Friday 11 January 2019

Switch Review - Battle Princess Madelyn

‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ will be familiar to anyone who has played ‘Ghouls N Ghosts’. But can today’s game players cope with the infamous difficulty of that series?
Developed by Casual Bit Games
Published by Hound Picked Games 
Released in 2018
I can’t believe there isn’t a flutter of excitement in any parent when their child takes interest in gaming. For years they may have been playing alone and now suddenly they have a potential player two. A Luigi for their Mario. 
Chris Obritsch has always been a fan of ‘Ghouls N Ghosts’. However, he wasn’t the only one in his household to have a taste for insanely difficult gothic-horror action platform games. “[My daughter] Maddi has this thing for the boss of the first level and she would make me play it over and over again just to see the boss” Recalls Obritsch. “One day I was playing it and she said ‘daddy I want to fight green head, I want to be in the game’”. Obritsch sadly had to admit that he simply wasn’t able to put his daughter in an existing game. However, with a background in digital art and as a former coder for UK Digital Agency Ram Jam, Obritsch was able to offer something that most gaming Dads can’t. He promised his daughter that “maybe daddy can make you your own game.” ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ is the impressive result of devoted Father fulfilling dreams. “I’m simply doing this for my daughter” admits Obritsch. “She wanted to be in a game, so she’s getting it, because I can do it! “

