Code of Princess review: Beautiful - but with big barriers to entry
30th Jun 2012 | 15:30
Ask us to draw up a code for princesses, and it would probably involve delicate manners, tasteful dresses, peas under the mattress and a preference for mooning over doltish princes rather than scrapping in a metal cage bra.
Thankfully, no one did ask us, which is why we have this - a highly peculiar brawler starring barely-dressed royal Solange and her strange retinue. If you don't read Japanese, you probably won't know what's going on a lot of the time, but there's enough charisma in the art alone to keep you engrossed regardless.
Peculiar it may be, but it's a brawler all the same: think Streets Of Rage's enemy waves confined to a single arena about the size of your average beat 'em up stage. Veteran Capcom artist Kinu Nishimura (Street Fighter II, Darkstalkers) gives the characters a sharp and saucy cartoon look that carries through into their attacks. Lady Zozo carries a staff made out of spines and wears a long scarf with the word 'milk' on it, frying knights with satisfyingly spiky jolts of blue plasma; jester Allegro's arsenal includes AC/DC rock kicks and an electric guitar, while scimitar-wielding Ali mixes short-range swordplay with sprinkles of area-attacking twinkling white runes.
The fighting system is a dependable mix of light and heavy attacks. Unfortunately the lack of side-scrolling progression proves limiting, and although the backgrounds are as gorgeous as the cast - cobbled castle courtyards host furious scraps, a graveyard haunts under low-hanging mist, chandeliers swing in an orange-hued tavern - there's no dynamism. Street Fighter's gawping onlookers and busy backgrounds add a certain amount of depth to the scrapping as well as the picture, but here there are no moving parts and nothing to jump on, or fight over, or dodge.
It's presumably a concession to balance and purity, designed to let the combat breathe - but levels varied only in look and not feel make for a weaker, flatter brawler. Unlike close rival Super Smash Bros, which has you dodging random hazards and breathlessly bounding between platforms for a dose of fighting verticality, this keeps both feet planted firmly on terra firma.
The bounding here is on a different axis entirely: shoulder button taps slip between three 2D planes. Smart players can dart back to escape a peppering from surrounding hordes or shift forwards to get the drop on them. This puts Code Of Princess on the small but growing list of games that regard 3D as more than a novelty - leap into the screen and your enemies follow, leaving them momentarily open for a jab.
Jumping to the foreground affords a close-up view of the fantastically animated characters, as well affording a perv's eye view of the more... ummm... jiggly figures. Levels are flat and characters are wafer-thin, but this is where 3D technology excels, clearly designating layers and rendering stages as peep shows (the paper kind as well as the smutty kind). It's like looking into some wondrous adults-only toy box.
YOU'VE BEEN FRAMED
Unfortunately, it's also cursed with some stuttering slow-down that turns the game into a much-less-wondrous flickbook. The static levels are never swamped with action so it's hard to understand why this should be. Whatever the cause, it's to the detriment of the fighting, which tends to the sluggish anyway. It's the game that struggles to keep up with the action rather than you.
Before stages, you can kit out your character with damage buffers and different clothes (annoyingly, they only change your character's stats and not their appearance), and after fights you can invest gold into improving attributes. Unfortunately, while English words like 'vitality' and 'piety' act as helpful signposts, non-Japanese speakers are largely left to trial-and-error.
The handful of singleplayer stages act as experiments to conduct over and over - how would it go with a nippier fighter, or after splurging all your gold on a beastly weapon? That's because the whole short story mode is a learning experience for local and global multiplayer, which allows your levelled-up characters to battle either alongside or against up to three other people. Unfortunately, with the servers based in Japan, we couldn't find anyone to test it with, and that leaves western players missing out on the main part of the gameplay.