounded when more players are on screen at once, and the field of battle zooms out so much that trying to focus on your character is nearly impossible, not to mention that during the more hectic battles, framerate also takes a significant dip. This is worsened by the fact that friendly fire is possible — the player can even be hurt by his own actions, such as by the explosion of a bomb he throws. Finally, in order to select a stage in multiplayer, the player has to have beaten it in the single player campaign first, a major inconvenience for those who just want to play with friends.
I really wanted to like Code of Princess. All the elements for a good game are present: combat inspired by Guardian Heroes, a silly story that pokes fun at the conventions of the medium, an extensive RPG system that allows players to build each fighter in different ways, and some excellent character and environment artwork. However, none of the elements came close to achieving their potential in the fifteen to twenty hours I spent with the game. The combat is bland and uninspired, the RPG elements seem jury-rigged at best, and the graphics are a mess. There’s some playability at the core of the game for those who enjoy mindless, droll beat ’em ups, so Code of Princess isn’t the worst game out there for the 3DS, but for $40 you can do a lot better.