Platform: 3DS (eShop, £29.99)
Developer: Agatsuma Entertainment
Solange Blanchefleur de Luxe is every inch the stereotypical JRPG princess. Having lead a sheltered life in the lap of luxury, she's more than a little naive and innocent in the ways of the world, and sees the good in everyone she meets. Idealistic and impulsive, she's keen to recklessly challenge wrongdoing wherever she sees it. And, as you've probably worked out from the title banner, she wears an outfit skimpy enough to make Soul Calibur's Ivy blush. So far, so depressingly cliché.
However, Solange also expertly wields an enormous claymore that would make Nightmare turn green with envy.
Forced into action by an invading army of monsters, the aristocrat-turned-tank meets a colourful cast of reprobates before facing off against ravening hordes of hostile soldiers, critters and bosses in tight side-scrolling combat. If you've ever played the sensational Guardian Heroes, you'll broadly know what to expect... and will be overjoyed to learn that it's actually a spiritual sequel created by the same developers.
Code Of Princess has finally made it to Europe courtesy of a £29.99 eShop download, and manages to deliver some suitably epic brawling on a handheld platform. Unfortunately, the months of delays and non-negotiable price tag makes it a tougher sell than it ought to be.
As an old-school brawler, Code Of Princess does the business. Thrown into some sidescrolling 2.5D environments with preset combat rails that you can hop between at will, you'll pick a character and throw down on a preset number of respawning goons, monsters and enormous bosses. Solange deals out big heavy sword swipes that need to be perfectly timed to ensure that they connect, while nimble thief Ali uses daggers and bombs for hit & run attacks. On the ranged side of things, gloomy necromancer Lady Zozo liberally scorches the arena with beams, lightning, AoE explosions and DoT effects, complementing the Elf bard Allegro who turns music into stun-locking blasts with a supercharged electric guitar. Each character has a totally unique role and skill set, while having access to blocks, launches, backsteps, tactical 'lock on' attacks that designate a particular enemy for extra damage, and a limited rage mode that doubles attack damage for a short time. Using these two abilities at exactly the right moment can be the difference between victory and complete failure.
However, despite all boasting different abilities, character commands are broadly identical across the board, relying on quarter circles and taps of the heavy and light attack buttons. There's a huge amount of depth in the combat, and a niche for every player, but getting to grips with a new combatant comes with none of the aggravation and learning curve you'd expect from the genre. Purists might balk, but for a handheld game, being able to drop in and play is paramount.
Agatsuma have also made some key alterations to the Guardian Heroes formula in order to make it work well on a portable platform. Instead of one long campaign, the story is cut up into short 1-4 minute chunks that can be replayed for persistent experience, stat-boosting items and gold to give to an anthropomorphic Egyptian pharoah cat in exchange for powerful new gear (because, erm, why not?). This bite-size approach is perfect for stealing a few minutes on the train, while constantly powering up your roster. Unlockable bonus levels let you take on outrageously tough encounters for cumulative rewards, while free play grants you four extra characters to choose from.
On the flip side, most levels are extremely repetitive (kill X number of goons before more goons and boss show up), and levels are basically just bland areas of flat ground without interesting environmental obstacles or hazards to shake things up. There's also a fairly major amount of grinding involved if you want to keep your party balanced, and beast through some wicked difficulty spikes, though some of this can be offset by acquiring powerful 'boss killer' artefacts or gear that boosts your damage output. Worst of all, despite the persistent experience, there's only one difficulty level, meaning that you'll quickly end up with an insanely overpowered party who renders replay value meaningless. Since each of the numerous missions only lasts a couple of minutes, there's less gameplay here than the plethora of stages and modes suggest.
