It is very easy to tell which games I will be interested in playing. If they look anything like the SNES games I loved, then you can bet that I will be attempting an old school all nighter to beat it. With that being said it is easy to see why I looked forward to playing Battle Princess Madelyn, after the initial all nighter and many subsequent playthroughs, I can finally tell you if this lives up to its expectations or falls short of delivering such an ambitious promise.
Developer: Causal Bit Games Inc.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: Dec 06, 2018
If you have seen the trailer, then you know this game is a tribute to Ghosts n Goblins. You don’t have to look any further than to Madelyn’s animations to visualize the legendary knight Arthur. There is also a lot in the animations department that resembles Mickey’s Magical Quest, more specifically the way the enemies flinch when taking damage. As you read this review, I would like you to keep those 2 games in mind, as my expectations are centered around those 2 titles.
But that’s enough for a history lesson, let’s focus on the game at hand.
A tale for the whole family
Battle Princess Madelyn is a 2D side-scrolling game where you play as the knight Madelyn. Equipped with a number of different weapons from spears and axes to magic wands, you must fight to defeat the mysterious wizard and save the kingdom. Your dog Fritzy’s spirit is there to help too!
It saddens me to say this, but yeah, your dog dies at the beginning of the game. I don’t know why, but the fact that his spirit follows Madelyn all the way throughout her journey from beyond the grave just warms my heart.
I feel that I have to mention this: Battle Princess Madelyn’s story was written by a professional children’s author. It’s always good to keep the author in mind when trying to interpret the tone of the game.
The full nostalgia package
From the title screen you will notice two different play modes: Story and Arcade. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are similar. Many games feature a similar set of modes where the arcade is just the story mode, but without the story elements, leaving only the gameplay aspect. This isn’t the case here, with both modes featuring completely different experiences.
In my opinion, arcade mode offers the best experience and I would heavily recommend any new players to start by playing an arcade playthrough.
Arcade mode features all the goodness you would expect from a 2D side-scroller game. Arcade mode will take you through numerous stages, each with its own theme and challenges which culminate in a massive boss fight. From graveyards to small villas and even the arctic, your journey will take you through varied landscapes are your quest continues.
A knight in name and skills
I already mentioned Ghouls ‘n Ghosts as a direct source of inspiration, but I’m going to change this a little bit. Battle Princess Madelyn is a GnG successor with actual TIGHT air controls.
Yes, you perform the exact same actions as Arthur. You can double jump, you can throw your main weapon and even use magic by holding down the attack button. Fortunately Madelyn takes the good and improves the bad. As brave as Arthur might have been, it was notorious for being a slow attacker and one who 100% commits to a jump, without any chance of altering its movement in the air. Unlike the brave Arthur, Madelyn sports 100% air maneuverability and a better spear control.
It might not seem like a big deal, but maneuverability does absolute wonders for the game and the genre itself. The more control a game gives to the player, the better engagement it achieves. Sure, people might throw around the “classic NES hard” phrase a lot to describe games such as Ghouls ‘n Ghosts or Castlevania, but let’s be real, we played those games despite those mechanics, not because of them.
Gotta go fast
As a speedrunner, let me tell more about the beauty of movement I found out on Battle Princess Madelyn. We already talked about the double jump and how you have total control in the air, but such mobility must be complemented with offensive versatility, and once again Madelyn delivers. She can attack in any of 4 directions, but there is next to no cooldown between attacks, which means you can machine gun any weapon in any direction. You can double jump between enemies, while using your weapon to clear a landing path. You can climb a ladder while branching out volleys of daggers to the enemies. You can even incorporate a very common speed move which is jumping on ladder to reach the top quicker. By merits of its movement, I can already see how speedruns might play out.
Sadly, eventually the cracks begin to present itself in the mechanics of the game and the flaws become more apparent.
A very interesting topic for me is the struggle between enemy and player. I was very pleased to find out that enemies can be staggered with attacks. It helps create the dynamic of defending yourself by staying on the offensive and I love it!
Skeleton meat bags
One of the reasons you would need to stagger the enemy is to halt its unrelentless pursuit and with it comes my biggest critique of the enemy: their HP. Enemies will take a huge amount of punishment before going down. One would think that this is to increase the difficulty, but the stagger system just makes the huge punching bags. The game doesn’t become harder, just more tedious. Walking a couple of steps, only to stop and throw 5-6 spears at the plant that is hanging from the ceiling is definitely not my definition of fun.
