Review by SamIAm

"Unique, but far short of greatness."

The Sega Saturn is famous for its imports. Thanks to the fact that it died a premature death in the United States, there is a whole catalogue of nearly two years worth of games that were never released outside of Japan. Thus, there is fairly large demand for imported Saturn games all over the world. Naturally, with all the mystery and intrigue surrounding games exclusive to Japan, the Saturn import library has become known as a place to find forgotten treasures. Through this following I first came to know of Princess Crown, one of the most well reputed import Saturn games around.

Princess Crown was released by Atlas in 1997, the same year the Saturn kicked the bucket in the western world. Some time later, its popularity warranted a second issue of the game as part of the "Saturn Collection", which is roughly the same is the Playstation's "Greatest Hits" here in America. It falls under the category of Action RPG, and it combines many traditional RPG elements with a respectable amount of original gameplay. It is also purely 2D; no polygons whatsoever, just sprites and scrolling backgrounds. Fans of the Saturn, the pinnacle of 2D gaming hardware, could hardly ask for more. Yet somehow, this game simply falls short of the mark of excellence. Why? The reasons are complicated, and they're spread out over almost every aspect of the game, but what it all comes down to is that Princess Crown is actually quite mediocre no matter how you look at it, as long as you do so objectively. Let's break down the main elements of the game to examine the problems.

The game begins as a young princess, Gradriel, receives the crown to the throne of the kingdom of Valendia, apparently a wholly matriarchal society. Her mother, who just recently passed away, was renowned as a great warrior, having saved the kingdom from attacking demons some years ago. Eager to follow in her mother's footsteps and grow strong, Gradriel sneaks out of the castle that very night, encouraged by a fairy who begs her to rid the kingdom of various evils.

The whole first half of the game has you following Gradriel around all sorts of towns and dungeons across the kingdom. All of your journeys are really only minor quests designed to help you grow strong and meet other characters. What's important is that while you're out, one of your sisters accidentally uncovers a sealed demon in the recesses of your home castle. After a series of sibling abductions and confrontations with various dark forces, Gradriel finally takes on the source of the evil itself.

Without giving away too much, all I can really say about Princess Crown's story is that it is relatively simple, shallow, and unrefined compared to most any good RPG. The characters, good and evil, as well as the plot itself are so terribly generic, it seems like they could've been created with some dice, a stack of tarot cards and a magic 8 ball. Sure there are twists, but there's never anything you really wouldn't have expected. The only good features were the female protagonist and some of the entertaining non-human cast.

No matter what, by the end, I felt no attachment whatsoever to any element of the Princess's story. I suppose I wouldn't call it a total failure, but it certainly doesn't work in the game's favor. For many RPG enthusiasts, this shortcoming alone will probably be enough to turn them off to the game.

This category should be divided into two areas: the battle engine and world exploration. The former is probably the best feature of Princess Crown. Unlike any other RPG I've ever come across, this one sports a battle mode that is most akin to Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. Simply explained, enemies come on the screen randomly, Gradriel unsheathes her sword, and you take the enemy on in a real time 1-on-1 fighter engine. There is a small menu of up to 8 items that can be accessed at any time as well.

Automatically I have to give credit to the game for originality. Anyone who is sick of turn based menu driven combat will find this battle engine to be a welcome change. Further compliments go to the enemies, which have a great amount of diversity in their fighting styles and behaviors.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Gradriel herself. Princess Crown's one and only playable character (post-game epilogues aside) is actually fairly limited in what she can do. I always felt that another two or three moves would've really helped make things more interesting. There are various items to help mix things up, but everything is perishable, so it's hard to really rely on anything but yourself. More yet, control of Gradriel feels a little sluggish. For example, after jumping and landing with her, there is a split second moment where she must pick herself up a bit before she can do anything again, and that leaves her vulnerable. These kinds of stalls are all over the place, and they can be quite frustrating. Finally, even though you're granted the cool ability to change into your "evil self" towards the end of the game, which opens up a huge number of options (magic on tap), you get virtually no opportunity to use it. You won't even get to fight a single boss with your new abilities; they are disabled for the final bosses!

As for the rest of the gameplay, it is seriously about as basic and monotonous as possible. As the battle engine would suggest, the view here is completely horizontal and side scrolling, unlike many top-down 2D RPGs. In this case, however, Gradriel cannot jump or climb, which means that this part of the gameplay is actually 1D. That's right, you move left or right, and that's it. No platforming whatsoever. Gradriel can also go through entrances in the backgrounds by pressing up, but that's kept to a minimum. Thus, there really is no gameplay outside of the battle engine, save for a few annoyingly complicated dungeon mazes. Overall, it's quite unfulfilling.

This part of Princess Crown is truly a double edged sword. On one hand, the game offers graphics that are completely hand drawn, use a smart color palette, and are very lush. The sprites are impressive, especially in battle, with lots of animation and special effects, not to mention sheer size. Although many of the backgrounds are just single layers, there are also several with decent parallax scrolling, and they all look pleasing to the eye.

But there lies the problem: "all" consists of very little. Frankly, Princess Crown has some of the worst graphical repetition in its entire RPG era. Even many 16-bit RPGs seem like they have more diversity than this game. If it weren't for the guide-map feature, it would almost be easy to get lost in a sea of sameness. Character sprites aren't particularly guilty of this, but the scenery sure is. In the end, I found that the novelty of Princess Crown's pretty colors wore too thin for me to care about them any longer. It's a shame, there was so much potential here, but that's the way it goes for many games.

Different people care about a game's music to different degrees. Some people would just as soon turn on something else. Others like to go out buy the soundtracks to their favorite games. But no matter how much weight you give it, there's no avoiding the fact that Princess Crown's soundtrack is abysmal. The first indicator is that it is all in redbook CD-audio, meaning that it is recorded on the disc like a normal music CD. There's only one disc here, so that means there must be less than 70 minutes total of different music. In fact, I've checked, it's about 53. What's worse is that many of the tracks are just nature ambiance. And this is all for sound that, as far as I can tell, could've been done by the Saturn's internal synth with ease.

With such a limited amount of space, the player is stuck hearing mostly the same half dozen 90 second loops over and over again. There's the battle music, the boss music, two town themes, a couple evil/suspense themes, a happy emotional theme, and that's about it. The worst part is that not a single one of the most frequently heard tunes is especially good. A few of them happen to be especially bad. It's loose ends like this that really help drag the game to the ground.

The remaining sub-topics aren't really that important, although they aren't bad either. Sound effects are more than competent, although not especially memorable. Load times are a bit long, but you'll get over it. Replay value is great if you like the game, owing to some extra scenarios for a few of the characters Gradriel met along her journey. But don't buy the game just for a couple scenarios.

So the question is, why does Princess Crown have such a good reputation when, in my opinion, it's really not so hot? I would guess that it has to do with being a member of the mysterious Japan-exclusive family. Importers all around are eager to find treasure, and when they see something like this that goes halfway, they'll convince themselves that it's better than it really is just for the excitement of it. Such is the nature of hype, I suppose. But for those of you reading this who haven't played Princess Crown yet and are curious, before you shell out big bucks for the import, take a moment and ask yourself whether or not you're so low on good games that you need to take a chance on a seemingly half-baked title like this one. You just might surprise yourself and find that you'd rather spend the money on something else. There are after all plenty of good imports for the Saturn that are worth spending money on...and if you really want this one, I'll sell you my copy.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 05/16/04

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