Battle Princess Madelyn
Romanticizing the past is easy, but older games shouldn’t always be held up as examples to follow. The retro aesthetic has plenty of appeal, including a simplicity of concept and presentation that can be refreshing set against modern behemoths. But old-school styling and design can also add up to frustration, aimlessness, and exasperating difficulty. Battle Princess Madelyn nails the throwback vibe it’s shooting for, and in so doing, exhibits both the highs and lows of the games from which it draws inspiration. If someone told you this was a lost sequel to Ghouls ‘n Ghosts rediscovered after all these years, it would be easy to believe.
Battle Princess Madelyn unleashes the titular royal on a side-scrolling world filled with creeping undead, giant snakes, and demonic trees. Her family has been kidnapped by a malevolent force, and she flings an endless supply of spears and swords to overcome the threat. Through charming (if simply drawn) characters and cameos, the story takes on a personal vibe, and showcases a plucky, capable heroine with spark and panache.
The game features two different game modes, using the same environmental backgrounds, but with totally different level designs and approaches to progression. The story mode is a lengthier quest with lots of new items to unlock and secrets to discover, while the arcade mode is a more straightforward and linear path through challenging battles and platforming. These modes result in significant replay potential.
The story mode provides a satisfying progression of new weapons and armor, though I was disappointed that I ran out of things to spend my currency on well before the game’s conclusion. I encountered a multitude of side missions to tackle, but the absence of a quest log or directional aids makes them all blur together, and it’s often difficult to tell the difference between critical objectives or missions that just net you some extra currency.
I was continually impressed by the variety of monsters, animations, and environments to discover; the desire to see the next area helps motivate continued play. Simple but enjoyable fantasy combat kept me mashing buttons for hours, and the platforming is often difficult, but usually rewarding. Unfortunately, the levels are often confusing to navigate, offering little guidance on how to push the story forward. A smartly implemented hint system alleviates some of the worst offenses, if you check those tips out. In addition, your trusty ghost dog companion also barks and helps steer you toward important objects. Even so, the long checkpoints, frequent blind death drops, and extended vertical climbs that characterize many levels all add more frustration than enjoyment. Many story mode levels also demand backtracking after a boss fight or to find particular sub-levels; pacing would often be better if I was just teleported back to a dungeon entrance or quest completion.
The arcade mode offers a cleaner, more straightforward homage to the original formula. But players should be prepared for a devilish difficulty curve that might crush your spirit long before you see credits. I enjoyed the arcade style the most after first completing the story mode, at which point the added challenge felt manageable but still appropriately punishing.
Battle Princess Madelyn has a sweet, personal touch to it that shines through in the final product, as well as a message about the value of family. The game was built in part as a father’s message to his real-life daughter, and whether you know that backstory or not, it lends the story and gameplay a heartfelt and wholesome tone. The Ghouls ‘n Ghosts formula is a lesser-tapped classic that is reinvigorated here with skill, but some structural and design elements hold the experience back from greatness. I hope we get to see more adventures with Madelyn and her family; with some refinement, this whimsically macabre world would be a joy to explore again.
Like a long-lost sequel to Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Causal Bit's loving homage brings the good and bad of old-school styling.