Code of Princess review: Royal brawl

Code of Princess review
In reviewing games at Joystiq, our mission is always to attempt to convey the actual experience of playing a game, as opposed to just listing its features and capping things off with a score. In the case of Code of Princess on the 3DS, that experience boils down to tapping the B button like a caffeine addict, with the occasional special move thrown in for flavor.

It's not as though Code of Princess is the only brawler to succumb to this pattern, however, and like other brawlers, it still manages to be enjoyable in spurts, but rings hollow by the time the credits roll.%Gallery-168513% Much ado has been made about Code of Princess' main character, Solange. To put it delicately, she wears about enough armor to protect a small cat, leaving the majority of her body exposed and virtually nothing to the imagination. Even for a video game heroine, the outfit is extreme, something the game self-consciously acknowledges from time to time, at least in this Atlus-published localization (she insists it's the latest in royal formal wear).

As Solange, it's up to you to put an end to Queen Distiny's evil scheme. Distiny has been summoning monsters to terrorize the citizens of DeLuxia, subsequently winning their favor by sending in her own army to "save" them. Forced to leave the castle and fend for herself, Solange gathers a ragtag band of unlikely friends, including a thief, a necromancer, a guitar-wielding elven "sage" and eventually many others. Together, they set out to save the DeLuxia from the Queen.

And there's no better way to do that than to hack, slash and otherwise maim their way across the land, leaving a trail of monsters and crooked soldiers in their wake. Combat in Code of Princess bears a striking similarity to Guardian Heroes, which isn't surprising considering it shares some of the original development team.

Fighting takes place on three different planes: the background, foreground and in between. Players can move between the planes at any time, which is useful for dodging attacks or chasing down foes. Actual fisticuffs are broken down to light and heavy attacks, with each character also possessing a handful of special moves, a lock-on attack and the "burst" ability. Going into burst mode slowly drains a player's magic, but it also stuns nearby enemies and temporarily doubles attack power. Hitting an opponent with a lock-on attack, meanwhile, makes it the target of all ranged attacks (even across planes) and also doubles damage.

The combat engine is rock-solid, and players are essentially free to perform whatever combos they can devise from available moves, but the lock-on attack and bursting are what lend Code of Princess most of its complexity. Since both abilities can double damage, it's possible to inflict quadruple damage by locking onto an enemy and following up with burst attacks. Each playable character also has a few special moves that offer up different tactical possibilities and add some variety to the combat. In my experience, however, fights generally devolved into repeating the same series of moves ad infinitum, regardless of the chosen character – usually a light attack combo followed by a special move.

Watching Solange slice a foe repeatedly, launch him into the air, juggle him and finally impale him on the ground is certainly satisfying, but it wears thin after repeating the sequence hundreds of times. You can switch characters between levels, but characters progress separately, meaning they could be several levels behind Solange and ill-prepared to take on a later mission in the campaign.

Sure, I could replay earlier stages to level up my other characters, or take them through bonus missions, but that sort of defeats the purpose of changing my character for the sake of variety in the campaign. Even if you do switch characters and go through the trouble of leveling them up, the rhythm barely changes: short combo, special attack, short combo, special attack. It's not a bad rhythm, per se, but it wears itself out over the course of the game.

Progression is limited to pumping points into various stats, including strength, magic, hitpoints, defense and the like. I spent the majority of Solange's points on strength, and most enemies (bosses included) were pushovers by the end of the game, especially with the right equipment and clever use of bursting. In fact, most of the campaign missions, barring a handful of boss fights, were very easy to complete (with Solange, at least).

Code of Princess review
I spent the bulk of my time with Solange, though there are over 50 characters to unlock – friends and enemies – and they can be played across single-player, co-op and versus modes. It's hard to deny the novelty of replaying an early mission with a massive dragon, or as the local bartender, whose heavy attack is a nice, swift kick to the shins. I played my first online versus match as a tiny, sentient Mandrake root (I lost ... barely). Speaking of which, every mode apart from the main campaign is playable via local or online multipalyer, which is certainly a plus for any 3DS game. The matches I played seemed to suffer from occasional slowdown but were still entirely playable.

Along with the many, many available characters, there are also dozens of bonus missions. These aren't terribly different from the campaign, though many of the later missions provide a much stiffer challenge.

The localization is very good, with fully voiced dialogue and interesting characters. Code of Princess probably won't be winning any awards for its story, but the dialogue can be genuinely funny and is filled with plenty of delightful (and intentional) nonsense. I'm particularly fond of Master T, a martial artist who draws his power from ridiculously named animal stances like the "Frustrated Penguin" and the "Territorial Alpha-Goldfish."

A high-quality localization and a wealth of content, however, can't make up for a gameplay experience that quickly grows stale. The combat, while mechanically sound, is limited and repetitive. Beat 'em up fans, especially those who remember Guardian Heroes, will probably be able to grind more mileage out of it than most. Code of Princess is, in the end, not unlike Solange's armor. It's attractive, ridiculous, but probably won't stand up to long-term wear and tear.

This review is based on a retail copy Code of Princess, provided by Atlus.

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