Code of Princess is a 3DS beat-em-up that was originally released in Japan and the United States back in 2012. Some have dubbed the game as the spiritual successor to Guardian Heroes given how it incorporates fighting mechanics with RPG elements and cartoony visuals, much like the aforementioned Sega Saturn cult classic (some of whose team worked on Code of Princess too.) For a while I had resigned myself to the disappointment that I would never get the opportunity to play the game, as no European release date was forthcoming. Importing a copy wasn't an option either as, unlike older Nintendo handhelds, the 3DS is region locked. Thankfully in March the title became available to download from the EU Nintendo e-shop, even if a boxed retail version is not planned to ever hit UK brick and mortar stores.
STORY / PRESENTATION
Set in a medieval swords and sorcery world, players control Princess Solange who is forced to flee from her home after being framed for a monster attack on her kingdom. As wielder of the mythical DeLuxcalibur Blade, it is Solange's duty to battle the monstrous threat afflicting her nation, whilst at the same time evading capture from the hostile Distron Army military forces. Along her travels Solange bands together with a group of adventurers including the flat chested thief Ali Baba, annoying guitarist Allegro and Zozo a pigtailed necromancer who everyone mistakes for a zombie. The plot, which culminates in a battle with a fallen angel, is wafer thin but all that can be forgiven as the onus is on keeping things lighthearted and funny. Get ready to chuckle at Zozo's habit of misplacing body parts or commentary about Solange's ill suited combat attire (she's one of those well endowed heroines who believes bikini-mail offers sufficient protection.)
In terms of presentation, Code of Princess boasts an impressive soundtrack complete with a gloriously cheesy J-Pop opening theme and catchy in-game music. Another plus in the sonics department would have to be the commendable voice acting that breathes life to the characters, normally sampled in the brief moments of dialogue that play out prior to the commencement of a level.
Aesthetically, the whole thing has an anime tinged flavor to it ranging from the animated cut scenes and character designs by Kinu Nishimura, whose work some of you may recognize from the handheld visual novel/puzzler Virtue's Last Reward. The impressive visuals genuinely look like a cartoon, so it is a shame that admiring their detail is somewhat hampered by the camera's tendency to zoom out reducing the sprites to miniscule stick figures. The game does this to accommodate the large number of enemies that can be on screen at any one time, supposedly giving you a better view of the battlefield. In practice however panning out makes things hard to see for 3DS early adopters whose screens are far smaller than the newer XL models.
Gameplay wise, Code of Princess is a 2D button bashing brawler. The simplistic controls allow players to execute quick/weak strikes or slower/stronger attacks. By using the D-Pad, in conjunction with the attack buttons, it is possible to perform a variety of sword slashes including mana draining special moves. Solange for example can swing her sword to hurl a magical projectile or leap up into the air to launch a dragon punch-ish multi-hit assault with her weapon. The D-Pad, by itself, handles movement commanding your fighter to traipse left and right as well as ordering them to leap into the background/foreground to evade enemy damage. Stages are in effect broken down into three "paths" you can skip between akin to the old Fatal Fury games. Advanced techniques include the ability to consume your entire mana bar to perform a quick burst that stuns enemies in the vicinity and momentarily raises your attack power. It is also possible to lock onto a solitary foe, increasing the damage they sustain whilst also permitting ranged attacks to hone in on said target.
Levels tend to be fast paced affairs that can, on average, be cleared in less than five minutes. Each mission plunks the player onto a mini-arena were they have to achieve a specified objective within the allotted time limit. Normally you'll be asked to defeat a certain number of enemies, but other times you may be tasked with vanquishing a boss or protecting a hapless companion from harm. The story restricts players to controlling Solange or one of the three other party members I mentioned earlier, but a plethora of other characters can be unlocked for use in the optional bonus quests or free mode that allows you to replay completed levels.
The facility to rerun through earlier levels comes in handy as completing a stage earns you both experience points and gold. These resources will aid you in overcoming the challenges you encounter by beefing up your character. Coinage can be traded for costly stat boosting gear (weapons, armor, accessories etc) from the diminutive cat merchant who dresses like a pharaoh (I can only hazard a guess at how intoxicated the developers were when they came up with that idea.) Accumulating exp, on the other hand, makes your selected warrior level up, giving you five points to distribute across various attributes (you can use the points for example to raise your strength, number of hit points, speed and so on.)
Overall, Code of Princess is a well-put together game and only suffers from some minor niggles. The most notable flaw would have to be the slow downs that afflict the frame rate whenever too many characters happen to be on screen. This would cause input delays resulting in me getting backstabbed, as my character wouldn't turn around quickly enough to face their sneaky assailant. There's also a brief pause whenever an objective is cleared that can get annoying. On more than one occasion poor Solange got blasted by a nearby bomb, unable to vacate the blast radius, as she was paralyzed due to the aforementioned quest completion time freeze.
Even though, on paper, Code of Princess has the trimmings to be a five star game I can only award it a mediocre three out of five. The slick presentation, easy to learn controls and gut busting humor unfortunately fail to coalesce into anything substantial. The combat system is too simplistic to be satisfying, often relying on spamming one button to achieve victory. Whenever you get stuck, rather than honing your skills to get better, merely grinding levels to power up your character ends up being sufficient to overcome whatever obstacle is giving you trouble.
Disappointingly the game's multiplayer scene is dead, which really hurts the title's replay value. Whenever I tried to take advantage of the online features I was unable to find people to play with, no matter what mode I selected. That's a shame, as the single player story won't keep your interest for long given how quickly the levels can be cleared. I personally would have preferred longer side scrolling stages (akin to Golden Axe) over the mini-arenas, pitting you against waves of enemies, which we get. Although I am okay with my purchase, as I bought the game on sale and still play it daily to try out different characters, it is hard to recommend the game to a casual player. If you are the type of person who is content with just playing through the story you may want to give this a miss. A campaign that can be completed with barely an hour registering on the clock is hardly worth the asking price.