Battle Princess of Arcadias tells the story of a peaceful kingdom that was suddenly attacked by monsters. When all seemed lost, princess Plume picked up a sword and went into battle. She was a heroic warrior who single-handedly turned the tide of battle. Now Plume is known as the Battle Princess and has to fight to defend her kingdom against evil. The story mixes comedy with drama in pretty strange ways. For example, Plume is brightly colored, cheerful and optimistic, and the entire game world is adorable, but the plot opens with Plume's squire being killed. She doesn't fully grasp the concept until someone explains that people don't come back from the dead, and she has a minor panic attack since she's been slaughtering monsters and her friends have been dying around her. When it's being cute, it works, but the dramatic moments fall flat in the wake of the cheerful art style and overly chipper anime-inspired characters.
The first of the three stage types is Combat. These are good old-fashioned side-scrolling beat-'em-up stages. Players pick three of the available soldiers and enter a side-scrolling stage where you beat up everything in your path. You have light attacks and strong attacks that you can string together into combos. Various combinations and certain directional presses perform blasts, launchers, throws and other attacks. Depending on your character, you'll have different characteristics. Plume is well rounded, but her magician friend Yuni excels at fighting enemies from mid-range, and brawny Rudolph excels at dealing damage up close but is slow and unwieldy. Characters level up as they fight and gain new moves and abilities. You also have a bar that fills up as you fight, and you can spend it on performing special moves.
One cool thing about the combat system is that you have three people on your team and can swap them at will. It's rarely necessary, but each character has a health bar, special bar, and equipment slots, so you can switch to whoever feels best at the moment. As you continue to use the same characters, they'll build up a friendship level with each other. Characters with high friendship levels don't sit on the sidelines, but actually hop into battle to help. If you launch an enemy, one of the side characters may hop in to attack. At particularly high levels you'll even invite them to special attacks for huge amounts of extra damage.
The core combat system in Battle Princess is fun, but it's not particularly new or exceptional. It's a little stiff in places, but it doesn't get in the way of the fun of beating the snot out of enemies. There's a noticeable lack in enemy variety, and the combat stages tend to feel a little simplistic and canned, but it does its job well enough. The friendship system really discourages experimenting with other characters. It's much easier to stick with three characters you like rather than swap in and out or play with new choices. The addition of support attacks and powerful special moves really outweighs any other benefits.
Where the combat system begins to fail is in sieges and skirmishes. Sieges are effectively boss battles. You must take down a giant boss character, but since the boss characters are so deadly, your team doesn't tackle them alone. Instead, they enlist the help of their army. You'll be able to bring a combat brigade into battle with you, and although the brigade members are far weaker than your main character, they fight automatically, so you can issue commands to become more aggressive or play defensively.
It's a cool concept that's brought down by a really terrible control scheme. To use commands, you have to swap away from your item menu and slowly scroll through the menu options. It's really slow and awkward, and it takes too much time to do even after you've gotten fast at it. It basically prevents you from reacting on the fly. Siege battles boil down to: keep your party on the defensive until you break the shield, switch them to attack mode until the shield goes back up, and repeat. The fights are fun enough, so this isn't the worst drag in the world, but it basically adds a mechanic that doesn't benefit the game. Instead of focusing on the boss fights, you're stuck trying to keep your soldiers alive.
Skirmishes function under a similar logic, but instead of being one-on-many fights, they are many-on-many fights. Your army no longer fights alongside you but instead fights in the background against enemy soldiers. The battles are automated and occur without your help. How successful it is will be determined by the brigade's level and its weapon type. Unlike sieges, there are multiple brigades in skirmish fights. You get a new one for every party member who joins, but you can only bring a certain number into battle. They can be leveled up in town and have a weapon type matching the party member who joined you. These weapons have a sort of rock-paper-scissors system against other weapons.
Your characters come into play during skirmishes in the morale meter. You earn morale by battling enemies in the foreground as your army fights in the background. Every time you kill an entire enemy group, including its leader, 20% of your morale bar is filled. If an enemy background brigade is taken down, you'll also get 20% morale. If one of your brigades is defeated, you'll lose 20% of your morale. Morale allows you to swap between the basic/attack/defend modes, and it also allows you to change your brigade. The real use is in special brigade attacks. If you have a full bar, you can use it to make your brigade perform a powerful special attack that rips through enemy defenses. You'll get an additional morale bonus if you use the character associated with that brigade, so you're encouraged to swap characters for greater gains.
Skirmishes run into the same problem as brigade battles. The mechanism for switching between offense and defense is just as awkward and poorly implemented. This is doubled by the fact that the strength/weaknesses system is needlessly complex and convoluted and doesn't feel like it has a good impact on your fights. You're at an advantage when you have a favorable weapon, but it doesn't feel like it's enough. The morale you spend to swap could be saved up for your special move, so it becomes pretty pointless to approach the battles on their own terms. When I played the game that way, I got low scores and had a hard time with battles. However, if I leveled up a single character and had him and his leveled brigade handle everything, the game became much easier, and I received high scores.
This "brute force" solution is one of the game's biggest frustration points. Battle Princess sets up a lot of cool mechanics that seem like they encourage thinking and strategy and swapping on the fly. Once you get down to it, you'll do a lot better power-leveling one character and leaving the others alone. Swapping between characters in the beat-'em-up levels feels pointless after a while. Each character has distinctive abilities, but the enemies are not varied enough to merit them once you've found a decent character.
The game is customizable and has a robust loot-drop system. Defeating enemies and finishing stages earn you equipment, items, money and weapons you can use. Items can be crafted into weapons to upgrade their stats or give them special attributes, but weapons can only be crafted a number of times, so you theoretically have to balance using rare but expensive materials or cheap but less effective ones. Since you can replay boss stages as much as you want, there's no need to go for anything but the best. Weapons can also have hidden attributes, so just because you have the same weapon doesn't mean it will have the same attributes. It's a nice way to add some depth to the game's otherwise traditional RPG equipment system.
Visually, Battle Princess wants to resemble Vanillaware's games like Odin Sphere but unfortunately falls short. The character models are bright and stand out well, but they're awkwardly animated with stiff and jerky movements. This doesn't stand out as much in combat, but the walking and talking animations don't look great. It isn't enough to sour the experience, but it's hard to compare it to titles like Princess Crown, let alone Vanillaware's later efforts. The soundtrack is rather good and has some pretty memorable and fun songs, which help set the mood for beating up monsters and bad guys. The only voice options for the game are Japanese, which may be a disappointment for those who prefer dubs, but the Japanese voices fit the game well enough.
Battle Princess of Arcadias could have been exceptional but ends up being average. If the developer had spent some more time and effort on the skirmish and siege battles, it could have been something special. As it stands, it's a relatively fun beat-'em-up that's held back by a lack of polish and some awkward design decisions. It doesn't do anything hugely wrong, but there are enough small, nagging flaws to be frustrating. If you're looking to beat the daylights out of a bunch of monsters, this isn't a bad choice. The gameplay proceeds at a good clip, and once you realize you don't need to use the provided mechanics, the title becomes a lot more tolerable. At the end of the day, Battle Princess has little to recommend it over similar games on the same system.
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