Small rant, but why are there so many archer enemies? Every stage past the first one features the skeleton archers everywhere. They just serve their role as the ranged attackers, so why not at least create stage specific versions of them? I would still think it is a lazy cop-out for enemy variety, but at least a better one.
Consider the snake enemies from the swamp caves. Those are functionally the same as the archers, but the fact that they are different gives the game a breathe of fresh air.
There is one detail from the game’s description which I can’t fully comprehend and that’s that the difficulty is self-adjusting. I apologize for not knowing the specifics for this, so just know that the game advertises self-adjusting difficulty.
Where are my weapons?
Your mileage may vary, but I played around 4 hours of Story mode without encountering a weapon other than the spear and the dagger, and that’s not mentioning the complete lack of extra armors. Throughout my entire Arcade run I was able to find an axe… and that’s it. It wasn’t until the FINAL boss of the Arcade mode where I finally saw an upgrade to my armor.
There is a reason why I wasn’t able to acquire weapons or armor, and that’s due to the way they are acquired. For the uninitiated, extra items are acquired by killing one of the zombies that peep from the background, and then jump to the foreground carrying a brownish bag.
So what happens if you never waited long enough for one of those zombies or killed it while it was peeping from the background? I’m glad you asked! What happens is that you won’t be able to get items from them, which is probably the reason I didn’t find items during my arcade run.
Oh, there are my weapons!
That’s not to say that there any advantages to this approach, for one it means that it is possible to camp a spawn and try to look for weapons or armor. In a way, it aids the concept of seeking help on demand instead of cruising through the level half dead and hoping for the best.
The disadvantage is that you, as a player, might miss on a lot of the goodies that come from the armor system. Upgraded weapons attack and extra health might be out of reach if you are competent. It feels unintuitive that skill is punished. The funny thing is that its predecessor, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, figured out the greatest implementation of the system decades ago. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts featured armor upgrades hidden in chests, many of which were guaranteed to spawn in a fixed place and featured upgrades if you were able to grab them with a previous set of armor. This meant that staying alive rewarded you increased power.
One of my biggest disappointments is how easy the bosses are. I always pay special attention to bosses and the design of the fights because I love them so much, so as you can imagine my disappointment is also much bigger when bosses don’t live up to their “end of level” challenge. Bosses do behave like giant HP sponges, I’ll definitely give you that, but they are not really challenging encounters with winning strategies being easy to discover.
If I were to put my finger on a single flaw the breaks the boss encounters, is how painfully exploitable they are. I kid you not, that wizard that appears in the intro scene? He used a grand total of 1 different attack in my numerous attempts to beat the final level. This isn’t because he only has one attack, but rather the AI has some faulty decision trees. If you are unfamiliar with AI, most of them behave as a complex series of branching decisions. Of course, simple decision branches tend to be prone to abuse.
I don’t know how many attack the wizard has, but I’ve seen 2 attacks: a fireball barrage in a cone that has the width of his arm to arm length, and a fist stomping attack. He will ALWAYS do the fireballs if you are within the space that is projected by his 2 palms. The fist stomp is probably triggered by being beneath his arms. The wizard is the boss I used to illustrate this point, but you can pretty much exploit every single boss.
Predictability vs exploitability
There is one more point I want to make in regards to boss design and that is predictability vs exploitability. I want to bring into the fray one game which I consider to be fantastic and in the same genre as Battle Princess Madelyn: Volgarr the Viking.
In case you haven’t played Volgarr (which I highly advise you play), every single boss is a cycling routine of attacks. There aren’t any surprises, you always knows which attack will come next as long as you are familiar with the bosses moves, and yet I consider boss encounters to be incredibly better, but why is it? The reason is that even when the patterns repeat themselves, they require a different reaction from the player, which in turn gives variety to the combat. Exploitative encounters consist of 1 or 2 attacks repeating endlessly. Players don’t need to adapt to different situations, they just adapt to 1 until the fight is over.
