If there’s one thing I can always count on Atlus for, it’s unique, content-rich experiences that are just different enough from the norm to be enthralling, but still familiar. The latest handheld release from the publisher, Code of Princess, follows that trend with its blend of side-scrolling brawler action and RPG-lite elements. It isn’t a perfect game, but it so well designed for the platform that its deficiencies can be overlooked.

Any fan of anime will feel right at home with Code of Princess’ character designs, odd personalities and setting. The story takes place at the fall of the DeLuxian kingdom at the hands of the Distron army. Princess Solange Blanchefleur de Lux flees from her pursuers with legendary blade DeLuxcalibur in tow. On her quest to restore her kingdom and defeat the aggressors, she’ll meet a host of unique companions, inclduing Ali-Baba the androgynous thief, Zozo the necromancer, Allegro the annoying elf bard, a conniving merchant cat and more.

Some of the best moments of the game come from the interactions among the party, the scenes of the bumbling and sinister antagonists, including the creepy, childlike Alchemia and her skeletal serpentine pet and the reactions of the caricature pedestrians to the odd goings on around them. The voice acting is, at moments delightful, and at others over-embellished to the point of simply wanting characters to get on with it. It’s never as bad as in the midst of combat, though. Hearing the same two or three lines repeated over and over with every attack becomes maddening.

Thankfully, once the volume is turned down, the combat becomes much more enjoyable. At the outset, only Solange is available for use, bringing DeLuxcalibur into battle against armored soldiers. The gameplay is set up similarly to Guardian Heroes, with three planes of combat that can easily be navigated (blocking with the shoulder button and tapping up/down). In addition to a light and heavy attack, there is a face button for locking on (doubling your damage against one enemy at a time) and for activating and deactivating Burst mode (doubling all of you damage and stunning nearby enemies).

The simple hack-and-slash combat is varied with the inclusion of special moves that vary among the cast. These are simple to execute, requiring only two directional presses (down+forward or down+down) and one of the two attack buttons. This enables the use of magic like fireballs or shockwaves. It also helps distinguish the characters, which are all upgraded individually, and begin their stories from the moment Solange meets them. This means that later on, you’ll be replaying the same stages with new characters in order to beef up their stats. This is where Code of Princess shines. The stages are very brief, some taking less than two minutes to complete. This is a perfect fit for the 3DS, though it functions better when you’re replaying stages and can easily fast-forward through dialog. When going through the first time, I wanted more gameplay and less chatter.

One of the things that struck me early on was how slow most of the characters moved in battle. The pace was so plodding that it was severely impacting my enjoyment. That’s where the RPG elements come in. Not only can you boost your characters’ speed stat (though some naturally move more fluidly than others), but you can find or purchase from shopkeeper Marco Neko stat-enhancing equipment. There are five slots (sword, shield, head, hand, neck), but there is little differentiation among them. In fact, each cast member can use anything discovered, and the same item can be equipped on multiple characters.

Most of the gear alters your stats making you stronger, faster or more resilient to damage. Some give you resistances to elemental assaults. My favorites are in the sword category, as there are some items that add effects to your bursts. Being able to heal while bursting or ensure your attacks can’t be blocked (a key ability once enemies stop standing around waiting for a punishing) adds a layer of strategy to the otherwise overtly physical game play.

There are also a number of multiplayer modes available, but unless you have someone to play with (either locally or over the Internet), you’re probably going to be as disappointed as I was. There are three versions of versus play. The standard free play and ranked matches are available, allowing you to take standard versions of heroes, villains and monsters into battle. There is also an “Ultimate” mode that gives you the chance to show off your single-player builds of Solange and company. Unfortunately, there were no lobbies. At all. I was unable to test the competitive play, and the co-op was just as deserted. These are great inclusions, but if you don’t have a friend that is purchasing the game, I would not factor it into your decision.

As I mentioned earlier, the presentation closely emulates the anime style. The dialog is handled through cardboard cutouts with textboxes to accompany the voiceovers. The character design is bizarre, though mostly in a good way. Solange’s metal bra and general lack of attire doesn’t seem befitting a princess (in fact, in a moment of mistaken identity, she is accused of being a “professional”). On the flip side, necromancer Zozo is delightfully odd, and the voice actor’s deadpan delivery is perfectly fitting. The 3D effect is well-implemented in this title, and while I typically turn it off, I enjoyed leaving it fully enabled here.

I’ve detailed the breadth of voice acting quality, and the major misstep here is the repetition of the lines spouted during battle. If used sparingly, they could have enhanced the soundscape, but the overabundance becomes annoying to the point where silencing the game was preferable. The music is largely forgettable, leaving me playing games with the volume slider as the experience rapidly transitioned from cutscene to combat and back again. It’s not the actors are bad—I definitely wanted the sound up during the dramatic sequences—I just couldn’t bear to listen to the repetition while swinging my sword.

As I mentioned at the outset, Code of Princess isn’t a perfect title, but it does offer up an experience that can only be found in one other title that comes to mind: Guardian Heroes. It would be far easier to recommend if the online community had a pulse, and I can only imagine that playing this with a friend would be enjoyable, if a bit frustrating given the brevity of the missions. As a single-player experience, there is still a wealth of content. The replay value would be further enhanced if the missions were at all different when played with another member of the cast. Instead, you’ll be retreading the same areas, with the same dialog, again and again.

If you yearn for a beat-em-up with modern sensibilities, look no further. The RPG elements keep things fresh longer, but those expecting a deeply strategic experience will likely be disappointed. The platform-perfect level design, quirky characters that all play differently and multi-planar combat are just different and enjoyable enough to help Code of Princess stand out as unique and largely enjoyable.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Lots of content
+ Bite-sized missions fit the platform perfectly
+ Smart evolution of classic beat-em-up gameplay
+ Good use of 3D visuals
+ Light RPG elements help keep things fresh
+ Good anime presentation…
- … but boy, the in-battle voicing gets really old
- Replay value involves retreading the same scenes with different characters

- Online scene is completely dead
- I will never understand half-naked fighting

 

 

7 and 7.5 represent a game that overall manages to be worth a playthrough, just not worth the full price at launch. These scores are for games that are relatively good or even really good, but generally worth waiting for a sale or picking up as a rental when possible.

Code of Princess was developed by Agatsuma Entertainment and published by Atlus. It was released on October 9, 2012, at the MSRP of $39.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.