(This is the original extra lengthy draft of my Code of Princess review. To read the shorter edited version, go to GamerCheese.com)
Most of the games on the 3DS fall into a few categories: hyper polished first party games, quick ports, or cheap cash-ins. So, popping in Code of Princess is a strange experience as the game is clearly rather low budget and rough, yet is undeniably good. I’ve played games like this in the past, but this may be the first on 3DS. Turning it on you’re greeted with a 2D anime opening movie, and completely 2D menus that are very…utilitarian. They get the job done but lack any sort of flash. But once you start the game, it become fantastic.
Why? Well, to make a long story short: it’s Guardian Heroes. In fact, some of the Guardian Heroes team even worked on the game! If you’re unfamiliar with Guardian Heroes, it’s a side scrolling beat’em up with RPG elements that uses a very unusual control scheme. Rather than having up move you into and out of the background, it instead allows you to jump like in a fighting game. With these fighting game-esque controls comes a variety of special moves and combos as well while movement into and out of the screen is handled by having characters leap between three different “planes” of combat.
But what makes this game different from Guardian Heroes? Well first of all, characters have significantly more moves. Players can, thankfully, bring up a movelist on the bottom screen and the moves themselves are all simple. The most complex motion you’ll do is a quarter circle. The rest is simple directions or double-taps of directions plus a button. Movement between planes is handled in a more comfortable manner as well, you hold a shoulder button and press up and down to move in and out of the screen. This is great as I could never remember which way L or R moved me back in Guardian Heroes. Also, along with the fact that players each have their own systems and screens, you now collect items that can be equipped between stages to boost stats.
There are some downsides though. For one thing, you can’t crouch in this game, oddly enough. Also, at times there are too many moves that are too specialized have incredibly lengthy animations. There have been a few times where I’ve dashed in with Allegro and accidentally did his “play dead” move instead of the move I wanted. The biggest issue would probably be with the main magic user, Lady Zozo. You see, her Forward+X move is a rapid fire magic missile swarm. That’s great, but it drains mana. How do you get mana? Well you have to beat up on enemies with physical attacks or block some hits. However, Lady Zozo has very few physical attacks and trying to dash in and throw some jabs could cause you to instead waste mana on magic missiles or worse, attempt to do magic missiles without mana leaving yourself open. Make no mistake, these are problems that can easily be worked around with practice but they do get in the way.
The game itself is divided up into bite sized stages. Each stage generally opens and ends with some fully voiced story sequences and the core levels themselves are short. This may be disconcerning at first as the first few stages are little more than a single room full of enemies. However, worry not. As the game progresses you encounter lengthier stages. They’re still short compared to some beat ’em ups, but it works well for a portable environment.
The story is admittedly cliche. A Princess whose kingdom is overthrown by The Evil Empire runs away with a Giant Magical Sword and quickly meets A Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who uncover A Secret Conspiracy and have to stop An Ancient Evil. Yes, we’ve seen it all before. I mean, there are only so many excuses to get together a weird bunch of characters to save the world. The key here is in who these characters are and how they are written, and this is where Code of Princess shines. Princess Solange is a naive pacifist, Lady Zozo is an anti-social necromancer trapped in the body of a zombie, Allegro is an elven bard with an electric guitar and a massive ego, and the thief Ali is the deadpan snarker of the group. The game’s story is a plesant mix of lighthearted humor and occasional seriousness that works well and is incredibly entertaining. The voice work is fantastic too, which is good because the game is dub only thanks to the limitations of the 3DS’s cartridge-based storage medium.
You can probably blast through the story pretty quickly, but the game hardly ends there. There are also a number of unlockable characters and bonus challenge missions you can take on. The game boasts that it has 500 of them, but that is counting the multiplayer exclusive ones.
You’ll notice that I only listed 4 characters when the game advertises 8. Well, strangely enough, though the other characters appear in story mode they are not playable in it. You can only play as Tsukikage, Sister Hel, Master T, and Marconeko in bonus missions, versus mode, and multiplayer. This is especially befuddling because aside from one scene, all the Stories for the other 4 characters are the same, so why not let us play as the other 4 once they join up. Furthermore, while these characters tag along, they do so little one wonders why they are even there. Adding to the strangeness, this means that the only male character you can play as in story mode is the elven bard. While this complaint is minor really, I can’t help but feel like it was false advertising.
This is where the big question comes up: Multiplayer. Yes, it has 4-player co-op and versus modes. Yes, you can play it online. However no, you cannot play the Story Mode in multiplayer. This seems like a big letdown at first as going through the story with friends would be a blast, but they would all be demanding you skip the cutscenes anyway. You can, however, replay story missions minus cutscenes in 2-player co-op. That’s the other thing, you have different missions in 2-player, 3-player, and 4-player co-op modes and admittedly you get far more of them in 2-player.
The online interface is strange, not using friend codes or the ability to join a friend’s game but instead requiring players to enter in 4-digit passwords to meet their friends in a game. Stranger still, once you complete a mission you are booted back to the search screen and thus can’t keep playing with the same crew you just found. It’s a little strange, but thankfully at least the netcode is decent. I admit I’ve encountered some massive lag in 4-player games, but 3-player matches usually work well and 2-player is almost consistantly flawless. This lag could also stem from one player having a weak connection. It’s hard to tell because, believe it or not, the game does not tell you the connection quality of the players you are playing with. Like I said, the online interface is strange, but it does work.
Guardian Heroes veterans will probably ask another question: What’s the deal with playable monsters? Yes, just like Guardian Heroes you can unlock monsters and bosses for play in versus mode. The real question is if you can use them in stages and online co-op. The answer is yes, though the option has to be unlocked. Beating the game unlocks the ability to use monsters in offline stages, while clearing 100 missions unlocks them for online play. This is fantastic as while many monsters aren’t particularly fun to play, the bosses most certainly are. Case in point: Baku Juppongi, the incredibly theatrical ninja, has just as many moves and skills as the main cast. It definately adds some extra value to the game.
The graphics are actually much better than they look. The game uses pre-rendered sprites, which seems off putting at first. However the sprites actually animate quite well and look pretty decent in motion. The real kicker though is the 3D effect. Yes, you would think a game with completely 2D menus would have lackluster 3D but you would be wrong. The game uses a good mix of 3D polygons and 2D sprites with a lot of layers going deep into the background. The resulting 3D effect makes the game look way better and gives a weird interactive diorama effect. On the flip side though, playing with the 3D turned off can make it difficult to tell which plane you’re fighting on and can make your character hard to see when the camera is zoomed really far out.
The music is really good, but unfortunately under utilized. Despite having a boat load of fantastic songs, they usually only use one of two songs for stages and a boss song. It’s rather irritating hearing how good Ali’s theme is only to realize you almost never get to do a stage set to it.
So, with all that said, is the game any good? I would definately say yes. While it has some dry presentation and odd design oversights, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a fun, deep, and meaty brawler. Not to mention that, at the moment, it is my most played 3DS game of all time and from the looks of things it’s destined to become a cult classic.