Friday, February 15, 2019

Princess Crown - Deep Look

Princess Crown Box Front

In the mid-1990s, the sixteen-bit era of videogame consoles was dying down to pave way for compact disc-based systems such as the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, although Nintendo remained confined to the cartridge medium with their Nintendo 64, causing many developers loyal to the Big N to defect to the CD-based consoles, which allowed for greater development flexibility than cartridges. The PlayStation and Saturn picked up several popular RPG franchises such as Final Fantasy on the former and Shining Force on the latter, which would receive an Atlus-developed action RPG entitled Princess Crown, later ported to the PlayStation Portable and remaining in Japan. Did it deserve localization?

The brainchild of future Vanillaware founder George Kamitani, the game initially follows the newly-coronated Gradriel, who seeks to deal with the various problems plaguing her kingdom of Valendia personally. As such, she naturally faces opposition from various enemies, which come in the form of one-on-one random encounters in dungeons and the paths between them and towns in action gameplay reminiscent of arcade fighting games. Gradriel can move towards or backwards from her encountered adversary, with the player having a number of offensive options such as using items, slashing with her sword, jumping, and so forth.

One of the main gameplay issues is that, in spite of the system’s action-driven nature, battles feel fairly sluggish and clunky, with Gradriel, for one, moving slowly towards or away from foes in combat, with the player able to double tap the left or right directional buttons to briefly dash either way, although all actions consume stamina, which replenishes quickest when she stands still, although it more slowly does so while she’s moving around. Granted, certain accessories can boost her movement speed, although equipped items eventually break and disappear from the player’s inventory, with players potentially able to go for a while without realizing her equipped accessory has vanished.

Slashing the enemy with her sword costs Gradriel stamina as well, with the player able to chain combos as long as she has enough, although her energy can quickly expire. The player has some moves such as being able to hold the attack button to execute a more powerful attack, although doing so paralyzes the warrior queen until her stamina gauge has completely refilled, as does counterattacking when an enemy knocks her down, although this move is somewhat useless since most of the time enemies will knock her out of attack range. Gradriel can also defend many enemy attacks while the player is walking her backwards, defense further costing stamina.

Victory nets Gradriel some experience for occasional level-ups that result in increased hit points, with another issue here being that if she acquires more experience points than are necessary to level up, the game completely forfeits the excess earned experience. Enemies also drop treasure chests that have money and items, with Gradriel able to acquire up to four pouches, each of which can hold up to eight items, with players ultimately needing to make tough choices about which items to drop and which to keep. However, using spices and raw food along with skillets and pots can allow players to create useful healing items whilst sometimes freeing inventory space.

However, there’s an irritating encounter where a trio of gremlins attack Gradriel one at a time with a move that causes her to disperse items from her current sack, which wouldn’t be much of a problem if gremlins from below the screen didn’t come up and snatch stray items after a few seconds, sometimes costing the player some of their hard-earned valuables. There are also some late-game bosses that can be walls preventing the player from advancing, and enemies can interrupt Gradriel’s attempts to heal, in addition to points where the player can’t back out and grind unless they keep multiple save files. All in all, combat has some good ideas, but in spite of its action-driven nature, still feels clunky and sluggish, more so than even some slow turn-based RPGS.

Control also has its share of issues, namely with the limited inventory space where items of the same type don’t stack, alongside being generally loose in battle. The save system is also fairly stingy, with the player sometimes needing to traverse long dungeons to fight bosses that could end up killing Gradriel and causing a broken PlayStation Portable. Some tough fights also follow sizeable cutscenes, which are unskippable, inexcusable given technology in the port’s time, and the language barrier can sometimes make it difficult to determine where to go next to advance the plot. Overall, interaction could have definitely been tighter.

The language barrier further makes it difficult to really appreciate the plotline, although this reviewer could comprehend some fragments of the Japanese dialogue, although an in-depth translation guide online is relegated to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, with many portions unarchived. Even so, the story really isn’t much to write home about, focusing on Gradriel’s dealings with the various troubles of her country without any major cohesion and the tried trope of time travel, and the dialogue itself would have benefited from a larger font size, given the pixilation of many kanji, which has before this reviewer played Princess Crown rarely been an issue.

The soundtrack isn’t much to write home about, either, with a lot of silent areas, mostly during exploration of paths between towns and dungeons and within the dungeons themselves, although there are a handful of tracks that are okay, such as the battle and town themes, maybe a few cutscene pieces. Gradriel, and occasionally the enemy, have voice clips, which are generally believable and don’t detract from the experience, although the game overall has lackluster aural presentation.

Being a spiritual predecessor to Vanillaware’s games, many have ballyhooed Princess Crown for its alleged gorgeous artistic presentation, although this reviewer didn’t find much to celebrate. While the character and enemy models have reasonable and believable proportions and animation, with lips moving during conversations, no less, and the scenery is nice and colorful, there are many palette-swapped enemies, not to mention incongruities, for instance, where when characters and enemies turn back and forth, their leftward and rightward-facing forms are mirror images (for instance, peg-legged pirate characters will have their peg-legs on the opposite side of their body when facing left or right). Foreground objects may occasionally leave items enemies drop invisible, and in the end, the PSP port’s visuals could have definitely used more polish.

In conclusion, Princess Crown was developer George Kamitani’s first RPG, and it definitely shows, with most of its aspects generally lacking refinement, with its clunky, unbalanced gameplay, loose control and inventory management, unengaging narrative, lackluster musical presentation, and overrated visuals. On a positive note, the game would pave the way for more refined Vanillaware titles such as Odin Sphere (especially its enhanced port Leifthrasir), and while one could consider Princess Crown an important lesson in videogame history, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an enjoyable one.


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