Whimsy and depth

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The Princess Guide
PlayStation 4/Nintendo Switch

WHEN Penny-Punching Princess was released early last year, not a few quarters deemed it a Japanese role-playing game that tread way, way off the beaten path. It wasn’t just quirky in the manner that Nippon Ichi Software (NIS) properties tended to be. It was inventively so, introducing the concept of bribery and corruption as a means by which the principal protagonist would turn erstwhile enemies into allies. And under the watchful eye of industry veteran Hironori Takano, it proved to be a standout among a bevy of rote action-adventure titles on the Nintendo Switch.

Parenthetically, gamers who consider Penny-Punching Princess to have been well worth their while will be pleased to know that NIS has put forth another title that builds on the brawler’s strengths. At the same time, The Princess Guide manages to be accessible to the less venturesome, eschewing idiosyncratic mechanics in favor of a more traditional progression hierarchy. It begins from the vantage point of a battle-weary warrior ready to settle down and yet not quite willing to let go of his colorful past. In an effort to transition to a peaceful life, he decides to cast himself as a sage prepared to impart his knowledge of combat off decades’ worth of personal experience to those who wish to hire him for the purpose.

Because of the would-be mentor’s reputation as a seasoned champion, aided in large part by times he himself wrote to perpetuate it, he promptly gets four princesses under his wing; each has singular characteristics, and each has preferred fighting styles. Each also has a storyline gamers must navigate prior to reaching the denouement of the overarching narrative. Thusly, The Princess Guide sees him teach them, and then learn from him — as is appropriate for their specific skill sets. Needless to say, control of all the characters is inevitable, although one at a time through individual campaigns, and then together.

All told, The Princess Guide is of medium length by JRPG standards. That said, the distinctiveness of the characters adds further value in variety. Arrogant Veronica is partial to magic and wants to conquer the world — literally. Dagger-wielding Alpana is the opposite, full of empathy and seeking to unite citizens of her domain. Gunslinger Monomaria, demanding of self to a fault, figures to restore honor to her broken family’s name by freeing her kingdom from debt. Good-natured Liliartie, trusty axe in tow, craves for a fine meal and, concomitantly, sees a dragon she needs to fight as one.

In other words, layers of texture dot The Princess Guide. And, for good measure, the mentor has the capacity to praise or scold a princess in combat, to tangible effects. A word of encouragement leads to restoration of health, while a reprimand serves to increase aggression under pressure. Clearly benefiting from Takano’s involvement in its development, it likewise presents a more refined version of Penny-Punching Princess’ trap system, enabling the soldiers that accompany the protagonists to occupy Relics and use their features for maximum damage to multiple opponents.

Progression is clear within each princess’ story arc, but The Princess Guide doesn’t lack for side quests off an easily discernible world map. Completion of main and extra missions provides the mentor with experience via Knowledge Materia, which, in turn, can be used to improve his charges’ skills. Admittedly, though, the rinse-and-repeat context is premised on prior knowledge of its triggers. In this regard, it could have allowed for a more favorable learning curve and offered tutorials on an as-needed basis. Instead, the requisite instructions are found in a repository gamers have to dig into by themselves.

Certainly, it helps that The Princess Guide shines from a technical standpoint. It’s an audio-visual feast on the PlayStation 4 Pro, exhibiting a distinct brightness of colors that highlight the stellar character and background designs, backstopped by an appropriately enveloping sound mix. The default Japanese voice acting is superb and augmented by spot-on English subtitles. Menus are detailed and a breeze to read, and while the action can sometimes be hard to keep up with on a busy screen, it’s more a function of the sheer number of characters involved than of swooning frame rates. Movements and animations are steady even when played on an undocked Nintendo Switch, with NIS ostensibly going for optimum performance even as it comes with some optical softness.

Be forewarned, though: Precisely because of the ease with which gamers can get lost in the glory of The Princess Guide, there is a tendency for manual saving to be overlooked. It cannot, lest hours upon hours of progress be lost for lack of an autosave feature. It’s a big miss, but one that the game thankfully manages to overcome because of its myriad positives. On the whole, NIS’ latest venture is a stylized medium-length actioner of equal parts whimsy and depth, humor and gravitas, and manages to pull its weight well above the JRPG crowd.

• Multiple run-throughs via distinct storylines

• Visually striking

• Distinctive gameplay

• Action is smooth, even on an undocked Switch

• Grinding required

• Tutorials not provided as needed

• No autosave feature

• Middling artificial intelligence

RATING: 8/10

The first hour of Neo Atlas 1469 pretty much sums up what it requires most: patience. It serves as both a fitting preamble for the main storyline and a thorough tutorial of gameplay mechanics. Players take on the role of the head of a trading company, and, within that time frame corresponding to the three years prior to the title date, build the firm up for what’s to come. Following the completion of the period of instruction (which cannot be skipped), they are asked by the king of Portugal to look for new potentially valuable-resource-bearing territories beyond Europe, and specifically that of Zipangu.

The premise of Neo Atlas 1469 is nothing new. Early generation consoles are replete with titles that provide simulations of relationship building across continents. In fact, it’s a port of a Vita release of the same name, which was a remake of Neo Atlas II on the Sony PlayStation. For all its supposed negatives as just the latest in a long line of point-and-click adventure releases, however, it’s the best of the lot to date and a decidedly unique offering on the Nintendo Switch. Rewards await, but aren’t collected merely by going from Point A to Point B; en route, players are compelled to make budget and personnel decisions that affect their capacity to meet their objectives within the allotted 30 years.

Most of the map that governs activities in Neo Atlas 1469 is unavailable at the outset, and is made clear only upon exploration of the fleet at the company’s disposal. As the designated admirals set sail for lands far and wide, costs mount, but so, too, do opportunities for favorable trade through proper inventory management and efficient transport of goods. Gamers benefit from added playthrough knowledge amid the expansion of routes, but are occasionally presented with the risk-reward dilemma of treasure hunting.

For all intents, the level of micromanagement required by Neo Atlas 1469 should please quarters literally and figuratively comfortable playing the long game. And, in this regard, NIS America rightly believes there is a viable market, having just released a physical copy of the title out West. (8/10)

Hard West is exactly that: a gritty 19th-century Western that boasts of an outstanding story told from varying points of view via distinct character campaigns. Heavily influenced by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it features turn-based tactical gameplay through a handful of modes that serve to drive the narrative forward. Even seemingly inconsequential decisions to further strategic objectives weigh on how events unfold and are appreciated. In this regard, the text-heavy interface benefits from tight editing (although, admittedly, sometimes too tight as to border on dismissive).

Lest Hard West be judged as a copycat, it separates itself from other similar tactical titles, and even from XCOM, in its conscious effort to avoid randomness and instead introduce “luck” as an integral component to character development and advancement; depending on circumstances and turns of events, it can either be replenished or reduced to positive or negative effect. Additionally, CreativeForge Games chucked experience points in tracking protagonists’ upgrades, instead relying on playing cards — collected following the attainment of specific mission parameters — to form poker hands that provide corresponding buffs and bonuses.

The enemy artificial intelligence is occasionally a letdown, but, overall, Hard West delivers on its premise and promise of a Cowboys and Aliens experience. At $19.99, it’s a good buy, especially since it runs well on the go and includes from the outset all content previously released on other platforms. Recommended. (7.5/10)