The Emperor’s Daughter’s Lack of Clothes
My very first introduction to Code of Princess came as I’m sure it did for many: laying eyes upon the artwork of the game’s main character. Presented to us was princess Solange Blanchefleur de Lux—she’s cute, she’s carrying a big sword, and OH MY GOD WHERE ARE HER CLOTHES?!
No matter what followed concerning Code of Princess’s development, announced gameplay, or anything else, the topic of Solange and her blatant disregard for proper attire would always find its ways into the conversation. (In-game, Solange assures one of the game’s characters—and us players—that her outfit is part of the latest fashion scene in the capital.) It’s easy to lift Code of Princess up as an example of gaming’s at times ridiculous over-sexualization of female characters, but that argument runs into a bit of a complication: Solange, and the rest of the game’s cast, are the creations of legendary Capcom artist Kinu Nishimura. Nishimura—for those not familiar with the name—is a she.
The cover Atlus gave us for the North American release of Code of Princess is just one of many examples of how one character and her sense of style can become such a hot topic: the box art logo just happens to be positioned so that none of Solange’s ample assets are on display. And, when I say “just happens to be”, I mean “was deliberately”.
In reality—as I’ll point out later—Solange’s character design has so little impact on the game itself that the controversy she’s created is somewhat funny. Of course, the argument to that could be that she could have been given a far less ridiculous design—and I kind of wish she indeed had. Code of Princess does little to justify why Solange looks the way she does, and in context with the rest of the game, she does somewhat come off as young male pandering.
But, seriously, what about the game itself? There’s an actual game behind all of the flesh displayed on its cover, right? There absolutely is—and that’s where I began to have actual interest in Code of Princess. The reason many of us were excited for this release was because game design was being spearheaded by ex-Treasure developers Tetsuhiko Kikuchi and Masaki Ukyo. During their time at Treasure, Kikuchi and Ukyo had a hand in creating the legendary Saturn classic Guardian Heroes—and Code of Princess promised to be something of a spiritual sequel to that game.
In so many ways, it is. Like its elder Guardian Heroes, Code of Princess is a stylish blend of action, adventure, and a dash of RPG-style character leveling. For those of you not familiar with Guardian Heroes—and, if you’re not, shame on you, remember that the game was recently re-released on the Xbox 360 for a scant ten dollars—Code of Princess is a side scrolling beat-’em-up where players can freely move left and right in limited-sized stages while battling a wide variety of monsters and enemies. However, like Guardian Heroes, one of the key points to Code of Princess’ gameplay is that all of its stages have three planes upon which action can take place. By holding a shoulder button and pressing up or down, you can hop back and forth between the foreground, background, and main plane of action—helping you to get out of sticky situations, break up enemies to deal with them in smaller groups, and so on.
The game starts off by giving us control of Solange, whose kingdom of DeLuxia is being invaded by the Distron army. The Distron forces come under the guise of wanting to help quell the sudden rise in monster appearances, but they also have an ulterior motive: wanting to get their hands on the legendary sword DeLuxcalibur for their leader, Queen Distiny.
Through Solange, we’re introduced to Code of Princess’ gameplay, and given a taste of what we can expect. Via two attack buttons—Weak and Strong—Solange can dish out a variety of attacks either through those buttons alone, or by combining those buttons with pre-set actions on the d-pad or circle pad. Along with this, Solange can guard using either shoulder button, thrust her sword into an enemy to lock on to them, or activate/deactivate Burst mode. Locking on to enemies doubles the damage you’ll do to that enemy; going into Burst will then increase the damage done to that enemy even more. However, Bursting drains your MP gauge, so you’ll need to make sure that you’re being judicious with its use.
While there’s no way I’d call Code of Princess a fighting game, much like Guardian Heroes, gameplay feels closer to that genre than it does to old-school beat-’em-ups such as Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, or Final Fight. If you just go into Code of Princess mashing attack buttons, you’ll find yourself on the ground with an empty HP bar in no time. The order of business here is connecting the various attack you have available into combos, juggles, and follow-ups—and doing so while your opponents have no hesitation in ganging up on you. (Unlike, in contrast, the usual unwritten law in video gaming which states that opponents should stand back and take you on one at a time.)
Unfortunately, Code of Princess has a problem: our titillating titular princess initially handles like a semi truck that was hauling a cargo of molasses, spilled that molasses, and is now trying to drive through said molasses. Remembering the fast-paced, exciting chaos of Guardian Heroes and seeing that enemies in Code of Princess had no trouble bouncing around while throwing out attack after attack, playing as Solange felt far more like frustration than fun. Having Solange be the one and only choice for kicking off the game’s single-player storyline mode—and having her be so initially slow and clumsy—was, I feel, a mistake in judgement.
Spend your hard-earned skill points after a few completed stages on bumping up Solange’s speed, however, and things starts to get better. (Though, really, it’s a little hilarious just much leveling it would eventually take to max out the six presented character stats.) As well, it isn’t long before you’ve unlocked three other character choices: the bandit rogue Ali-Baba, the zombie-who-isn’t-a-zombie necromancer Lady Zozo, and the hard-rockin’ Elf bard Allegro.