To be fair, there are some good encounters in Battle Princess Madelyn. Now that I think of it, they conform to the predictable routine based encounters, however I find them much more engaging because of the brainpower it demands to accurately remember the correct way of defending yourself. Shoutouts to the final boss, for being one of the better encounters. Without spoiling two much, it adheres to a predictable routine, with one element of the routine being a 50/50 between two different attack which is signaled by a hand motion from the boss. Being rewarded for paying attention is always amazing.
If there is one thing I must say is that the game has beautiful pixel art. It is truly a sight to behold when a game adheres to a “classic” style but with modern techniques. The result can be seen in the beauty of the sprites, in addition to their respective animations.
I can’t say the same about the effects though. In this game you will find effects to be on one of two buckets: excessive effects and missing or sudden effects. The former can be seen when enemies die. As they die, most of them will litter the screen with the explosion effect, followed by them being torn into pieces. I found this to clutter the screen a lot. For the latter effects, there isn’t a better example than collapsing platforms. When this platforms fall and return to their original state, they just appear. No effects, no visual hints of them being about to materialize, not even the classic “blink until it appears” effect that is so common. I wouldn’t say this break the game by any means, but it does hurt the overall presentation.
There is also a very notable lack of fanfare and general information when acquiring items. You are never shown a window that describes what you got, so it can get confusing if you finish a quest and the prize spawns right on top of you, as you won’t be able to see what you actually got (most of the times it’s a doll, so I guess you can assume that). This was especially confusing when getting the spidey boots. You aren’t told what they do, the name doesn’t even describe its function! Just so you know, the spidey boots allow you to double jump, and I only figured that because I’ve been trying to do it since the beginning of the game.
For all the smooth animations the game features, it does have a distinct lack in the transitions department. There are certain moments in gaming which I believe require a transition to guide the player. One such missing transition comes when respawning, especially after falling through bottomless pits. Battle Princess Madelyn has a recurring habit of respawning you in the last “safe” floor you touched, however its way of putting you there has a quite a lack of flair.
Many games will scroll the screen back to your respawn point. Others will feature screen fading effects. Some might even warp the landscape around you to better reflect your current standing. Battle Princess Madelyn just puts you there. There is an accompanying thunder, but other than that you simply appear at your new destination. Depending on the circumstances of my death, I often found it disorienting to fall on a bottomless pit and then suddenly be back on safe floor. It took a while for my brain to register where I appeared, a common occurrence that is made worse by the game’s way of tagging “safe” floor.
Is it over?
There also a lack of a proper Game Over/Continue screen. This isn’t a deal breaker by any means, it is just my nostalgic brain trying to piece together elements of quality games and being very aware of distinctive missing features. After all, who doesn’t enjoy being triggered by a game over fanfare for a challenging game?
After many hours of gameplay I also noticed that I didn’t know Madelyn’s voice. Dying always sounded like an empty affair, but it took me some time to realize that there were little to none sound effects when Madelyn perishes. What happened to audible grunts or death cries when being stuck the finishing blow?
The story of Madelyn
Story mode will take you to an RPG-lite journey throughout the game. Arcade mode’s stage progression is replaced by a massive world of interconnected areas. The boneyard will take you to the swamp level. The swamp cave will take you to the Valley, etc. The stages are also radically different from their arcade counterparts, which is mostly to allow some degree of exploration to the player.
Maps aren’t the only difference, many of the mechanics are adapted to be more akin to an RPG.
The weapons and armor are no longer acquired from random drops. Weapons are found throughout the game, and their strength can be increased. Armor is also improved rather than found.
The other difference, and probably the biggest one, is that the world is now full of secrets and NPCs which will give you pieces of information or give you quests. There range from killing a certain boss to finding a hidden item and returning it to its owner. The rewards can range from dolls to power-ups.
Keep your real world journal nearby
You probably should keep note of what the NPCs say, and by this I mean that you should probably get an actual notebook and write things down. For reasons which are probably related to simplicity, you don’t have a sort of journal that logs the on-going quests you’ve been given. If you found out the top hat, then you better remember exactly who lost it and where he is located, as the game won’t help you with it.
Being 100% honest, this probably bothered me much more than it should. I am the type of player who like to go into a village and speak to every single person. There are seas of information that I’m given, and I always appreciate it when the game does an effort to remind me of all the conversations I had.
