Given the recent furore over microtransactions and various legal challenges against loot boxes, the release of Penny-Punching Princess was almost perfectly timed. While mechanically it may appear to be a standard top-down dungeon brawler, both the narrative and more innovative gameplay aspects are closely bound up in a satirical take on the evils of capitalism. A game in which everything has a literal monetary value, Penny-Punching Princess turns the usual quest for loot on its head. Rather than just hoarding your ill-gotten gains for upgrades, your progress depends upon balancing money earned with bribes spent. This central mechanic makes for an original and interesting take on an established genre, but does it pay off in terms of gameplay?
Aside from the drab browns and greys of dungeons, Penny-Punching Princess features appropriately lavish golds and reds aplenty, making for a bright and colourful game. The simple sprite effects are well done and enemies are generally clear and defined. As is common with action RPGs, however, things become more confusing and chaotic once larger mobs of enemies come into play. Playing on the smaller screen of the Vita, this aspect became particularly troublesome at times, although hopefully it will be less of an issue on a Switch screen. Both NPCs and enemies are, however, nicely established and range from the expected goblins and dragons to more unusual creatures. Perhaps chief amongst these fresh characters is your butler, a well-spoken and combative stag beetle.
The aforementioned beetle speaks up for you in the humorous conversations that bookend the dungeon crawling levels. It’s just a shame that these exchanges are not voice acted. The princess you control is tasked with paying off the debts accrued by her father, whilst also being trapped in her own spiralling financial descent. While this sounds super serious and rooted in reality, the actual game is about as far from that as you could get. The juxtaposition between an important and realistic subject and the ludicrously cartoony implementation works surprisingly well, and means that what could be preachy instead remains fun and lighthearted.
The pun in the game’s name comes from the princess’s pugilistic powers, as she takes on the many denizens of the game’s dungeons through the highly technical method of punching them in the face. Again, the game seeks to contrast the expectations of a princess with such a traditionally masculine approach and succeeds in presenting an interesting and original take on the established story of a princess having to rescue her kingdom from the faults of her father.
Everything about Penny-Punching Princess’s setting and storyline is refreshing and well presented. I was really taken with the game’s attitude to the unthinking capitalist impulses of so many games, especially those within the ARPG genre, but I didn’t find the gameplay to match up to these elements. Combat felt limited and repetitive, and there was often far too much happening on the screen for any feeling of greater control or precision. Again, this is in part a problem with the relatively small screen of the Vita format, but moving between fighting with the buttons and the more interesting powers controlled on the touchscreen never felt intuitive or comfortable.
Aside from the simple pleasures of punching baddies square in the face, your princess is able to make use of a magical calculator that both shows the value of every item and enemy within the dungeon and enables you to bribe them to fight on your side. This has the potential to be a really interesting mechanic, forcing you to balance the money earned through fighting with the outlay required in order to make it to the end of the dungeon.
When it works well, the pattern of fighting and bribing provides a really refreshing alternative to the usual repetition that so often plagues ARPG combat. However, when levels get more complicated and filled with opponents, the actual process of calling up the calculator and choosing the enemy to be bribed just doesn’t feel accurate enough. While it would arguably make things too easy if the game were paused when using the calculator, the alternative is lots of frustrating deaths as you try to frantically switch between the two modes.
Death in Penny-Punching Princess means that you lose all the money and bribed enemies gained and must repeat the level. The end result of this is a lot of grinding and repetition. I never really felt fully in control of what was happening and too often found dying unfair. I freely admit that part of this is probably down to a lack of skill on my part, but as an experienced gamer the difficulty seemed set far too high even early on. I have no particular problem with games being difficult, but here there was not enough opportunity to learn the mechanics before enemies would swarm over you. Short of grinding by replaying very early levels multiple times to level up your skills, the barriers to progress were set far too high. This could be a deliberate decision in line with the game’s central argument about the impossible requirements of capitalism, but it didn’t make for an enjoyable experience.
Penny-Punching Princess is a fascinating take on the usual capitalist impulses within loot based games and combines this with a fun and humorous cartoon aesthetic, but it just never really feels fun to play. At its best, such as when you bribe fire traps or huge buzz saws to work on your side and damage the enemies, it is a great addition to the usually stale ARPG genre, but too often these moments are quickly followed by a frustrating death caused by an overly busy screen and unintuitive controls. With some refinement, or possibly the bigger screen available on Switch, there is a great game to be uncovered here, and it is certainly not short on content. Like capitalism itself, Penny-Punching Princess promised much but resulted in soulless repetition and the frustrating inevitability of a fruitless death.
Version tested: PS Vita – Also available on Nintendo Switch