From Casual Bit Games, Battle Princess Madelyn is another indie, 2D action-platformer that wears its influences on its sleeves, as clear as day. That said, it also brings its own ideas to the table, along with bits and pieces of other classic gaming realms. But sitting in the forefront is Capcom’s classic, rage-inducing Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, a game that doesn’t immediately come to mind as a fun thing to do with your kids. Yet here we are, with a game inspired by the lead developer having a conversation with his daughter. From a gameplay perspective, this does indeed feel like a modern Ghouls ‘N Ghosts successor that wants me to succeed and have fun in a joyous way (rather than a climbing a mountain in a snowstorm with one functioning leg way). In other ways, Battle Princess Madelyn feels like a victim of cramming too many ideas into one box.
Going in relatively blind (I am a hopeless fool who leaps into horrific experiences like Ghouls ‘N Ghosts on purpose), I didn’t realize that Battle Princess Madelyn is technically two games in one. What I figured the full game would be, the Ghouls ‘N Ghosts-inspired experience, is actually presented as an “Arcade Mode,” comprising a traditional, gauntlet-like journey from left to right. There is also a “Story Mode,” which takes the locations and fundamental controls introduced in the Arcade Mode, but turns the game into a much larger, Metroidvania-like adventure that plays like someone took Ghouls ‘N Ghosts and Metroid, tossed them into a blender, and filtered out all the oppressive, video game hatred of the late 1980s. In the Story Mode, Battle Princess Madelyn adorably cops the setup of The Princess Bride, in a way that may as well be a word for word ripoff but somehow remains endearing. Something also worth mentioning is that while Battle Princes Madelyn has two, distinct game modes, it also features two soundtracks. They’re two variations on the same music, but one sounds like it was ripped straight out of a Sega Genesis, while the other is more more bombastic, modern, and high-fidelity. There’s a lot of love and care put into Battle Princess Madelyn, and it’s obvious from the start.
Leaps of Faith
If you aren’t familiar with the Ghouls ‘N Ghosts (or Ghosts ‘N Goblins) formula, it’s much more action-oriented than say, Castlevania. Enemies constantly come at the player from multiple directions, and Arthur is able to continuously throw his weapon horizontally across the screen (in most cases). He can also double jump, although his jumping momentum locks him in a the chosen direction. Those two mechanics effectively make the series a battle for space as well as survival, with an almost fighting game-like screen control the key to victory. Madelyn is much more agile than Arthur, and is able to control her aerial movement quite freely. This makes controlling space and avoiding projectiles much easier. So while you’re still dealing with enemies popping in from the boundaries of the screen and literally rising from underground, it’s much easier to not accidentally jump off a cliff in the middle of the chaos.
However, there is additional challenge in the scale of the levels, which often enforce horizontal movement in addition to the usual left to right. Often, Madelyn needs to make leaps of faith, which can lead to some nasty traps and one-shot deaths that are just out of sight until it’s too late. So, you have to be careful or tricky in different ways compared to the, so to speak, source material. Otherwise, the two look and feel quite similar, and people like me who are damaged enough to be something resembling fans of Arthur’s old school adventures will be able to pick up Battle Princess Madelyn and feel right at home. That is, until you try Story Mode.
Lost in the Killer Weeds
As I mentioned before, the Story Mode in Battle Princess Madelyn is a structurally different experience compared to Arcade Mode. Not only are there more story scenes with dialogue and stuff, there’s also a much more exploratory element to the gameplay. Areas are much larger, and even connected to each other. You don’t have your regular arsenal of abilities, and have to find things as you progress. That said, new weapons aren’t just random pickups, and you get to keep everything you find. There are also sidequests and other distractions that almost turn the Ghouls ‘N Ghosts setup into something like Shovel Knight. Of course, having everything being one big world, with a structure based around having to find things like your double jump, immediately bring the Metroidvania label to the table. But there’s just one, little problem with that.
There’s no map.
These levels are large, and Battle Princess Madelyn offers very little in the way of hints or direction, and there’s no map. So, what this game is telling me, is that not only am I playing Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, a gauntlet for survival with constantly spawning enemies that kill me in two hits, but I’m also playing a Metroidvania without a map. Are you kidding me right now? There’s sidequests too? Look, I know that not having a map is all hardcore and real old school and stuff, but I feel like I’m being made fun of here. It’s not even a difficult game, per se, but so much of the Story Mode feels bumbly in a way games in this space really aren’t supposed to. It feels less like exploring uncharted territory and making new discoveries, and more like running in a direction and hoping it’s the correct one.
While its adventurous ambitions fall short of nailing it, there’s a lot to love about Battle Princess Madelyn. It’s a beautiful game in sight and sound, with a dead-on Ghouls ‘N Ghosts vibe but designed to be much less frustrating, an incredible soundtrack with both old and new-school arrangements options, and an adorable Story Mode that pays homage to a classic story in adorable fashion. It’s a bedtime story based on a nightmare that somehow comes out on the more pleasant, earnest end of that old school madness, and while it’s a pain in the butt to find your way around without a map, the gorgeous settings and pitch-perfect platforming action make it feel worth the struggle.
Battle Princess Madelyn review code provided by publisher. Version 1.03 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.