Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: Genre Blending Steal Princess

There is beauty in two seemingly disparate parts melded into one seamless creation. Peanut-butter & jelly sandwiches come to mind, but I'm a sucker for food analogies. Steal Princess aims to merge simple puzzle solving elements with platforming components. The combo seems to be a genre in itself, with Braid and most recently Trine has excellent examples. Genre is itself a nebulous word, which I will eagerly lambaste again if given the chance. The lines are blurred anyway. Even Cliff Bleszinski, creator of the modern quintessential shooter, believes the future of the shooter genre is in RPGs. Steal Princess is an intriguing patchwork golem that rests uncomfortably in genre borderlands.

Published by the ever prolific Atlus, of Shin Megami Tensai fame, and developed by Climax and Marvelous, Steal Princess follows the comedic exploits of Anise, a skilled young thief with an eye patch and an attitude. Like some of her adventuring predecessors, Anise is accompanied by an only moderately annoying fairy named Kukri who is enamored with the legendary hero Anise is destined to become. She is an reluctant heroine rescuing a prince.

The should sound trite, and for the most part it is. But make no mistake, Steal Princess is very much aware of itself, approaching what should be a hackneyed storyline with light-hearted gibing at its own expense. At times, the game is genuinely funny. The characters are poke at convention and even the demons are endearing. The occasional piece of attractive animation and clever dialogue break up gameplay with humor reminiscent of anime like FLCL. But those damn genre mechanics get in the way again.

Game progression consists of working your way through various stages, each consisting of a series of grid maps. Each map has a door Anise must open and exit through, with traditional platforming obstacles in her way - levers, spikes, traps and the like. However, the puzzling task is finding out which precise route and kill order of enemies is necessary for escape. With whip in hand, Anise must use the land formation, enemy lay-out, and various acquired weapons to reach her goal. Each map is like a combination lock.
The puzzle design is actually quite inventive. Many enemies can only be killed with specific weapons, but not right away. Anise must approach each enemy as part of a large puzzle, using their characteristics for her benefit. The game iterates on this basic design with some impressive and increasingly difficult puzzles. It is not uncommon to find yourself with the key, but with no way to reach the exit. Most maps require multiple play throughs just to scope out the territory and get a feel for the land. Like all successful puzzle games, the "aha!" moments are deeply satisfying. It's the platforming required to bring a brilliant plan to fruition that is so frustrating.

What should be a simple application of your skill becomes repeated attempts at needlessly bothersome platforming. Steal Princess is not designed for the precision its platforming requires. The static camera angle makes judging distance and timing difficult. Anise's brief hovering and strange collision detection compounds this problem. Enemies used as platforms and launching devices seem to take up a larger amount of space than their model demands. It is not rare to see Anise hovering slightly to the right of and above an enemy attacking her with futile swings of an axe.

Anise's whip, her main navigational tool, is finicky and consistently aggravating. The whip is imprecise, which is partly explained by the sloppy detection and camera angle. The other more obvious and almost insulting explanation for whip-frustration is the baffling control design.
Players can activate the whip in two ways. They can use the stylus to click on a target or they can press the right shoulder button. Pressing the shoulder button will whip an object detected within a certain range of Anise. This method becomes especially untrustworthy when there are multiple moving targets in close proximity to each other. The stylus, while slightly more precise, is a pain to use when trying to combine whipping with jumping or moving. Using the stylus to play fluidly requires an inhuman act of finger contortion.

There are few games I find appealing that mangle playability so severely. In most respects, Steal Princess should be a simple and joyful diversion. It's strange to want to like a game whose flaws are few but crippling. Steal Princess employs such genre tropes, some successfully, that I could have faith in renewed application of tiresome game elements. But the platforming mechanics are simply not capable of supporting the puzzle design. Instead of seamless genre-bending creation, Steal Princess is more of a shambling automaton. Like Frankenstein's monster, Steal Princess is impressive because its creation is an eloquent accomplishment. Unfortunately, the game is a composite medley falling apart at the seams.

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