Before we start I would like to thank Nicalis for sending us a review copy of this game.
Back when Blade Strangers was announced I got very interested in the characters shown, as I usually do for crossovers. I was very familiar with Cave Story and managed to get a hold of Umihara Kawase, but Code of Princess was a difficult title to find. The 3DS version of the game was very limited, and while it is also on Steam I’m not much of a PC gamer. Thankfully Nicalis and Studio Saizensen had my back when they announced Code of Princess EX, an enhanced version of the 3DS title exclusive to Nintendo Switch which boasts various quality of life upgrades and differences. I can’t really compare it with the original, but with all these improvements, surely this must be the definitive version, right?
Code of Princess’ story is set in a medieval world of monsters and kingdoms, with all the clichés you could possibly imagine. When monsters begin to appear more frequently, the peasants of the kingdom of DeLuxia feel dissatisfied with how their king is handling the situation and all turn to the rival Kingdom of Distrun for help. After news of the invasion reached the king, he trusts his daughter, princess Solange, with both the ancient magic sword DeLuxcalibur and the fate of the world. When she pulls the sword from its pedestal everything explodes and the story nearly ends there, but a young thief girl named Ali finds her amongst the rubble and helps her escape. The two team up to escape the city, meeting cocky elf bard Allegaro and necromancer named Zozo along the way.
Eventually, they meet more allies and discover the Distrun army is, in fact, the source of all the monsters, so this rag-tag party must figure out a way to save the world from both them and the rebirth of a 1000 year old demon. I feel like they knew how clichéd this story is. Many plot points just happen with no prior build-up and all of them your typical story tropes. It’s hard to get excited by a long lost brother, a missing childhood friend, or a…sudden samurai/zombie romance?
The main party consists of eight playable heroes; this is apparently an improvement over the original, which only gave you control of the first four. They also all get experience so no character feels left behind, even if one gets introduced at lvl 1 waaaay too late into the game to be useful. Each one of the heroes are pretty interesting with the exception of Solange who is about as generic a hero as they come: a bubbly princess archetype who wants to do the right thing but actually has the strength to reach her ideals cares for her friends and is too quick to trust others.
Ali, the de facto leader of the fellowship, is by far the best character of the main four. Without her, I don’t think anyone would have any clue what was happening, and it makes her feel intrinsic to the plot. Zozo and Allegaro less so, but they both managed to get a good laugh out of me and they are fairly likeable characters, as are all of the antagonists. The character writing is very good in this game, even with Solange being a bit stale. The cutscenes between missions can be skipped if you are not interested, although they never overstayed their welcome anyway; I enjoyed reading them, even if some developments left me thinking, “sure, why not.”
Code of Princess EX is a hack n’ slash game played on three tracks with the player able to jump between the foreground and background to avoid enemy attacks and obstacles. Characters have a set number of abilities shared amongst each other: light attacks, heavy attacks, lock-on attacks, burst mode, and guarding. The mechanics are very similar to a fighting game actually, where you mix light and heavy attacks with directional inputs, influencing what type of attack string happens. Depending on the hero, this can range from a chain of physical attacks to a special magic attack. While all combos are inputted the same way, the outcomes are at least varied enough to make ever character feel unique in both style and gameplay.
What is essential to Code of Princess is the lock-on and burst mechanics. Lock-on isn’t like Zelda’s Z-targeting; you actually have to hit the opponent with a specific lock-on attack to target them. This allows magic attacks to home in on them, and they take twice the amount of damage as normal. This is vital for bosses. Burst mode, on the other hand, gives you a boost to all of your stats for as long as your magic bar lasts and can only be performed a few times in any match, a change from the original where it acted more like a toggle (this apparently made the game too easy). Learning how to use burst attacks with lock-on is the only way you will manage to get through this game.
One criticism I have of the movement in this game is the lag between input and movement. I got used to it, but at first, I felt there was some serious stiffness in the characters that made the game flow poorly.
