How to Train Your Princess
Princesses are often relegated to damsels in distress. The Princess Guide turns that concept on its head and stars not one, but four princesses on heroic quests. You play as an instructor whose goal is to train these leading ladies to be strong rulers.
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The instructor’s first order of business is to choose one of four princesses to guide. Although they have different storylines, they all follow a similar outline of saving their countries. The cookie-cutter plots don’t particularly stand out, but the distinct princesses do. Each girl is unique, including a gluttonous warrior, a maniacal witch, a disciplined duchess, and a kindhearted dragon. They’re all likable, and their cute anime designs complement their distinct personalities. The voice acting is only in Japanese, and instead of cutscenes, dialogue is presented by characters hyperactively bouncing like they’re on some sugar rush.
The Princess Guide is, at its core, a top-down action RPG. During each quest you directly control a commander, usually a princess or the instructor, and fight through self-contained areas. Each princess has different weapons and fighting styles, but all use basic attacks and special moves. You can also bring in an army of recruitable soldiers, executing synchronized attacks or ordering them to fight on their own. While this sounds like a lot, fights rarely evolve past spamming attacks and dodging. The soldiers are unreliable as autonomous fighters, and the screen looks cluttered with them. Though without an army, your commander loses the ability to dodge. Complaints aside, it’s a fast-paced experience that runs smoothly. And the game isn’t too difficult, lending a playstyle where you can turn off your brain.
Most missions don’t last longer than five minutes, which makes them good candidates for the Nintendo Switch’s portable mode. It’s more fun in spurts anyway. The longer you play, the faster the formulaic gameplay grows tiring. Every location is an arena or a mini-dungeon with a blandly designed map. The areas are only discernable by their terrain visuals and by their relics, obstacles spread out across the land. Relics are amusing because you can claim them and use them against your foes. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth; nearly every objective is to fight through monotonous waves of enemies and the occasional boss.
The princess training regimen is the game’s shining beacon. Based on how you fight, you gain essences of knowledge known as Materia. You can praise or scold your princess during battle to help her learn the equipped Materia. It sounds like a creepy behavioral experiment, but your “Direct Guidance” lends her wisdom and buffs. I just wish it was clearer how praising vs. scolding affected her growth. As you teach your princess, her attributes raise, which in turn grants you skill points to invest into your instructor’s abilities. You can then use mastered Materia to enhance weapons, which alter your powers. This engaging progression loop is what kept me coming back to the grind. Each princess also has her own minigame that offers bonuses, but these minute-long affairs have little long-term value.
Instead of a traditional overworld, there is a board game map where you can dispatch squads and send them on missions. Both your squads and enemy units move across the world in real-time. This feature had potential for tactical gameplay. Unfortunately, there is very little strategy involved. Almost every world map mission involves getting your units to a destination or enemy skirmish before an in-game timer ends. There are a few interesting quests where you escort a moving convoy or defend a stronghold, but they’re few and far between. There aren’t really situations that task you to carefully micromanage with urgency. Although you can dispatch up to four squads, including weak generic units, you only ever need your strongest one or two.
The fact that the game rarely incorporates all four characters at once is a missed opportunity. Given the real-time strategy system, I was awaiting a glorious moment where I could coordinate them all on the battlefield. Although there is a chapter where the four convene, it’s a brief one.
A first playthrough takes about ten hours, but you can continue with a couple postgame missions or with new game plus, in which you retain all your Materia and equipment. The game intends for you to play multiple times, reaching every ending with all characters. While replays are faster, they’re not as attractive due to the campaign’s structure. You play through all four princesses’ introductory missions, choose which princess to raise, then finish the game off with three final chapters, including the joint episode. So no matter which princess you pick, five out of seven chapters are identical per playthrough. Factoring in how tedious grinding was, replaying the game felt more like a chore. I did enjoy the best ending route, which fulfilled my wishes for a harder chapter that incorporated each princess, but that fleeting finale was ultimately not worth the effort. On the other hand, if you only play it once, you get a decent but short experience that is underwhelming for its price tag,
The Princess Guide is packed with a plethora of interesting ideas, but they all lack depth. Ironically, it’s the mindless gameplay that makes the top-down combat entertaining, but that doesn’t excuse the unsubstantial dungeon design. The real-time strategy-based overworld never develops beyond a means of travel. And while raising the princesses is engaging, the system is crippled by a shallow postgame. If you enjoyed the developer’s previous title, Penny-Punching Princess, you may enjoy this cute action RPG. Otherwise, The Princess Guide has its moments but mainly feels like a series of missed opportunities.
Note: A review copy was used for this article.