Thankfully, Code Of Princess offers that most delicious of holy gaming grails: genuine personality. Solange is joined by a host of zany and bombastically-voiced characters, both friend and foe, who gleefully bring a real sense of fun and cameraderie to the experience. It's surprisingly avant-garde stuff; though the princess may be a stereotypical Disney heroine, hard-edged Ali is one of the least conventional female protagonists we've ever encountered (looking pound for pound like a traditional male JRPG hero, but twice as tough), and ZoZo's languid apathetic moaning jars hilariously with her necrotic decaying body. The only male lead happens to be a merrily prancing elf who sports a colourful pair of stockings, and constantly promises that he's just a few experience points away from multiclassing into a Sage. He never does.
The dialogue gleefully pokes fun at RPG conventions, everything from experience points to Solange's stupidly skimpy armour, while you'll encounter a loquacious lovestruck ninja master, pre-teen necromancer general and a chap who draws upon bizarre animal attacks such as Heartbroken Badger Stance in battle. Parody humour is a very subjective thing (and Code Of Princess sometimes falls prey to the very things it tries to mock - why doesn't Solange put on plate mail for goodness' sake!), but I personally found the banter to be genuinely infectious, which further helps to stave off repetition and malaise for a while.
Visually, Code Of Princess is a real treat, boasting some gorgeous personality-laden cel shaded character models and detailed backgrounds, but these stunning good looks come with a performance cost. The action struggles to maintain a consistent frame rate, especially in pitched battles or while juggling several enemies at once. Activating stereoscopic 3D exacerbates the effect, and while it doesn't hugely impact on gameplay, it's a constant source of irritation.
Ultimately, the singleplayer campaign is a fun distraction that's good for dipping into little and often, but has trouble sustaining long term play. Like the best brawlers, however, you'll want to get some mates involved sooner or later.
Whereas Nintendo seem to be terrified of the 3DS' online features when it comes to first party titles (beyond Mario Kart 7), Agatsuma Entertainment have gone to town on providing a comprehensive suite of multiplayer modes. The entire story campaign can be experienced with another player along for the ride, with both players getting full credit for experience and items, which is enormous fun despite the lack of full fat four player co-op. However, a whopping number of optional and bonus missions are available for 2-4 players to sink their teeth into (also good for extra XP and items), across multiple difficulty levels, encouraging teams to work together for greater rewards. On top of that, every character, enemy and boss can be unlocked for use in massive free for all brawls, all of whom pack different abilities, sizes and strategies. The simple controls make it easy to experiment with new characters, but only skill and practice will let you claim ultimate victory on the leaderboards.
All of these gametypes are available locally, or via solid online lobbies that can be catered to specific skill levels or play styles. If you're looking for experienced veterans to help you take down a boss or some relaxed comrades for a bit of chilled-out brawling, it's a simple matter of selecting the right tag. Impressively, Code Of Princess offers one of the most solid multiplayer offerings on the 3DS to date, and netcode to match.
In a perfect world, this would infinitely expand the scope of Code Of Princess, and allow me to round up its precariously-teetering score to an 8.
But this isn't a perfect world. My hugely enjoyable 45 minutes of online brawling were interspersed by over five hours of hosting empty lobbies, and trawling the abandoned lists desperately seeking someone else to play with. The staggered multi-region launch, not to mention niche appeal, has left the multiplayer community dead in the water. To enjoy Code Of Princess to the full, you'll need to convince three mates to get involved too... which is probably just too big an ask for £29.99 a pop. It's a crying shame that the 3DS' region-locked approach has neutered yet another import title.
- Satisfying combat, plenty of characters and missions
- Compelling persistent experience
- Infectious and hilarious fully-voiced dialogue
- Comprehensive online and local multiplayer suite...
- ... that nobody plays any more (thanks, staggered release)
- Repetitive and bland level design, expect much grinding
- Inconsistent frame rate
- Would benefit from multiple difficulty levels and 4-player story co-op
The Short Version: Code Of Princess will delight Guardian Heroes fans looking for addictive brawling on the go, but the nonexistent multiplayer community means that its best features will probably go unplayed. Definitely worth investigating for genre aficionados, but £29.99 might be a big ask for this delayed import title.