Brawlers are repetitive. That's pretty much the long and short of it--brawlers are games where all you have to do is get from Point A to Point B and kick everybody's ass along the way. But the best brawlers always add something special to the mix--games like Dynasty Warriors and Asura's Wrath throw huge armies and epic showdowns at you, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Streets of Rage 2 have excellent soundtracks, and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara and Guardian Heroes add stat-building and RPG-like skills to the fray.
Drawing from Treasure classic Guardian Heroes, Agatsuma Entertainment's Code of Princess is a classic-feeling side-scrolling brawler for 3DS with beautiful graphics, RPG-like character progression, and a surprisingly deep and varied combat system. In addition to solid gameplay, it's nice to see that the game doesn't take itself very seriously, making the experience all about fun. Any complaints about "too much fanservice" shouldn't be taken too seriously--if you're trying to ogle tiny pixelated boobs on the 3DS' screen, you're probably either on a sex offender registry or a twelve-year-old boy. I should know, I was once a twelve-year-old boy.
Code of Princess' story is simple and straightforward... sorta. Princess Solange Blanchefleur de Lux is the Princess of DeLuxia and wields a massive holy blade called the DeLuxcalibur. One day, her kingdom is attacked and her father is assumed dead, so Princess Solange takes up arms and gathers allies to oust the evil from her kingdom. Oh, sure, it takes some twists and turns and there are some surprise reveals, but there's plenty of fourth-wall breaking and lots of sarcastic dialogue (along with appropriately overdone voice acting) to keep the mood light. Yes, you have to prevent the apocalypse by defeating an ancient evil. Yes, that ancient evil carries an adorable stuffed bunny everywhere. Welcome to Code of Princess.
Gameplay is straightforward, but only if you play as Solange. She's fairly balanced, relying on a combination of strength, speed, and using her long reach to keep combos going, but the rest of the game's unusually large cast of playable characters all fight differently, to the point that you'll have to always consider which items characters are equipped with before battle, as a poorly-planned loadout can lead to a quick and humiliating death.
Unlike other brawlers where you just have to be concerned with who's faster, slower, or stronger, you're given a much deeper option set. All characters' abilities and command moves are available from the start, but grow in power and effectiveness as you level up. Ali-Baba (not at all related to Magi's Ali Baba) is a fragile speedster who can keep enemies defenseless with juggles and AOE, Zozo has massive crowd control spells, and Master T. Drakkhen weathers damage and draws aggro so he can get close with powerful command throws. Really, the game feels like a combination between a side-scrolling brawler, an RPG, a fighting game, and a MOBA, especially when played in up to four-player co-op.
Even with the solid, old-school experience Code of Princess delivers, it's not without problems. While it's great to see so many well-animated characters at once on-screen, it can often slow the action down to a crawl, and you can lose your own character in the crowd. While inputs are kept simple (it's essential for a game where you can be attacked from both sides), input timing is often a matter of luck, no thanks to the constant slowdown. Also, while it's always fun to level up your characters and build them just the way you like, you really only need to develop physical attack/defense for melee characters or magic attack/defense for caster characters. Some characters, like Sister Hel (a mace-wielding battle nun) are advertised as combinations of melee and magic, but have limited development options. With these characters, it's more of a choice than a balance--they can be used for physical or magical combat, not both. Finally, there is no Japanese voiceover option for the US release of the game, which is kind of a strange choice for such an anime-inspired title.
Code of Princess joins the growing list of standout 3DS titles. It's not perfect, but it brings a welcome retro experience that's missing from today's big-name console games. It's also the game that I personally nominate "most deserving of a really crappy twelve-episode anime adaptation." Of course, they'll have to keep the English voice actors around to ham it up for that, too.
+ Standout character designs and smooth animation
+ Intelligent, subtle use of optional 3D makes the game look like a tiered storybook
+ Varied playstyles between characters encourage experimentation and replayability
+ Smartass script and hammy voice acting add just the right kind of cheese
+/- Huge, overwhelming crowds of enemies to fight--that often cause slowdown, or make you lose your character
+/- Co-op is excellent in this game, but there is no broadcast play--every player needs their own copy
- Building character stats ends up not providing as much variety as advertised and can be game-breaking
- Of the reported "fifty playable characters," only a handful can be used in Campaign
Thanks to Nintendo 3DS Blog for images!