Introducing optional main characters past the initial portion of a game is always tricky; by that point, you’ll have raised Solange up a number of levels past those three, so you may very well feel inclined to simply stick it our with her. Don’t; try the other characters, experiment with them, see if you find one that’s more your liking. Each choice brings with them a unique style of gameplay, and it’s quite likely that you’ll find a character who clicks with your personal preferences far more than Solange does. For me, that was Zozo. She’s more nimble, she requires more depth to her tactics, and she eschews a giant sword for a variety of magic-based attacks. Of course, she’s can’t dish out hits as hard as Solange can—nor is she as skilled at taking them
Guardian Heroes presented a simple concept in gameplay progression: fight and defeat wave after wave of enemies. That idea is still alive and well here, and the results are usually good, but then again sometimes mixed. That difference in character play styles and the depth of combat beyond simple button mashing are what keep Code of Princess enjoyable throughout its length. Stages are over pretty quick, so typically it’s a brisk battle or two, another fully voiced cutscene, and then you’re whisked into the upgrade interface to prepare for the next set of challenges.
Every now and then, though, Code of Princess feels shallow. Usually, beating on enemies and seeing how quickly you can clear a stage is enjoyable—but then there will be times when you’re fighting the same monster type you’ve encountered numerous times already, and you wish there was a little more robustness to the game’s enemies and their tactics. When you’re introduced to a new type of foe, you’re battling bosses, or you’re, say, figuring out how in the world to survive against a pair of gigantic dragons, Code of Princess is a blast. Then, the next stage will have you dispatching a group of enemies you’re already well acquainted with, followed by another group you’re seen before, followed by yet another batch of familiar faces. Insert a handful of new enemy type with their own fresh attack styles, then come up with more one-off mission types, and Code of Princess would have been much stronger all the way through.
What can also wear on you as a player is that, so very often, the odds are so uneven that it’s not even funny. As I said before, monsters have no hesitation in jumping on you all at once–and when you’ve got eight enemies surrounding you, all spamming their attacks, you can feel more than a little overwhelmed. And lord almighty—the CPU has no problem being cheap as all hell when it wants to be. When you’ve fought through two waves of smaller opponent, had the boss show up, and successfully avoided his respawning underlings long enough to get close to him—only to have said boss demolish you in two hits, forcing you to restart the stage—you may have to fight the urge to fling your 3DS out the nearest open window.
Code of Princess’ at times insane difficulty and cheesiness wouldn’t be so bad if you had a CPU-controlled partner to help provide back up. Guardian Heroes had such a helper—and with Code of Princess being so focused on the story of a group of people coming together to overcome the odds, it’s really baffling that there’s no option presented to not progress through single-player alone. You can, of course, hop online and find other humans to help you out. Again, however, another unexplainable decision comes into play: you can only play quests one at a time with other players. If you want to continue deeper into the game with someone over the internet, you’ll have to find each other again via the lobby system after every single mission.
Of course, internet support isn’t always a guarantee in 3DS releases—so maybe I should be happy that they’re here at all. Beyond going co-op either with a second person in quests you’ve unlocked, or with up to three other partners in a long list of bonus quests, you can battle one another either locally or online in Code of Princess’ versus mode. For those not familiar with Guardian Heroes, the game had a battle arena where you could play with any character in the game that you’d come across, no matter how weak or how powerful. Thankfully, that option is available here as well—and there’s no end to the humor of seeing a 3-foot-tall orphan girl taking on a 15-foot-tall hulking giant.
The there-but-not-fully-there internet options of Code of Princess hint at what is far and away the biggest source of emotional conflict I had with the game: that unshakable feeling that Code of Princess was being held back by the 3DS. A game—properly matched with a piece of gaming hardware—should never feel like it was compromised because of that hardware upon which it is released. Playing Code of Princess, it continually feels like the 3DS is about to burst at its seems as it struggles to contain everything the folks at Agatsuma Entertainment wanted to shove into it. Remember that whole argument about Solange’s outfit? It’s a moot point given how small her actual character sprite looks onscreen. Turning on 3D adds a pretty cool depth to the world of Code of Princess, but it also causes a notable hit to how well it runs.
And–as much as I hate saying this—I simply cannot fathom playing this game on anything but the 3DS XL. The smaller screen of the 3DS is simply not fit for the compact chaos that makes up Code of Princess’ gameplay, and it wasn’t long before my hands were begging me to stop playing on that little device. I’ve almost never found myself really feeling like the standard 3DS was too dainty to properly connect me with a game; here, my time playing Code of Princess on both the 3DS and 3DS XL produced drastically different results.
I came away with a unwavering opinion: Code of Princess feels like a game that could have been, should have been, and wanted to be a full-blown HD console release. Had it been, I firmly believe it would have been an overall better experience. But, it wasn’t—so I have to pass judgement on what it was. Trying to make a game like Code of Princess on the 3DS could have been a disaster, but instead I was impressed by just how well things turned out in the end. Though I’ve pointed out clear ways in which the game didn’t fully live up to its potential, I still found myself going back to play more of it—even after those moments where I screamed obscenities at Nintendo’s handheld due to death. Code of Princess isn’t the most welcoming game to newcomers at first, and its style, substance, and presentation certainly won’t be for everybody. However, for fans of Guardian Heroes, or those who just want some new hardcore Japanese action game to sink their teeth into, you might really get a kick out of the time you spend with Solange and company.
Just, really–if you’re on a standard 3DS, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
SUMMARY: Code of Princess is a fun and frantic action adventure for the 3DS, one that often provides plenty of excitement—but which, at other times, feels limited either in design or by the hardware it calls home.
- THE GOOD: An enjoyable side-scrolling beat-’em-up populated with colorful characters and a great Atlus translation.
- THE BAD: At times tedious, and missing some features that seem obvious.
- THE UGLY: The parenting skills of Solange’s mother and father, seeing that they let her go out of the castle like that.
Code of Princess is available exclusively on 3DS.