Battle Princess Madelyn lets you save your family, save the world, or just scrap the story and rack up points in Arcade mode.
Every now and then you come across a game that you completely underestimate and a short way in you begin to become overwhelmed. Battle Princess Madelyn is a title that you’d expect to be somewhat easy seeing as it was co-created by a seven-year-old, but instead, it became one of the hardest Metroidvania’s I’ve played this year.
In my recent documentary about the creation of Battle Princess Madelyn, I learned that the developer’s daughter would prefer to watch him play Ghouls n’ Ghosts than play it herself, and it feels like this event has bled through into the title. While you’re playing you can’t help but feel the underlying innocence throughout the game which sets itself aside from the rough and challenging ride you have to go through.
The story begins with protagonist Madelyn, watching her tablet in bed when her grandfather comes in and demands she lets him read her a storybook. We’re then transported to the visual representation of the story being told, a story of an evil wizard who has come into the realm and stole princess Madelyn’s family while at the same time killing Fritzy, her pet dog. Fritzy returns as a ghost who is able to help Madelyn on her journey in a range of ways.
The duo attempt to rescue their family, but in order to do so, they first need to build a magical Switchbot device. Using this, they can then travel to different realms to gather runes. Gathering all of these various parts are, as you’d expect, not an easy task and everywhere Madelyn goes, there’s evil bleeding through. Items are guarded by large bosses and across various stages enemies block off hidden secrets.
You’re not really eased into Battle Princess Madelyn’s story mode in regards to combat, and the second you leave the tomb at the very start you’re already in side-scrolling Metroidvania hell. Skeletons rise from the ground, weird plants shooting painful pollen appear, and you continually throw an unlimited amount of spears to kill them. Once killed, most enemies drop coins, armor, or weapon shards. If you hang around long enough, some enemies respawn fairly quickly.
The game requires you to pay attention to the world and explore. The camera can’t be moved about so you’re always unsure if the drop you’re next too will lead to a secret passage or just a bunch of spikes. Ladders might result in climbing towards an archer, and falling platforms make crossing a snowball belching monster hard to pass. There are also walls that can be attacked to reveal secret paths that might lead to a shortcut or treasure. Speaking of which, the treasure chests can hurt you, but they hop away from you adorably like a little, scared puppy.
Battle Princess Madelyn has you essentially hoping you stumble across a secret door or find a puzzle that indicates you’re getting closer to a goal. However, the first puzzle I found saw me looking at three symbols in a specific order but there was no clear indication they were part of a puzzle. After more jumping around in the stage, I found another area with the same symbols but spread out and with buttons on the ground. Once the right sequence was activated I was able to move on through to the next stage.
Combat feels arcadey and impactful, allowing you to launch close to thirty spears in a matter of seconds if you tap fast enough. Jumping feels lovely and controlled although sometimes it’s easy to mistime your second jump resulting in not reaching high, or far enough. Largely, this isn’t an issue and relies on your precision. As you progress you can locate other weapons to switch between with one being a wand that allows you to boost yourself upwards using an enemy to propel yourself while another could be a sword to slash up enemies. Fritzy can eventually help attack using his own powers when they become unlocked.
Fritzy follows Madelyn around for the entire game, helping her to breathe underwater in one stage, and then at later stages, starts to use powers to help cause damage to enemies and protect Madelyn further. He’s also responsible for reviving Madelyn. Every time Madelyn dies, Fritzy is able to revive her depending on how much energy he has left in the top right corner. Once his energy is low, Madelyn will respawn at the very start of the stage, a type of permadeath that keeps you on your toes the further into the level you get. Using Fritzy’s magic powers will also drain energy, so you need to decide if you need the extra help or more chances of respawning.
Enemies come in various types and strengths, with the easy ones being fast to approach you, and the stronger ones taking more hits but usually being able to hit you with ranged attacks. And yes, there are evil sheep that bounce. The bosses are challenging but also incredibly old-fashioned in that you learn their patterns to use it against them, giving the game a great retro feel in regards to gameplay.
