Causal Bit Games founder Chris Obritsch loved playing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and his daughter Madelyn loved watching him. One day Madelyn explained that she wished she could be in the game but “girls can’t be knights”, so her dad decided to work with her to make a game in which she was the star, to show that girls can indeed be knights if they want to be.
The result is Battle Princess Madelyn, an impressive-looking action platformer that takes more than a little inspiration from Capcom’s arcade classic, but also adds a bunch of other things to the mix. While many of these new additions add to the overall experience, though, others aren’t quite so welcome.
The main story – told to a cartoon version of the actual Madelyn by her grandpa in a lovely intro which reminds us of The Princess Bride (RIP, William Goldman) – opens with the titular battle princess’s hometown being attacked by an evil wizard, who also kills her dog Fritzy (because he’s a nasty sod, you see). Thankfully, Fritzy comes back as a ghost, so it’s up to Madelyn and her phantom pooch to explore the world and try to find the evil individual responsible.
The key word here is ‘try’, because the one major issue Battle Princess Madelyn suffers from is a severe lack of signposting. To pay tradition to that, then, we’ll go in a completely different direction for now and talk about the game’s aesthetics. Simply put, it looks and sounds fantastic. Retro-looking indie games on Switch are ten a penny these days, but this is a particularly lovely example. It may not be accurately ‘retro’ – there’s no way some of its lighting effects would have been possible back in the day – but it’s respectful enough to the era that you’ll let it slip. There’s even an optional CRT scanline filter.
The ears are in for a treat too, as the game offers two entire musical scores depending on your personal tastes: an old-school retro style one or a fully orchestrated one (with a choir and everything). Either option delivers a fantastic aural accompaniment, which is really to its credit; it’s tricky enough for most games to deliver one excellent soundtrack, let alone be generous enough to give us two.
It plays well too. Anyone with even the slightest familiarity with Ghouls ‘n Ghosts or its SNES sequel will be able to see that the inspiration here is more than just cosmetic; there are plenty of little nods that come straight from the arcade classic. From the way some enemies spawn by either rising out of the ground in coffins or by poking out from behind trees, to the way you can lose your armour – letting you take one more hit before you die – the whole thing’s a pleasantly faithful tribute… at least, in terms of how it feels.
There’s one large difference between this game and its inspiration: whereas Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was a linear affair, Battle Princess Madelyn’s main story mode is more of a Metroidvania, where you can roam back and forth throughout the various environments, unlocking new abilities and backtracking to use them in previous areas. And that’s where the signposting issues we mentioned earlier come into play.
Simply put, there’s very little signposting at all. You’re pretty much on your own from the very beginning and other than the basic story at the start, you’re left to your own devices. There’s no map or no in-game tutorial, either. Now, we appreciate that there will be some people who are delighted with this, since it provides a truly old-school experience. But even some of the older examples of the genre were at least designed to guide the player along – even if unconsciously so – whereas most of the time here, you feel like you’re picking a direction and hoping beyond hope that it’s the right one.
The only time you’re given any real instructions are when you take on side missions by speaking to one of the numerous NPCs dotted around, but even then their requests are generally vague (“I lost my hammer in a cave, please get it for me”) and once you’ve asked them they won’t repeat it again. Since there’s also no pause menu that lists all your active side quests, you’ll almost certainly forget what they wanted you to do and where they wanted you to go; the issue is exacerbated by the fact that there are loads of side-quests on offer at any one time; keeping track of them all is almost impossible. An update – applied just prior to launch – hands out more obvious hints to the player, but it’s still not a perfect solution.
This vagueness extends to major collectables too, such as the important upgrades needed to progress through the game. Take the double-jump, which is one of the first you get (or are supposed to, if you can find it). The second town you come to (which is located up in the treetops in a mushroom-filled marshland area) actually allows you drop down through the floor (by holding down while pressing jump). We accidentally did it and landed next to a door containing a boss fight with a giant spider. Our reward was the boots that give you the double-jump, but there was no feeling of achievement when we got them, more an exasperated “Well, how was I supposed to know I had to do that?”. The aforementioned update places an NPC directly above where you have to drop down, making it a little clearer – but even so, it feels too much like trial-and-error.
This is usually the point where we go “What a shame, so much potential, but completely ruined by one massive problem, don’t buy it”, but thankfully Battle Princess Madelyn pulls a last-minute solution out of the bag. As well as the main Story mode – aimlessly confused wandering and all – there’s also a more direct Arcade mode, which ditches the Metroidvania malarkey and resorts to the old faithful linear gameplay that made Ghouls ‘n Ghosts such a well-loved game in the first place. In this mode, armed with your double jump and powerful weaponry from the start and a clear idea of where you have to go next, all is well; it’s almost a shame that this isn’t the main mode of the game, because it offers a tighter and more enjoyable experience.
(We just want to point out one more little disappointment, though it’s more of a personal one and doesn’t affect our scoring of the game. The story behind the game’s development is a lovely one, but there are many gamers out there – including this reviewer – who have daughters of their own. The option to change the character’s name from Madelyn to anything else would have resulted in a game that would feel just as special to any girl as it does to the designer’s daughter.)
Too much hand-holding in games can be a problem, but Battle Princess Madelyn goes in the opposite direction with its main Story mode and is just as annoying (if not more so) as a result. Thankfully, its alternative Arcade mode really does save the day, stripping away all the convoluted and confused exploration and leaving nothing but pure, unfiltered arcade action goodness. It’s just a shame its main mode – and perhaps the key reason the developer wants your £15.79 / $19.99 – is so frustratingly unhelpful and awkward to play. Still, fans of Capcom’s Ghouls ‘n Ghosts will most definitely want to check this out.