To make matters worse, after an NPC gives you a quest it will never repeat its original message. A guard may tell you there is a kid lost in a nearby cavern, but attempting to speak with him at any point after the first conversation will only display a “Have you found the kid yet?” message. At this point you can bet that I already forgot where he told me the kid was lost, sometimes even in places which I haven’t reached yet.
So far I’ve done story mode 3 times and only on the last time did I find the blacksmith’s hammer. Upgrading armor and weapons is such a great part of the story mode, and yet it is all hidden behind a very easy to miss fetch quest, and failure to complete the quest will just leave you going through the game while amassing gold and armor/weapon shard but without being able to improve your arsenal, why?
For anyone who comes here from google, I’ll tell you how to find the blacksmith, does who would rather avoid spoilers, just skip the next paragraph.
To find the hammer, you must first find the key to the optional dungeon in the swamp. The easiest way to find it is by making sure you go through the swamp as low as possible. Keep going right through the lower routes and you will find a statue before much before you find the entrance to the witch’s cave. Kneel before the statue and obtain the key. Once you have it, go back to the teleportation stone and then go left through the foliage until you find the entrance to the optional dungeon. Once in the dungeon, keep hitting at every wall you see, one of them will contain the hammer.
Battle princess metroid?
As you progress through the game, you will notice that there are a lot of inaccessible areas during your journey. It isn’t until after the second boss that it becomes obvious that your adventure will require you to backtrack a fair amount.
I personally find enjoyable to go through old stages as a stronger hero. Obstacles which were challenging back then become a breeze and it becomes obvious how much better you have become.
However, backtracking is enforced way too early in the game. Your first instance of backtrack comes after beating the witches, at which point you are forced for absolutely no good reason to go back the entire caves and the swap just to reach the teleportation crystal. What’s worst is that after going to the castle and going through the story related events, you once again have to teleport to the swamps and clear them along with the cave once again. It is very hard to justify 3 whole trips through the swamp/caves when the only thing that you got for beating the witches is the privilege to advance the story.
Every good lock requires a key
In case you wondered how you opened the locked doors, you need keys, which bring me to another big issue I had with the game: the reliance on “bowing” to statues. Very early in the game an NPC will inform you that bowing to statues and spirits brings good fortune. You might find this NPC right away if you are like myself and typically go left at the beginning of the games, if not you will probably find out when you are forced to go to the castle after beating the witches.
At the risk of sounding like a scrub, I actually found out about bowing to statues for keys on my second playthrough (actually a continuation of my first one, after the game wiped my story progression for some reason). What’s worse is that statues take good 3-4 seconds to show any signs that bowing is actually working. In my opinion this is just a very poorly explained mechanic that quite literally gates you from a lot of optional areas and boss keys.
[Update: the update including huge hint signs, one of them actually explains how to bow to statues]
Speaking of misdirection, I wasted a fair amount of time trying to make the most of “I opened the game at the end of the witch’s cave that leads to the sunken depths” without any luck. It turns out that the gate is always open, which confused adventurer me who dared proceed beyond the witch fight instead of going back to the castle. I never found out the new gate that was supposed to be open because I indeed combed the entire caverns before proceeding and I couldn’t possibly figured out which gate was now open. Worse yet is that going beyond the caves takes you to the Valley of Hightide, which left me wondering if I was going the right direction or not, considering the game had already punished me enough for not adhering to the route.
I’ll admit that the last paragraph came as a product from frustration, but it is hard to hide those feelings when the game deliberately tells you one thing, and then expects you to do another. Just like many other things before, it leaves me thinking if I am indeed playing some kind of alpha version. Although being fair to the alpha, I have seen countless youtube LPs of the demo version and it seems like a much more well-rounded product. At this point I’m left working if something happened in development, or I got the wrong version, or if many good ideas were just scrapped.
It isn’t an isolated incident either, the game has a terrible habit of spending way too much time on unnecessary things like explaining how Sir Dav was not wearing pants, and yet there isn’t a single line of dialogue after collecting the 4 runes to let the player know what is about to happen or what he should do.
The Swamp level
Only when a level becomes the frustrating kind of hard do we realize the flaws of the system. For me this level was the Witch’s cave after the swamp.
