Review: Battle Princess Madelyn – Retrograde Throwback

Usually when I play a game, I finish it knowing fairly well what my opinion of it is. I tend to know what I thought worked and what made me angry. Battle Princess Madelyn is one of the few games I feel very conflicted about. It’s a 2-D action platformer side-scroller throwback to the old Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. You take control of Madelyn after an evil sorcerer has kidnapped her family and killed her dog Fritzy. Throughout the game, you are joined by Fritzy’s ghost who also receives some useful abilities to aid you.

My experience with the game was an uneven one. There were many moments I liked and many that frustrated me to nearly thrown-controller ends. Yet, I don’t want to hate Battle Princess Madelyn, I even recommend it. There are just some caveats to this recommendation.

Battle Princess Madelyn screenshot
The game’s frame story is a silly reference to The Princess Bride with the grandfather telling the story to Maddi.

Before I get to the caveats I noted, I do want to highlight why I recommend the game. Battle Princess Madelyn features an incredible score. The fact that you even get to change between orchestral and chiptune versions of the soundtrack improves it. The game also features some great, detailed pixel art. Fritzy’s adorable sprite and the boss designs are some of the highlights. As for the amount of content, this is a relatively lengthy game as it took me around 20 hours to complete.

The game features a death system that is actually quite interesting. You have magic energy that is depleted when you die. You have six bars and every time you die you lose three in order to immediately respawn. If you don’t have enough magic you will restart from the nearest checkpoint; usually either the beginning of the level or outside a boss room. In order to build up this magic you have to kill enemies. It’s a cool system that incentivizes killing enemies and not just avoiding them. It feels like a good way to still punish the players without making the punishment too severe.

When Madelyn excels at what it’s attempting to do, it’s a genuinely fun, challenging 2D action platformer. For example, in one of the levels you are in an abandoned castle and have switches that raise and lower water. When you raise the water, fish enemies appear that are difficult to avoid, yet you must raise it to get past obstacles. This was a tense stage and the sort of challenge I wanted from the game. However, the game has one of the most chaotic difficulty curves I have ever experienced.

Battle Princess Madelyn screenshot
The game has some cute animated cutscenes, but they only appear at the beginning and at the end.

The early stages of Madelyn are surprisingly quite hard. You only have two hit points and a weak weapon. It’s only in the game’s second area that you meet the blacksmith who can upgrade your armor and weapons. Yet once you are fully upgraded – which won’t take that long since you receive plenty of currency from the enemies – most of the game becomes a cakewalk. The main factor behind a level’s difficulty has less to do with how late or early it is in the game. Rather, it has more to do with which enemies you fight.

Whenever a stage had an archer enemy I knew I was in for a bad time. Their rate of fire is so high it becomes nearly impossible to dodge their arrows. Stages with the large carnivorous plants were also annoying, as if you even touch a pixel of one of its hanging vines it will kill you. This is not to mention that most of my deaths were because I got hit by something and was thrown back into instant-death spikes. What makes some of these more frustrating is that you are unable to control the camera to see what’s ahead or below you. Many of my deaths just felt very cheap.

Not all the stages are bad, rather, they feel unbalanced. The swamp and witch’s cave stages were incredibly tough and frustrating due to the archers. On the other hand, the haunted forest stage was a breeze, as it had none of the said archers. This was a little strange since the haunted forest is supposed to be a more difficult version of the swamp.

Battle Princess Madelyn screenshot
One of the worst enemies in the game. They are invincible and attack below at such a stupidly high pace. that avoiding taking damage from them is only possible with perfect timing.

Another issue with the stages is that they have a fairly low variety of enemies, most only having around four enemy types. This means that the level design in a stage, at times, feels repetitive as you fight the same enemies in the exact same way. The worst offender for this was an underwater stage that only has two enemies. The only interesting element to that stage was the way the underwater physics affected your jumps. However, these physics just made it slower and more boring.

The good stages were ones that felt appropriately difficult. The previously mentioned aquatic castle level acts as the midpoint of the game and truly feels like it. There is a snow level during the second half of the game that I liked due to how it uses an enemy type that spits out large snow boulders. At first, you can easily avoid the boulders, but as the level progresses it forces you to deal with them in different situations, such as over a pit, near some spikes or with other enemies nearby. The final level also feels properly challenging as it forces you to perform tricky jumps from floating platform to floating platform.

Battle Princess Madelyn screenshot
One of the spider variants. The only thing that changes is the arena you fight it in.

The chaotic difficulty also extends to the bosses. I found it absolutely bizarre that one of the toughest bosses for me was the second boss. The vast majority of the other bosses were quite easy. This second boss is a giant spider that is not only difficult to hit, it is also difficult to avoid. The reason for this, is that most of your weapons can only shoot in four directions and it quickly attacks you directly from above. The worst part about it is that there are three additional variants of it. They are optional, and only give you weapons if you beat them.

The bosses themselves only have about two to four moves. Once you pick up their pattern it becomes nearly impossible to lose to them. This even includes the final boss that only has three moves, though they are somewhat difficult to avoid. The issue is that by the end of the game I already had a ludicrously powerful weapon that destroyed most of the enemies in one hit. This weapon – a staff that shoots exploding musical notes that track enemies – made fighting bosses so easy that they quickly became boring.

