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Amazing Princess Sarah / 3rd of February 2016

Haruneko Games’ Amazing Princess Sarah is a retro styled platformer that recalls the likes of Konami’s Castlevania series (aesthetically anyway), though obviously without scaling such heights it does just about do itself and its developer justice, showing that with a few ideas, it is possible to put a novel spin on an old genre. These ideas, however, certainly cannot entirely overcome the game’s primary weaknesses though, namely the controls and moments of pad smashingly cheap level design, though the experience as a whole certainly remains a positive one, particularly given its relatively low price point.

For the most part, I honestly had no idea as to what the story behind this was, but by the time I found myself at the final encounter, it all began to make sense – evidently I wasn’t paying attention during its short opening sequence. You see, in Amazing Princess Sarah, the player is tasked with controlling the buxom, titular character as she works her way through five castles of ever increasing complexity in a quest to save her father from the clutches of the demonic, Lilith. To offer some replay value, there’s a new game plus option (which I’ll return to later) that unlocks once the game has been bested, increasing the difficulty, offering new enemies and a more trying version of the final boss, Ultimate Lilith.

Graphically, the developers have paid tribute to the 16-bit platformers of old with no end of love and admiration for them, and likewise, the soundtrack is sublime, an absolutely perfect fit for the genre/style. Now, whilst I made reference to Castlevania, the two share very little in common outside of some aesthetic similarities, there are no skills to earn and use to traverse previously inaccessible areas, but rather it seems far more akin to Tokai Communication’s Decap Attack, wherein the protagonist Chuck D. Head utilises his own bonce as a weapon. Sarah, however, uses the corpses of her bested foes as a long range deterrent to supplement her own short range blade, and this is the most interesting facet of the game.

There are a fairly wide variety of enemies on offer, though sadly the bulk of which will be encountered within the first few levels, but some are fire based, others are shield bearing knights that can only be attacked from behind and others are grotesque giants that simply charge headlong when the player is in sight. The different characteristics of each are also represented in the manner in which they are employed as weapons of death, with archers exploding into a shower of arrows, bombers explode on contact and ghosts, which look rather similar to Mario’s Boo, can be fired in a straight line killing everything that they touch. This isn’t simply a nice touch though, it allows the player to use them in a more tactical manner, utilising weapons with wide areas of effect to terminate multiple enemies simultaneously, triggering another one of the game’s best features. Amazing Princess Sarah features a few basic RPG elements, with experience being accumulated, and once enough has been garnered, this allows Sarah to advance up a level, giving her a minor increase to both her attack and her maximum level of HP. Now, the game also features a simple combo system that advances each time an enemy is killed in quick succession, this gives an XP multiplier that allows progress to made far more swiftly, making the trying levels that little bit easier to beat, which, as it turns out, is rather vital.

Level design in Amazing Princess Sarah is not up to the standard that one would hope for, and whilst there are some elements in each level that are specific to them, such as slippery snow in the obligatory Ice Castle, or the water flows of the Dark Dungeon that either speed up or slow down player movement depending on whether they move with, or against the current. Yet there is simply not enough character to define them as separate and wholly unique environs, and quite frankly, there are also far too many moments of brutally, cheap design. In many places, the game will ask the player to effectively take a blind leap of faith, and most of the time, the game will overly punish the player by either sending them tumbling them into an infinite drop - and therefore death - or a small area filled with the game’s largest monsters, which once again, results in a swift end for the player. Couple this with the sheer wealth of intricate platforming sections that are blighted by swathes of enemies, and you’ve probably got the most frustrating game that I’ve played since Shovel Knight.

All of this is certainly not helped by unresponsive controls, which make picking up objects feel exceptionally difficult to do in crowded areas, which only adds immensely to one’s vexation. Though there are some highlights, namely the boss encounters, such as the giant beetle that works its way up the level towards you, which can only be attacked by throwing deceased archers at the nearest wall/enemy. Or Lucifer, whom you attack by throwing his own summoned minions straight back at him, some care and attention has clearly gone into these encounters and it certainly shows.

Now, believe it or not, there are actually seven additional modes available upon completing the game, though each has to unlocked by playing through the game type that immediately precedes it in the menu, the first of which, bypassing the standard New Game Plus (or Amazing Princess as it’s called), is Angry Princess. In this, Sarah’s ghost returns from the dead to take revenge on her living self, she cannot be allowed to touch her or else a nominal amount of damage will be incurred, naturally though, when traversing a treacherous arena full of spiked floors, disappearing platforms and hordes of enemies, this additional obstacle makes an already trying level design feel even more frustrating (worse still when you’re precariously balanced over an infinite drop). Of course, the primary purpose for these game modes is to allow the player the opportunity to further upgrade Sarah so that she may become strong enough to tackle the final, final boss, and obviously provide Amazing Princess Sarah with a fairly extensive amount of replay value for those that enjoyed their first playthrough.

Sure, the game is certainly not without its faults, but Amazing Princess Sarah still manages to come through fairly well; it has a few clever ideas, an excellent soundtrack, extensive replayability and perhaps best of all, it’s also very cheap to buy. With just a few changes to its level design this probably could have been a great game, so we’ll just have to hope that Haruneko Games pick up on the criticism and use it to perfect the model, but to find that out, we’ll just have to wait for the sequel.

James Paton
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