Battle Princess of Arcadias is what would happen if Phantom Breaker: Battle Ground had a love-child with Odin Sphere. By that we mean, NIS America’s latest digital-only release is both an RPG and an old-school beat’em up wrapped in beautiful 2D graphics. While in theory that should be a out-and-out winner, in execution, Arcadias isn’t exactly what it’s supposed to be, suffering from a lack of elements that made games like Dragon’s Crown so special, ultimately coming across as more of a slogging side-scroller that sometimes feels like a case of “style over substance.”
Battle Princess of Arcadias tells the story of one Princess Plume — a, well, lady of royalty who battles stuff in the name of her homeland, the Schwert Kingdom. Essentially, our fair heroine has taken it upon herself to rid the realm of baddies with a slew of weaponry and a few tag-alongs. But, as one might be able to deduce, the narrative here is anything but serious. In actuality, that helps Arcadias‘ cause, as it comes off as a light-hearted stroll down fantasy lane with plenty of charming characters to boot. Despite this being a title that emphasizes gameplay above anything else, though, it still manages to take special care of developing a fairly large cast in a comprehensive way. In fact, the plot can become so front-and-center that certain scenes between dungeons can drone on for far longer than desired, simply because there’s quite a bit of text to read while the game tries to flesh out its world.
The problem with this is that, aside from the aforementioned character charm, we found ourselves largely unattached to the roster of faces. They have an abundance of personality, but never have anything all that interesting to say. There’s plenty of silly one-liners and outlandish predicaments that elicit humorous exchanges between party members, but on the whole the heroes feel more like caricatures than anything, simply there to give players a little more depth, or a few laughs, than the typical beat’em up experience would. While many of NIS America’s titles are laugh-out-loud outrageous, this one seems to be trying too hard to be funny, missing the mark more than it hit. The game’s genre itself ultimately acts as its biggest enemy in this way; much like Dragon’s Crown before it, Battle Princess of Arcadias can overstay its narrative welcome as it forces players to read bits of backstory and worldly events, when all they really want to do is just kill a bunch of stuff.
The actual gameplay is the chief concern here, however. Although the game itself looks it may just be a run-of-the-mill beat’em up that sticks to tried-and-true conventions, it’s actually quite more than that. Sure, the first hour or so will feel like any other game that funnels its audience down a linear, left-to-right path and has them button-mash their way to glory; but once the first few zones are cleared, the meta-game begins to shows itself — and that’s where we see some of Arcadias‘ more interesting ideas make their presence known.
There are essentially three modes of play during the course of the adventure. There’s your standard dungeon run that simply requires players to clear screens of bad guys until the end of the level, relying heavily on combo-oriented combat in order to make it out alive. These sections can be taken as times to grind, because they don’t offer much in the way of actual challenge. These stages are the majority of Arcadias‘ experience, though, which is sad seeing as though they are the least compelling of the three types available.
The second style is formation battles. These are sections that have players amassing troops to fend off an opposing onslaught of enemies. In this mode, players are asked to do what they did in the first (i.e. kill stuff directly), but they are to also issue commands to their underlings. In this, we get a sort of Dragon Force, GrimGrimoire styling of strategic combat that really helps deepen the battles at large, as the straight-forward hacking and slashing components previously mentioned can ultimately come off as shallow. It feels odd initially to go from playing the game in a typical beat’em up way to having to think tactically and adapt to situations on the fly; being able to order attacks, defensive maneuvering and retreats all come into play here, requiring a sound mind to topple the enemies that stand in a player’s way. In fact, these portions can be extremely difficult simply because folks have to take on waves of enemies until a certain condition is met. It’s not a cheap difficulty, however; if players die, it’s on them, not some flawed mechanic that was overlooked in the development process. Lastly, we have the boss encounters. These work in the same way as the formation battles, except they’re usually a bit harder given the circumstances
Through all of this, it’s easy to see that Battle Princess is far more than just the standard brawler. In all honesty, its gameplay diversity is one of its strongest aspects. Even still, with all of these types of modes, one would assume that Arcadias never falls victim to repetition or feeling overly mundane. Regrettably, the core combat isn’t deep enough to feel completely worth the effort needed to push forward. Sure, the ten playable characters and individual move-lists are a nice touch in helping keep the experience fresh, but beating up enemies simply doesn’t feel all that satisfying, mostly because button-mashing is a totally viable means of completing stages — at least the basic ones. The level of intricacy during the formation and boss battles is wonderful, and those are when the game truly catches it stride, but they still mandates the same less than fulfilling combat systems.
Unfortunately, even during those harder encounters, the game can be quickly dethroned of its challenge by simply out-leveling monsters. This was perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects of the game. Because leveling up doesn’t take all that long, we found ourselves merely grinding for a short period so as to utterly obliterate the tougher foes. Thus, when we add this into the mix with a combat setup that isn’t all that compelling or nuanced in and of itself, it can give way to monotony or at the very least disappointment. It would have been nice to have enemies’ levels adjust according to the player’s, but alas it has forgone this concept entirely. Had the actual beating up been little more than slamming on the two attack buttons in random succession, we would’ve been able to forgive that pitfall. Not to mention, the actual flailing of weapons doesn’t feel all that responsive. It, instead, feels plodding and clunky at times. When we think of combo-focused gameplay, we expect there to be a certain ferocity and freneticism during battles. But players won’t really be given that here. When a game’s primary hook is slicing and dicing, it should be its most shining quality. Having that not be the case with Arcadias is especially frustrating.
There’s also a crafting component to Battle Princess. Like the combat, it’s not mind-blowingly deep, but it’s super accessible all the same. Accessibility can sometimes mean lacking true merit, but we found ourselves entranced by how easy it was to forge new items and enhance those we already had in-stock, without ever slowing down the pace of the adventure. If nothing else, it’s a nice break from the action and, in the end, comes off as a well thought-out, streamlined feature that, again, makes the game not feel like a usual brawler.
Thankfully, what holes may be in the core gameplay are somewhat filled or at least pardoned to some degree by the excellent production values. The graphics, in a word, are gorgeous. They lose a little of their shine when in motion, as Arcadias can aesthetically look like a 2D browser game thanks to low-count animations, but because this was probably intended, it ultimately comes off as pretty adorable. Plus, the use of the entire color plaette to detail laugh environments and backgrounds really does wonders for the overall visuals. The menu and interface are also clean, intuitive and easy to navigate. The audio does a nice job complementing the aesthetics, with a soundtrack that is especially whimsical. Dainty compositions mixed with rocking anthems or boss battles was just the right blend to keep us hooked. There isn’t a dual voice-track option, which means Arcadias‘ spoken dialogue is all Japanese, which is a-OK with us due to solid performances from the actors.
Battle Princess of Arcadias is going to have an audience. There will be people who love the mish-mash of traditional beat’em up conventions and more tactical elements found in classics like Dragon Force and Yggdra Union. Moreover, from a production standpoint, the game is a beauty, with vibrant, charming 2D graphics and a great soundtrack to boot. But when the layers of the experience are peeled back, what we’re left with at Arcadias‘ core is a sluggish brawling RPG that can sometimes lack the kind of gameplay merit needed for sustainability beyond a handful of hours. Its systems are rather competent, but Arcadias never climaxes. As a result, it simply plays things safe and appears content with giving us only a good experience — nothing more, nothing less.
Platform: PlayStation 3