Deliberately subverting traditional gender stereotypes, you play as the titular Madelyn; a young knight in training. Accompanied by her ghostly pet dog fritz, she sets out on a journey to save her kingdom and her family from the clutches of the evil Horned Wizard. Evidently, the game’s story was inspired by the loss of a childhood dog and was written by a professional children’s author who also hand-drew artwork for the game.
Of course, while undeniably a classic that’s almost been forgotten by modern gamers, ‘Ghouls N Ghosts’ isn’t the most obvious game to remake for a child. Capcom’s 1988 original was a sequel To ‘Ghosts N Goblins’ initially found in arcades. It’s now more fondly remembered thanks to its numerous arcade ports, with a version available on at least 15 different home machines over the years. Taking on the role of a knight called Arthur, a player must restore the soul of Princess Prin Prin after it was stolen by the evil Demon Lucifer (or Loki to give him his less provocative home port name). To achieve this, the player must navigate through six side scrolling levels, defeating a constant stream of un-dead and demonic creatures. To aide him, Arthur must find hidden treasure chests that contain stronger armour and a variety of weapons, each of which can be launched in four directions. Every weapon has its own special attack, but ammunition is limited so these must be used judiciously. When recalling the game, many players will probably picture the protagonist in their underwear as the player’s energy is depicted by the amount of clothes Arthur is wearing. With its relentless number of enemies that can easily swamp you and limited attack options, ‘Ghouls N Ghosts’ presents a fiendish challenge for the majority of players. Few will see the games’ conclusion and most will spend the majority of time trapped on the ludicrously hard first level, staring at Arthur in his pants. 
Given that the main character of ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ is based on a little girl, thankfully the disrobing of the central sprite never gets further than a night dress. Another thing that’s diluted is the notorious ‘Ghouls and Ghosts’ insurmountable difficulty, however ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ is certainly still a very challenging game.
Upon pressing start you’re presented with two ways to play ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’, either quickly like an arcade game or as a full story experience that includes RPG elements and a richer narrative. “Arcade mode is very old school [it’s hard] but this isn't anything like ‘Dark Souls’. It's like ‘Wonderboy 3’ or ‘Shantae’” clarifies designer Chris Obritsch. “Arcade mode is all about timing and pacing yourself like the old games.” You’ll have to guide Maddi through ten levels each consisting of 5 stages. Fans of ‘Ghouls N Ghosts’ will instantly feel at home here; lots of intricate multi-tiered stages swarming with horror inspired enemies. Most stages have different routes, allowing a degree of choice between confronting more foes or facing harder platforming sections. This is the mode of ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ that’s far more obviously inspired by Capcom’s classic series, even if Obritsch’s take on the genre is much more action orientated where you’re rewarded for killing everything that stands in your way. You start with a slender life bar, with only enough energy for Madelyn to survive a few hits. However, you also have an X-Souls gauge that fills as you slay foes. If this is full, Rather than outright dying when you take too much damage, Madelyn will reappear in a blast of light. 
“So as long as you are killing enemies and keeping your magic meter past the half way point, you can't fully die” claims the designer. “You re-spawn where you fell, or your last safe spot.” The cost for not following this advice is brutal though. Dying in arcade mode without having any reserves in the X-Souls gauge won’t take you back to the start of a stage, it’ll throw you back to the start of a level. I appreciate that this is “old school hard” but considering levels can be quite lengthy it’s quite a penalty. To compensate the game does include mechanisms to make subsequent attempts easier. The designers are proud of the game’s “self adjusting difficulty that can detect if the player is doing poorly or too well and then adjust itself accordingly”. However, It’s hard to gauge how pronounced this is, as on a second play-through a player will also have the advantage of knowing a Level’s layout and will be aware of when more imposing enemies are around the corner. 
According to Obritsch, “Story mode is much more forgiving as the mode is much larger and you can explore.” Rather than having a continuous flow of levels one after the other, a player in this mode will have to traverse between the stages visiting towns as they do so. The stages themselves, while similar to the arcade mode’s have noticeably less enemies. Additionally as the entrance to villages also act as continue points, death in a stage will send you back a much shorter distance. 
The problem is, there’s almost too much in this mode and it feels a little daunting. In story mode, the game picks up a ‘Metroid-vania’-esque open world layout but it’s never really that clear where you’re meant to be going. So many NPCs offer up quests and without an accessible list it’s impossible to keep track of everyone’s needs. Annoyingly though none of the many inhabitants of the towns seem willing to explicitly state which direction you should head; you know the name of where you’re meant to go but you don’t know if that’s on your left or right. With no in game map, the direction I headed in my quest often felt like the result of a random choice. 
Sadly, the game can be painfully cheap at times. Even within a few hours of play, ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ was performing many platform game cardinal sins: Too many leaps of faith, enemies hurting you from off the screen, disguised death pits, pixel perfect jumps over instant kill water and randomly re-spawning enemies. Many of these irritations are exacerbated by the amount of kickback Madelyn experiences when hurt by an enemy. On more than one occasion level progression was hugely set back because I was knocked off a hard to reach platform by a single enemy arrow. I don’t pretend to be the greatest retro games player, but with extensive experience in the ‘Mega Man’ games I should be able to handle the challenge posed in a game like ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’. However, I spent over an hour trying to get into the Swamp section in this game and it was a painfully frustrating experience. I even restarted the adventure thinking I’d accidentally stumbled into a no-win state. Of course, when I reached the same early point in the game I hit the same progression wall. I had no idea if it was my lack of ability that was stopping me, if I was going the wrong way or indeed if I needed to do something else before I could continue down the route I was going.
After all, like so many ‘Metroid-Vania’ games additional parts of the world only become accessible once you’ve gained extra skills. As it turns out I had to return to a town to find hidden double-jump Spidey boots. However, I discovered them purely by accident; as they’re only accessible by falling through the floor at a specific point, which lights a candle and gives you access to an imposing spider boss. It’s a shame that an NPC couldn’t have mentioned or at least hinted towards the hidden items location, and unless you’ve played the arcade mode you may not even know that a double jump is a skill you can unlock. I wonder how many will give up on the game simply because they never can find an essential item.
While the levels pose a test of skill I presumed the huge end of level bosses to really test my mettle. However, the first, an intimidating armoured skeleton, seemed imposing initially but after repeated attempts could be easily beaten. It’s hard to know if this was because I had memorised his attack pattern, or if the game had given me a helping hand to get through it. Adorably many of these were conceived by Maddi Obritsch, who drew sketches that her father then adapted into the pixel art characters seen in the game. “She'll draw stuff for the game where ever she is, and she came home from her friend’s house [one] day and was like, 'Daddy, I made a monster for the game'," Obritsch told PC Gamer. "I asked what it was and she explained it to me. I then asked what she wanted it to do in-game and she showed me the drawing and explained what each part of the picture was." 
Following in the footsteps of the inspiration, Madelyn battles through graveyards, snow fields, forests and castles all of which look Gorgeous on the Switch. With Gothic inspired games there’s a temptation to limit colour palettes to greys but ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ is as vibrant as it is detailed. Flowing waterfalls, Particle effects and blooms make the stages feel all the more alive and often boss battles are celebrated by a screen awash with colour. There is a beautiful fusion of hand drawn pixel art mixed with Unity powered visual flourishes that makes the game feel simultaneously nostalgic and yet still impressively contemporary. At times it may remind you of the visual splendour of ‘Octopath Traveller’ with its much celebrated mix of sprite characters surrounded by real time lighting effects. 
The game’s front end however doesn’t seem to have been optimised very well for the Switch. The menu screen text is distorted and hard to read. Similarly the enchanting opening cinematic is low resolution and juddery. Depressingly, the problems are magnified when the Switch is docked. Madelyn’s in game sprite and her portrait also look different to the hero shown in the opening cinematic which is slightly confusing. Of course none of these criticisms effect the enjoyment of the game but it hardly presents the best first impression. 
Like the dual modes of play, the game also features two completely different soundtracks. One is reminiscent of the Retro games that Chris Obritsch loves to play with his daughter and the other is a more modern orchestrated arrangement. “We’ve gone to both ends of the spectrum and let the musicians work to create some very interesting moods and themes for the game” notes Casual Bit Games. 
For the right audience, ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ is, I’m sure, an enjoyable game that celebrates the games that inspired it. However, I found my time with it frustrating. I appreciate it’s based on one of the most notoriously difficult game series, but after hours of effort I simply felt I wasn't making any real progress. Arcade mode posed too great a challenge and story mode may have been easier but it was pugnacious. It becomes tiresome tapping tube down button every time you arrive at a new location, just to avoid missing a vital upgrade. Continually failing a jump or being ground down by excessive foes didn’t make me want to play on, it made me want to turn off.
In all honestly I’ve never much liked ‘Ghouls N Ghosts’ so perhaps I’m not the right audience. I don’t mind a challenging game, but I always want failures to be because of my incompetence. It’s a shame as ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ is a game I really wanted to love. I adore the look of the game, it sounds great and back story behind its creation is endearing. I am sure that Maddi Obritsch loves the game her Dad made for her. I just hope she’s better at it than me. 
A copy of this game was provided by the publishers. They have not seen or had any influence over the content of this article prior to publication. 

Following early criticism, a patch will be released for this game that may address several of the issues highlighted above.

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