With a considerable amount of pluck and charm, Steal Princess manages to elevate itself past some middling gameplay mechanics and into the range of an above-average puzzle game. While the premise is utterly bizarre on paper, the tongue-in-check humor reminiscent of Disgaea, Makai Kingdom and other Atlus imports creates an experience ultimately worth sticking through.
The humor starts within a minute of gaming. After watching your controlled hero, Anise, get caught by an Indiana Jones-esque boulder puzzle while robbing from the Demon Palace during the opening scene, she is seemingly dead. This causes an unidentified voice to remark, “No!‚ You can’t die before they reveal my face!”
May 19, 2009
Wisecracks like this are a common element of the game, most emanating from reluctant hero Anise. She wants no part of saving a kidnapped prince and the kingdom at-large from the threat of the Almighty Demon Emperor. Unfortunately, because of a thief with the same name as her “" wink wink, nudge nudge “" she takes up the mantle of “legendary hero” instead of being strung up at the gallows. The supporting cast is similarly nutty. The unidentified voice from the game’s opening moments is your guardian fairy, Kukri, who zealously insists that you are the legendary hero, and whom Anise ignores with hilarious thought bubbles for the majority of the game. Although the Demon Emperor is capable and coherent, none of his henchmen are, especially the sprite-ish demon Lucretia. How does she talk? Well, she always asks her own questions and provides her own answers, often repeating, that’s how she does it!
Steal Princess needs all of this humor and personality in its characters, because the game itself is fairly by the books, and downright frustrating at times. It is a traditional top-down mix of puzzle and adventure, as you use the stylus and control pad to move Anise around a grid layout. Anise comes equipped with a whip, which is mostly used to position enemies and hit switches. Other items, like swords, bombs and lances, are left lying around stages and are used to defeat enemies. The whip is the only item that carries over from stage to stage, and Anise can only carry two items at a time, so much of Steal Princess relies on good planning.
Most stages require you to complete a stated objective “" normally, defeat all enemies “" and to also bring a key dropped by the final enemy to a locked box in the stage. There is no time limit, although beating a stage within certain times earns you gold, silver and bronze medals. Gems are also scattered throughout stages and dropped by defeated enemies, which are used to pay down Anise’s debt in town and to buy items for your own maps in the Create-A-Map mode.
The initial stages of the Grasslands area walk you through the controls and mechanics, but Steal Princess starts to tax the brain pretty quick, and I hit my first dead end within the first 10 stages. Throughout my experience, there was nothing so ridiculous that I couldn’t figure out what needed to be done. This isn’t an esoteric graphical adventure like Myst, or one of the mind-numbing puzzlers from the 1990s like Solstice, The Lost Vikings or Young Merlin. “Tricky” is a descriptive and correct term for most of Steal Princess’ difficulty.
When the difficulty of Steal Princess is elevated, it is generally a reflection of the game’s lack of focus. It mostly rears its ugly head in design and play control. For example, while the game is primarily a puzzler, it throws mini-bosses and stage bosses at you. None of these battles are particularly entertaining, as most either involve running circles around the boss until you get an opening for an attack, or vaulting up to their platforms to take a slash at them. Repeat either tactic for two minutes, and you have victory with minimal effort and danger.
The second issue is the slippery play control. Movement is much easier with the control pad, but vaulting “" using your whip to scale up several platforms “" is easier with the stylus. Several stages in a row might require minimal use of whip, meaning you haven’t used the stylus for 20 minutes, and the next stage will require seven vaults in a row over a chasm that means instant death if you fall. Then, you might be right back to control pad gaming the next stage. There is little rhyme or reason to the game balance.
If you dig the Steal Princess experience, you can also create levels with the custom map maker, and then trade them over WiFi or with friends locally. There are 150 levels to start with, but it will be interesting to see what comes out of the minds of the niche Atlus fan base now that they have been handed the keys. It’s a solid addition to the game that extends its replay value further, and you can’t complain about that.
If you can overlook these flaws and focus on the quirky characters and dialogue, then Steal Princess is a good addition to your DS gaming library. It aligns itself closely with the type of off the beaten path games Atlus is known for.
Steal Princess is available exclusively for the Nintendo DS and retails for$34.99