By far my biggest gripe with this level was how much vertical space it occupied. Every stage so far has shared the trait of having a huge explorable area. It wasn’t until the caves were I realized that I couldn’t move my camera at all. It is very common for even SNES games to move the camera up or down by keeping pressed UP or DOWN on the d-pad. Why this very basic feature is absent is certainly confusing to me.
What makes the caves less manageable than the rest of the level is that you will die if you try to leap of faith to lower terrain. The entire caves are built around navigating the pillars, and not being able to see where you will fall is a recipe for disaster. Missing jumps because the game wouldn’t allow you to see beneath your toes definitely falls under the “unfair” category of difficulty.
Loosely related are the jump arcs. For all the good that comes from being able to 100% control your air momentum, there is the bad that comes from being hit and travelling a fixed arc. It is a deliberate design issue, and it isn’t even an uncommon one with hardcore NES titles like Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man sporting similar damage arcs. However, those elements were not okay back then and deemed like “cheap” kills and that perception hasn’t changed in 30 years.
Bonus points if an attacked knocked you into one of the many insta-death spikes that are located at ground level and usually only require you to double jump them.
Perhaps the most “challenging” aspect of the level is that none of the pillars constitute a “safe” zone. What I mean by this is that despite being perfectly safe standing still on the top of a pillar, you won’t respawn there if you fall into the abyss. Rather than adding to the challenge is just increases the tedium by being forced to redo massive parts of the level because the stage is 80% pillars.
I have revisited the swamp caves several times after my initial journey, and they did become more manageable. They are still as bad as I made them to be, but knowing the layout 100% removes any flaw caused by their design. I still think it is a very bad level, knowledge shouldn’t be transmitted as a side-effect of unfair deaths to the player.
The quality gap
In case it wasn’t obvious by now, I make a living doing quality assurance, so I would be doing you all a disservice if I didn’t report some bugs I found within the game.
Before I proceed, you have to know that bugs aren’t supposed to happen, and lucky for us, most indie publishers are very much into polishing their product. I sincerely hope from the bottom of my heart that this issues become part of an outdated review in the future.
One of my biggest gripes comes from the frame dips that happen in some areas. Off the top of my head I would say the catacombs after Valley of Hightide, and Italy’s level on arcade mode. For the latter, specifically I refer to the rising bridge auto-scroller where the framerate dips much more as you approach the top. Be extra careful there, as dying means that you respawn at the bottom and have to repeat the auto-scroller.
For those who love playing in handheld mode, I would not recommend it in any way. Several levels like the Valley of Hightide catacombs or the Italy/Spain caves not only have much lower framerate, they even completely eat your inputs if you are unfortunate enough. Good luck trying a double jump when the game is willing to eat your second jump input.
Fun fact, your score seems to increase during Italy’s bridge auto-scroller, and you can in fact pause to let the high score rank up by themselves.
There are also some instances of the game just refusing to further acknowledge your inputs. It happened first when entering the royal crypt, but has happened a couple more times in different places. It actually isn’t that bad. You won’t be able to move or act at all, but you can at least quit to the main menu and reload your save.
The first time I went into the witch caves, the armor/helmet/sword puzzle wasn’t working. I had to quit the game and reload to have it work correctly
But by far the biggest issue was when my story mode savefile was completely wiped. I am not aware of what caused it, but I can say I played all the way to valley of hightide, then 2 arcade runs and afterwards poof! My save was gone.
This has been by far my longest review. I have played 20 hours of Battle Princess Madelyn, but it took me 2 or 3 to realize that I hated the game for many of the reason I already stated. And yet, there where other 17 hours of me believing in it, all because the trailers and kickstarter videos were so good. The story of the development of the game is incredibly heartfelt and it chose to believe that such passion could be a powerful force to create a great game.
But the game never got any better, and if anything it actually got worse. I hate being mean to a game, but I think this is one of the least enjoyable games I have played this year. The worst part is that it definitely has the makings of an amazing game, most of which are shadowed by the rest of the game. It is hard for me to think of the pixel art or the great music without being reminded of how I had to actually force myself to finish the game.
I’m sorry Battle Princess, you had so much potential but it fell flat. I hope a development update can hopefully fix everything so that I can give you the love you deserve.