Battle Princess Madelyn Review

December 18, 2018
Xbox One
Also on: PC, PS4, Switch

Battle Princess Madelyn (an easy contender for best named game of the year — nay! Of all time!) taps into our nostalgia as a retro side-scrolling action game from yesteryear. Gorgeously authentic, with excellently realised graphics and accompanying music score it’s an honest shame that the rose-tinted glasses do little to hide some problematic design choices and launch bugs which have marred what is otherwise a slick indie title.

“Step 1 - Topple the Patriarchy.”

Created by Causal Bit Games after a successful crowdfunding campaign, Battle Princess Madelyn was borne off the developers’ daughter asserting that a “knight can’t be a girl”— a sad commentary on how heroes are often portrayed in modern media, to be sure. Further inspired by their favourite game they liked to play together, Ghosts and Ghouls, both father and daughter (indeed, she was “chief advisor”) worked together to bring forth the game we see today. Which is a wonderful reason to create a game, and that just makes it all the more difficult to say that while the concept and style of the game is absolutely brilliant, the execution is sorely lacking. Battle Princess Madelyn is just far too unforgiving and, as a result, isn’t a whole lot of fun to play.

“I … I swear! It’s not what it looks like!”

I have honestly spent some time wondering if games were truly this brutal back in the 80’s and 90’s. I know certainly the ‘hard’ settings on side-scrollers especially were vicious affairs, but here in Battle Princess Madelyn I cannot work out if this is an accurate reflection of how games used to be (if it is — then I’ll hold my hands up and say my reaction times are not what they used to be) or whether or not Causal Bit Games just really likes smacking you with a massive stick from the get go. There is absolutely no hand holding here, no tooltips and no maps. You get nothing to guide you on your way through the story mode of the game. Some purists may argue that's in the spirit of the genre — I beg to differ, games have evolved past these design choices for a reason.

Without any of this sensible guidance available you often spend hours going back and forth between levels at a complete loss as to what to do next in order to progress. This harsh trend continues with a health system that seems wholly random. Every time you are hit by an enemy, you lose part of your armour until you are given a killing blow. At this point, your faithful ghost dog revives you using points from a second ‘health’ bar. The problem is that sometimes this takes two points of ghost resurrection health and other times up to half the bar — and I have been utterly unable to decipher the rules as to what factors are responsible for how many resurrection points it will take to revive me.

Despite being murdered in the intro, your ghost pup always has your back!

Not only that, but in replenishing said points is a similarly random mechanic where every monster drops a glowing orb and sometimes you get a point back, sometimes you get three and sometimes you will get none. And to make matters worse, if you do run out of resurrection points you will be sent right back to the beginning of the level because there are no checkpoints. Not to mention the fact that you cannot move the screen to view potential threats above or below you, which combined with a locked close angle view, means you are often jumping blind into enemy fire resulting in the most punishing knock-back mechanic I have ever experienced. And then you die. Again.

This is a level of harshness and frustration surely reserved for the masochists who believe playing in the competitive circuit of Street Fighter to be an enjoyable experience. The difference is, of course, they at least knew what they were signing up for. With Battle Princess Madelyn you just end up confused at the controller sized hole now taking pride of place in a nearby wall — this experience just doesn’t feel in context with the game’s theme, content or story.

“Right, the game wasn’t hard enough so you went and added an underwater level?”

There is a enjoyable innocence to Battle Princess Madelyn’s setting and story, but that’s to be expected with a game narratively framed by a grandfather telling a story about a princess knight to his granddaughter. Visually it swings between sweet, cute and cartoonishly monstrous. Everything feels authentic, lovely to look at and just as good to listen to — with a score that can be switched from the bleeps and pops of 80’s gaming or to an orchestral score that would be well suited to a late-stage Sega Megadrive title. Aesthetically, it makes you want to keep on playing, fully enrapt within its visual charm.

You end up wishing for a boss fight just for a checkpoint.

Which is what just about saves Battle Princess Madelyn from feeling like a disaster. It is greater than the sum of its parts and individual frustrations  — which feels especially true in Arcade mode. A much more palatable affair in which you get weapons and armour lickety-spit and tear merry hell in a light-hearted spear/axe/dagger/scimitar throwing kind of way. It is infinitely more enjoyable than the Story mode and, if you do pick it up, I urge you to just play the Arcade mode until such time as the developers decide what kind of game they want Battle Princess Madelyn to be. Otherwise, I assure you, you will burst a blood vessel during your playthrough.

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A game confused about what it wants to be — an accessible and fun side-scroller for the whole family to enjoy, or a brutal experiment into what Dark Souls would be like in a 16-bit format. Battle Princess Madelyn looks and sounds the part, but is so unforgiving it sucks all the fun out of it.
Daniel Garrod

You can usually find me scrabbling in the low Golds of Competitive Overwatch (the fact that I'm a Roadhog main this season is a coincidence), or shouting to any poor soul within earshot how amazing Dungeons & Dragons is (it is).