In the list of changes Nicalis released, they mentioned that the AI was improved on bosses in order to increase enjoyment, code for ‘git gud scrub,’ because maaaaan are some of these bosses ridiculous. I’m looking at you in particular, you love-struck ninja. I spent a whole day just trying to beat you, and I still don’t understand how I did it. This spike in boss difficulty is why some of the last party members feel a little late to the party; unless you feel like grinding in the free mode, they are simply too weak for this part of the game and you have to rely on one of the four original heroes to advance. Usually, that’s Solange, who is just OP with her reach and physical strength, although Zozo was also really good with her powerful magic attacks. Ali is fun to play as but far trickier with barely any range, and the less said about this useless “sage” the better.
But that also brings me to one of the most surprising and enjoyable parts of Code of Princess. Outside of the story mode, you have free play and bonus quests which seem to be using the same mantra of “Everybody is Here” as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate does. Want to play as any of the protagonists? Sure. How about the villains? You can do that as well. How about the old lady from that one scene, or the barmaid? Go nuts. Even a slime and an orphan child is playable. If it has a 3D model, even if it is a mob or a background NPC they are playable in this game; that is actually, unbelievably, incredible. Each one has their own levels, attacks, equipment and so on, which vastly increases the replayability of the game. I was blown away when I realised I could play as this random named NPC, but when the old lady came up I knew this game was well represented. Amazing.
Code of Princess EX now also adds local and online multiplayer which can be played with a Joy-Con each. Multiplayer helps to make the game much easier if the difficulty is getting too much. You both play on one screen and if one player dies the other just has to survive and wait for you to revive. Death is not permanent.
The original Code of Princess was a 3DS title and so the UI and graphics were all very standard, but jump to HD has made everything looks a lot nicer. Well, nearly everything. The frame rate, resolution, and background elements are all great, but the character models leave a lot to be desired. They look fine in handheld mode due to the lower resolution, but when played on a TV they just seem really pixely. It gave me same vibes as Glory of Heracles on the DS, but it’s easier for me to excuse that on that system. This is an HD title, and the models feel like they’ve been quickly upscaled from 3DS.
The score is a lot of typical fantasy sounding songs, but nothing that really stood out to me. What affected me more was the bad audio clipping. The game matches particular themes to certain pieces of dialogue, events, and battles, but there is no natural transition into these; they’re sudden, jarring cuts. The game’s audio is also only the Japanese dub. From what I understand the 3DS version was dubbed in English by Atlus, but I guess they own the rights to that dub given it hasn’t come back. This doesn’t bother me so much though.
Something that is a bit awkward is how skipping cutscenes works. You hold down the R button, but rather than skipping everything, you fast-forward through it. But it’s just weird, as doesn’t speed up but just randomly jumps forward a bit. It’s like watching a bunch of badly edited images put together for a quick sequence and just doesn’t feel natural.
Though there is something else I need to talk about: the character designs. They are certainly…interesting, but I don’t feel like there is any real consistency. Some clearly have outfits based on their themes, like the knight Liongate, the Samurai Tsukikage, the Nun Sister Hel, all fitting a traditional fantasy setting. But others are just random, like the villains Alchemia and Queen Distiny.
And don’t get me started on Solagne’s outfit. Fanservice doesn’t really bother me – I am one of those people who feels a lot of the complaints towards Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s fan service is very overblown – but this game, oh boy. There is no reason she (or Ali, for that matter) should be dressed like this, and the game lampshades it in one scene but otherwise shrugs this off entirely. When one character finally questions her outfit she simply calls it the latest fashion amongst princesses. What? It’s like a swimsuit at best, how is this normal wear? No one else in the game is wearing something like this, and I guess we don’t see any other princesses, but still. Ultimately it didn’t lower my enjoyment of the game, but I think it’s worth noting.
Anyway, the presentation is passable but nothing outstanding. I felt it was best played in portable mode, so if you don’t have a preference play like that.
Code of Princess EX certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s closed off mission structure and its basic combo system makes sense, but I think they (and the rest of the game’s design) could have been better. The presentation and story are both passable and have their ups and downs, but where this game really shines is content. With over 20+ story missions, bonus quests, and the ability to play as literally anything that moves, you have a wide cast to play with. Each one has their own moveset, equipment, and levels; it’s this kind of extra bonuses that I really enjoy in a game. It promotes replayability to the extreme and definitely makes the game worth its money. If you like hack and slash games where you get to play as slimes, old ladies, and more, this one is worth trying. But otherwise, it isn’t anything crown-worthy