Battle Princess Madelyn screenshot
The blacksmith’s UI can be a little confusing: the numbers to the left are how much money and shards you have, while those on the right are how much the upgrade costs. Note that all weapons upgrade together, you are given no choice which ones you want to upgrade.

Part of what does not aid with the game’s inconsistent difficulty is the abilities and weapons you get. There are roughly 10 weapons in the game, but throughout my playthrough I only managed to get five. I did get to experience the other weapons, though. What I did not like about many of these is that when fully upgraded there is little to no difference between most of them. The only truly unique weapons are the whip, axe, and the staff I mentioned. All the others are basically the same, with you shooting in only four directions. The damage may be a little different and the projectile size and range may change, but they just felt like re-skins to me.

The abilities are not that better. You get a double jump which is incredibly important, but that’s about it. Fritzy gets one ability to kill a single enemy nearby, which is pretty much pointless, and another which is to shoot some projectiles. Both of these cost magic, so I found myself never using them or feeling like I needed to use them. The only other ability you get is to pogo off of enemies. The level that introduces this ability is probably one of my least favorite. Lack of camera control paired with some strange hitboxes meant that pogoing took me a lot of time to get used to and I barely found it useful. Not only that, but the game itself barely incentivizes you to use it. I only found myself needing to use it about three times throughout the entire game.

Battle Princess Madelyn screenshot
Levels have breakable walls you can smash for some secrets such as this ghost and the special key statue (seen here on the right).

One of the aspects about the game that I did like was the exploration. During the first half of the game, you have a linear series of areas to traverse and are tasked with gathering three pieces of a machine. The second half lets you choose between four different zones. Each one has a rune you need to collect before tackling the final level. It is in the first half of the game where most of the levels have a secondary stage you can access. You only need to find a specific statue, kneel before it and receive a key. It was pretty fun exploring the stages in search of these statues.

The secondary stages also tended to be better and shorter than the main ones. At times it was even required that you enter one of these to progress through the game. For example, if you want to use the blacksmith you must first return an item found in one of these secondary stages.

Another example is that bosses require keys to enter their doors. You get most of these as part of the story. However, for one of the required bosses, you need to save a child. There is an NPC who will give you the key only after you save a child that is found in a secondary stage. I really like this as it was unconventional and forced me to think about how I was supposed to proceed. The other reward you get for exploring is finding ghosts. When you kneel before them, they will give you a chest with the game’s main collectible – a doll.

Overall the quests in the game can be a little annoying. Too many of them are just about saving kids from being attacked by monsters, while the others have you finding an item and bringing it to its owner. They felt more like an excuse to make you backtrack through the stages which quickly became irritating. Your rewards also vary wildly. Some give you shards (a currency used for upgrades that becomes useless when you finish upgrading) and others give you dolls.

Battle Princess Madelyn screenshot
I ran into a bizarre situation where I had two children that needed saving in the same room.

The other mode the game has to offer is arcade mode. This mode is a little more similar to the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins. In this mode you only have seven stages to beat. You can only hold one weapon at a time and already start with Fritzy having abilities. The mode removes exploration and instead has linear levels with boss fights at the end. In the main menu of the game arcade mode appears first, but I believe this to be a mistake. Arcade mode is much harder than the regular game and much more punishing. Every time you get a game over you start from the beginning of the stage. Unlike the story mode, this happens even if you die to a boss.

In this mode you are dependent on weapons and armor dropping from enemies. Since weapon levels are connected to the armor level in this mode, getting hit actually makes your weapon weaker. Not only this, but picking up a bad weapon by a mistake means you are stuck with it until a better weapon appears. To further add to this, armor disappears when you respawn.

The worst part about this mode is that only one enemy type drops items and the drop rates are abysmal. This means that if you are stuck with a bad weapon and the level has no enemies that can drop a better one and some better armor, you will most likely end up replaying this level over and over again. It should also be highlighted that you cannot save during this mode and have to beat it in one sitting. I gave up on doing it after four hours on it and Steam disconnected. It did not help that this mode’s final level has you fighting four bosses. Two of them are spider variants, and the other two are the final bosses.

Battle Princess Madelyn screenshot
The doll room is a fantastic part of the game where you can read about the many enemies and characters you met; you just need to find their dolls.

I was a bit let down by the story. Most of it felt like two very long fetch quests. Furthermore, the big reveal about the final boss at the end seemed to come out of nowhere. I wish that the game focused a little more on developing Madelyn’s character and on adding depth to the plot overall. It seems too thin as is. I felt like the game expected me to get attached to Madelyn and Fritzy, but I never really did. Fritzy basically just follows you around and barks whenever there is an important item nearby.

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the developer’s quick response to the bugs in the game. When it launched there were many issues I had to deal with such as missing weapons and NPCs malfunctioning. I even got stuck in a stage at some point. Since then, many of the bugs have been fixed and the experience has gotten much smoother.

Though I do still maintain that I recommend the game, until some serious balancing issues are resolved I am unable to promise that the game will be worth your time. Enemies such as the archers need to be tweaked and bosses need to be made more complex and interesting. I also want the developers to add more to the story, to make the weapons more unique and to fix arcade mode. I know I have sounded very negative about this game, but it’s only because I believe there is a great experience in here and I think that it only requires a few fixes.

Ofir reviewed Battle Princess Madelyn on PC using a code provided by the developer.

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