Battle Princess Madelyn (Switch) Review
Those who grew up gaming in the late 80’s and early 90’s will likely have a particular affinity for the classic action side-scrollers that were so prevalent in the era. Borrowing more than a little inspiration from the Ghouls ‘n Goblins series of that time comes Battle Princess Madelyn, a nostalgic throwback to a style of gameplay and design that resonated with many so much back in the day. Its inspiration is clear and its lofty ambition is admirable, however some baffling design decisions and frustrating gameplay makes this a trip back in time that’s hard to recommend.
Set against the backdrop of a bedtime story where her family is kidnapped by an evil force and has to witness the death of her dog amongst the chaos, Madelyn sets out on a quest to bring an end to the darkness once and for all. Split into an Arcade and Story mode, you’ll be traversing colourful landscapes, navigating perilous dungeons and throwing weapons at all sorts of monsters that mob you from every direction.
The Arcade mode is most reminiscent of its influences of old and sees you fully equipped from the start as you try to progress as far as you can. It acts as a respectable sampler of what you can expect in the main Story mode, but due to the fact that death means going back to the very start of the game, you’re unlikely to stick with this mode for very long.
The Story mode sends you on your way with some light armour and a couple of weapons, much akin to Ghouls ‘n Goblins. Take a hit and you’ll be down to your pyjamas, take another and you’re toast. Madelyn thankfully also has a magic meter that can be refilled with the souls of her vanquished foes, and if sufficiently filled can bring her back from the dead right where you left off. It’s a very welcome mechanic as you’re likely to die a lot in this game.
Enemies are relentless, with endless barrages of projectiles coming at you from all directions and monsters spawning from under your feet. To the game’s credit the controls feel extremely tight and dispatching enemies with a flurry of throwing knives can be oddly satisfying, but this is undone by a huge number of design decisions that make the game difficult to enjoy. The distance between checkpoints in this game is staggering, meaning death results in a punishing slog back through the same area you’ve just conquered. The huge number of enemies and projectiles you’ll have to deal with means there’s no quick way of getting back to where you were – you must be slow and patient to proceed. This lack of checkpoints only exacerbates the biggest issue with Battle Princess Madelyn – its level design.
The areas in Story mode are large and sprawling, requiring significant exploration both horizontally and vertically. Your objective is often unclear and it’s rare to be told exactly where you’re supposed to be going or how to get there, meaning you’ll be doing a lot of wandering back and forwards trying to find your way. There’s no map at all to speak of, which may be nostalgically authentic but with areas similar in size to a Metroid or Castlevania, the lack of a map makes exploration a chore. Enemy placement and attacks can also be infuriating, with many unfairly positioned to the point that they’re almost impossible to avoid.
Getting hit results in severe knockback reminiscent of an old-school Ninja Gaiden, meaning you’ll flop helplessly backwards after each arrow to the face. With many levels featuring tiny platforms precariously placed high into the sky, one hit will send you careening back to earth and results in you having to make an agonizing trek back up the level again. It’s a tedious and frustrating ordeal, particularly early on in the game where neither your character nor your own skills are well equipped to deal with these challenges.
There are just too many bizarre design choices to ignore. There’s no way to pan the camera, resulting in you needing to take countless leaps of faith, most of which will result in cheap and unavoidable deaths. You’ll only have two weapons for a long time, both of which start of functionally identical. You can upgrade them, with upgrading the sword once giving an immensely helpful three-way split to your throws, but the next upgrade strangely strips that ability away again.
You’ll need all the help you can get, but the ability to upgrade your weapons and armour to increase your odds requires unlocking a shop that is far too easy to miss. You’ll encounter numerous characters along the way that will ask you to retrieve various trinkets throughout your journey, and bringing them back typically yields an insignificant reward a small pile of money. With no indication that his reward will be any different, one particular townsman will ask you to bring him back a hammer.
To do so you have to locate a statue found only by a blind leap down through some treetops. The status will grant you a key, which can be used to unlock a well-hidden door, within which you will find a hidden hammer behind a destructible wall that you can bring back to the man to unlock the upgrade shop. This is so easy to miss that I went through the majority of the game perplexed as to how progression at my point in the game was even possible and that I must have missed something. The upgrade shop may not be essential for completing the game, but it basically is in order to extract any fun out of it, and the decision to hide such a crucial element of the game behind three hidden steps absolutely boggles the mind.
It’s a shame because there’s a decent game buried beneath the surface here. The visuals showcase some genuinely pretty pixel art with creative character design, and the ability to switch between the equally excellent orchestral and arcade soundtracks is a nice bonus. Late in the game, you’ll gain access to some additional powers and different weapons which spice up the gameplay a little, and some of the levels with less tedious elements can be quite fun.
For the most part, it’s too little too late though, and it’s not enough to overcome the overarching sense of frustration that permeates the experience. If you have a love for punishing old school platformers that provide no handholding and really test your endurance, there may be something here. For those of us who aren’t gluttons for punishment though, you’ll likely find this adventure too archaic for its own good. There’s no shortage of excellent side-scrolling adventures on the Switch that pay homage to the great games of old whilst providing a modern twist, but unfortunately, Battle Princess Madelyn leans too hard on design choices that were perhaps best left in the past.
+ Beautiful pixel art
+ Two excellent soundtracks
+ Gameplay can be satisfying once your arsenal expands
- Baffling level design choices
- Severe lack of checkpoints
- Lack of a map