While there’s no hint system implemented yet —except for your keys that flash blue when near a quest door— it could certainly do with one. Battle Princess Madelyn seems to assume you know what to do, or where it is you’re meant to be going, but the reality is you’re just going forward hoping you’re going the right way or doing the right thing. Of course, there’s a good deal of backtracking, but it’s not clear why you’re backtracking most of the time.
A good example of this would be trying to locate the double jump boots. You know there’s a double jump system as it’s present in the Arcade mode. When you get to the swamp area, you become aware you can’t reach a certain point. It turns out the door to get these boots is hidden, only reachable by crouching and jumping down through the floor at a certain spot in a town. Something you’re not really aware you can do unless you figure it out for yourself. There certainly needs to be some mechanics explained to players or a system to feed ideas to the player.
You’ll also be able to take on side quests from people offering rewards should you retrieve an object, person, or kill a certain boss. However, these people will state their name but not mention it again. Considering the overwhelming number of people available to do side quests, it becomes easy to forget who everyone is. When you return at a later date to talk to them again, there’s no name assigned to the text box so you’re unsure who you’re talking too anyway. They also refuse to reiterate the location you need to be in for their items, leading to you just mindlessly running through stages.
For those who aren’t interested in the story mode, they can jump into Arcade Mode which allows them to go through toned down levels from the story mode, but with a lot more enemies and a focus on earning points rather than completing quests. The Arcade Mode is executed almost perfectly, mixing fast-paced gameplay with button mashing killing as you’d expect to see on an arcade machine. I honestly wouldn’t have been upset if the game only came with Arcade Mode because it’s such a fun feature.
Battle Princess Madelyn looks visually marvelous with its pixel graphics and volumetric lighting gives it a lovely modern touch. Fritzy looks great floating around, shimmering his blue light onto nearby background objects and some stages have beautiful rays of light flowing through. Every level also has a specific color palette that ties the theme of the world together.
Water at the bottom of some stages gives you a beautiful pixelated reflection. Elements around the world include creepy skulls being formed in smoke, and particles floating across the screen, or heavy rain hammering down. The details really shape the evil that exists within the world. Another option I found on the PC version allows you to turn scan lines on so you can feel even more like you’re playing on an old monitor.
The audio is also wonderful, with in-game sounds feeling reminiscent of the dramatic and punchy sounds heard in arcade classics. You can also choose whether to play with the orchestral soundtrack designed for story mode or choose to play the game with the beeps of an arcade-themed soundtrack. Both sound stunning and keep the modern game feeling like an old-school classic.
The thing about Battle Princess Madelyn is that the audio and the visuals are so well done that it feels incredible to play just for the novelty of looking at it; especially if you’re a huge fan of the classics. Controls also feel great, with keyboard controls feeling like you’re playing an actual emulator of sorts, but the Xbox Controller feels much easier to control with fewer fingers hitting the wrong buttons as I found myself doing on the keyboard.
The gameplay is great but it doesn’t come without its bugs. I found myself falling victim to bugs that led to death and then eventually permadeath after getting so far into a level. I did encounter various other minor bugs that were either a small nuisance or easy to overlook and didn’t result in death. These included issues with respawning on moving platforms in one stage, and another bug that saw Madelyn’s animations freeze up after climbing a ladder.
The one game breaking bug I found caused the world to vanish and Madelyn to fall into the abyss. The game saved at that point for me, luckily, and a patch was later applied and allowed me to continue on my ventures. Had it not been applied, I would have lost twelve hours of jumping, killing, and dying over and over.
The other great thing about Battle Princess Madelyn is that there are a bunch of secret areas to find, and items worth looking for to deliver to their owners if you can find them. These on top of the addictive arcade mode give more reasons to keep returning to the game. You’ll also be able to show off rewards in a large toy room which is essentially a trophy room and a glossary of enemies you’ve come across.
I really do like Battle Princess Madelyn, and while I like the way the story mode feels, I’m more partial to the Arcade mode. This is simply because the story mode can be rather unforgiving and rage-inducing, but at the same time, it’s also sweet and innocent. Battle Princess Madelyn feels like how a Metroidvania should feel, but it doesn’t explain core mechanics all that well and leaves you to just play the game and either succeed or fail.