The long-awaited Battle Princess Madelyn has been on my radar for some time. Now that it's finally here, it feels rather fitting that the trappings of time lost, memory, and nostalgia are woven throughout the entirety of Causal Bit's hardcore platformer, for better and for worse.
The best way to describe it would perhaps be to say that it's a very personal title – part wish-fulfilment, part time capsule of and for the creator's family. Of course, all creative endeavours are personal on some level but few games wear that look so loudly, even going so far as to push it as a unique selling point. After all, this is a game where characters are overtly based on the developer's relatives, both alive and dead.
Story timeThe story opens with the titular Madelyn – in effect the developer's daughter – being read a bedtime story by her grandfather. And wouldn't you know it, his tale features a princess who's also called Madelyn, whose pet dog is promptly killed then resurrected to aid and guide her on an adventure through a fantastical land.
The narrative framing device of an elderly man reading a story to his grandchild ought to feel rote, but the dialogue, even in these early scenes, succeeds in instilling the main cast with a sprightly, adventurous positivity that is thankfully more infectious than infuriating.
Straight away my cynicism went out the door, as the music, visuals, and writing came together to assure me that I was in good hands… and then I actually started to play the game.
The story mode's world came as quite the surprise, with it being made up of a series of large, hub-like areas. Each of these levels has their own theme, some of which are inevitably more interesting to look at and explore than others. In each one, you'll find yourself hunting for ghost girls, completing various errands, acquiring skills to unlock new areas, and lobbing spears and other weapons at all manner of nasty creatures.
Now, wandering freely through often beautifully rendered and expansive environments might sound appealing on paper, but Madelyn struggles to implement the same "invisible direction" seen in the likes of Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. Rarely will you ever feel devoid of purpose in either of those games, with there always being something to be gained from exploration, though the same cannot be said of this.
Am I doing this right?Level pacing is frequently killed dead by progression-halting off-screen jumps, random backtracking, and too few visual indicators to let you know whether you're headed in the right direction. And when those indicators do pop up, they're typically of the giant arrow on a road sign variety.
The game's failure to effectively direct players is also felt during the various puzzle sequences, with many of the solutions being annoyingly opaque in their logic, requiring you to wander around a large area to see what the button you just pressed might have done – they're not challenging, they're time-wasting.
At certain points, I grew to feel less like I was lost in hostile territory and more like I'd just been dumped into an early prototype of a level. I understand what the intention was with these sprawling, scattershot areas, though I struggle to appreciate the execution and feel that the whole ordeal would benefit from being reined in significantly.
The game is typically at its best when you're caught in the heat of battle, with undead, frogmen, or whatever else approaching from all directions. Controls during these more hectic moments were never an issue, and concessions, such as level checkpoints, have been made where necessary.
Much like the games that inspired it, Madelyn's assortment of big baddies can usually be bested by remaining patient and memorizing attack patterns. There are some real standout fights dotted throughout the seemingly lengthy campaign, and even the less compelling bosses tend to be at least visually memorable and distinct.
That being said, it often feels like the game's challenge stems more from the struggle to remain invested rather than any particularly nasty enemy encounters.
It's all falling apart!Little annoyances, such as my companion's running animation frequently breaking, persisted throughout, further suggesting that Madelyn wasn't quite ready for release. Visual bugs I can cope with, but by far the most egregious issue reared its ugly head when my progress was halted entirely by a set of keys that refused to open any of the game's doors.
After an hour of thorough searching for an alternate route, it finally dawned on me that there was no way forward and that I'd likely have to start the game from scratch. That was around the time I hopped over to the arcade mode, which makes me think that the bug might have been a blessing in disguise.
This seemingly secondary mode strips away most of the thudding exploration in favour of more immediate – and certainly more enjoyable – high score chasing runs. No, it doesn't fix the technical problems, and neither does it engage entirely, but if I ever do return to Battle Princess Madelyn, it'll solely be because of the arcade offering.
So by no means is it a total bust, but at no point does it bloom into the fine-tuned experience that it needed to be. It's full of things to appreciate – the music, visuals, early sense of adventure – but the fact that playing the game can be so irritating – or even dull – means that it just never comes together to form a coherent, satisfying whole. Sadly, these aren't the ghouls nor ghosts you're looking for.