They've tried this all before, you know. Landstalker on the Genesis. Dark Savior on the Saturn. Lady Stalker on the Super Famicom, among others. Climax Entertainment just keeps pushing isometric action/adventures out the door, and the company's latest attempt to maintain its momentum in that sub-genre, Steal Princess, finally hit the DS in America last month (after a few delays).
Steal Princess is more of a puzzler than an action/adventure, though, showing that Climax is perhaps finally ready to branch out -- this adventure engages your mind much more than your reflexes, even while you still have to deal with the Climax-trademarked isometric perspective.
If you're unfamiliar with that term, it's also called the three-quarters viewpoint. It's the visual style that place environments "on an angle" relative to the player, so that the heroes, the enemies and the objects moving within them all seem to be going southwest, or northeast, or at whatever other 45-degree angle when they're moving straight ahead, relative to them. Super Mario RPG
used this perspective, if that clarifies things for you.
And it's important to note that that perspective is used here right up front, because isometric games are, traditionally, notoriously difficult to control -- and Steal Princess is no exception. This is a game where the infamous Anise the Thief has been unwillingly drafted into the role of Legendary Hero, and tasked to save the kidnapped Prince of the Kingdom of Albyon. We meet her and learn of her considerable reputation and skill in the game's opening cutscenes, and she is, indeed, an imposing figure -- wielding a multi-functional whip, boldly challenging demons and stealing their treasures, wearing an eyepatch to cover up the evidence of that one past job that didn't quite turn out the way she'd planned. Steal Princess has a great title character.
But she's horribly hard to handle. The three-quarters view, even when updated to pseudo-3D as it is here, makes moving Anise around each level tough to do. You can choose from either of two control schemes, but neither is perfect -- using just the D-Pad and face buttons makes precision running and targeting difficult, since you have to rely on the game's automatic targeting arrows to guess at what you're wanting to do. But using the all-stylus, touch-only option is also crippling, as picking up and moving objects becomes cumbersome, and Anise isn't as responsive when she has to figure out where to move on the screen in response to your tapping.
It's a bit of a hassle, and it unfortunately doesn't seem to get much easier the further you go -- as later levels offer more complicated puzzles, and more difficult weapons to wield. You'll set off a bomb in Anise's face by accident. You'll slip off the side of a cliff, unwittingly. Maybe it's all because she's only got one eye? Her lack of depth perception is being reflected in the controls. Yeah.
Each level in Steal Princess is a self-contained puzzle, not unlike character-based puzzle designs of yesteryear like The Adventures of Lolo
, or even some more modern titles like Mighty Flip Champs!
. The goal is to find the key in each stage, use it to unlock a keyhole box, and then make your way through the giant doorway that then opens up. It's straightforward and simple to begin with, but the conditions for making the key appear, and then maneuvering Anise back to the keyhole with it, and then getting her through the stage-ending door, get a lot tougher later on.
You might have to kill every monster on the screen to get the key to appear. Or kill every monster of a certain type, while letting others live. Or find the right switch to flip, or move the right block, or this, or that. The victory condition for each level is always prominently displayed up on the top screen before the action gets going on the touch display below, so you always know what you're working towards -- even when the immediate solution eludes you.
And it will. Some of the puzzles in Steal Princess boggle the mind, and in a great way. Like Lolo, or Flip Champs, or other classic puzzler/platformers, it can be truly rewarding to clear a difficult level here -- and truly maddening when you just can't seem to pin down the right solution.
It's just a shame that there are so many rough edges on Steal Princess' presentation. Because beyond the often-frustrating control scheme, there are several other elements that will threaten to distract you from the experience.
Like the graphics themselves. The environments here are bland, and repetitive. Your first area of adventure is "The Grasslands," a basic, easy-going tutorial zone. But after playing twenty full levels, you're still in the Grasslands -- desperate to see some kind, any kind, of visual distinction enter into the levels.
The characters are really rough. All rendered as 2D sprites, they're like little flat cardboard cut-outs pasted on top of the 3D backdrop. Some bosses are more visually striking, and done in actual 3D. But then other, mid-level bosses are just the same 2D sprites as the common enemies -- blown up to enormous proportion. Seriously, you'll face off against a giant Kobold early on that's just the same enemy sprite as the common Kobold, doubled in size in every dimension. It looks tacky, and terribly jagged with enormous blocks of pixels framing its body.
A high point of the package is its dialogue sequences, with cutscenes that advance the characters like Anise, her fairy companion Kukri, and their devilish enemies. But though the writing's done well here, it can often drag on a bit too long -- giving you long sequences of text at a time, then 15 levels or so in a row where no story advancement happens, then another long and drawn-out dialogue moment, and so on. Less talking more often would've worked better.
And, finally, there's the Map Maker. This level-creation tool is impressive, potentially -- Steal Princess boasts the ability to take your own dreamed-up puzzle stages and share them with friends, through Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection or local wireless exchange. But the feature is inaccessible to begin with. You'll play for hours, and it'll still be locked down. You can't even make the simplest, most basic map containing only a key, the keyhole box and the door -- because you have to buy the right to access the key option with gems you collect during the story mode.
To have such a potentially value-enhancing extra mode included, but then to lock it down as tightly as the developers chose to do here, is an unfortunate mistake in my mind. I at least want to be able to play around with the Map Maker right away, even if I can't access its full potential until later on, when the Prince is finally saved.
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