If you’ve heard of, looked at or played a Ghosts ‘n Goblins series, then you’ll know exactly what Battle Princess Madelyn looks like and how it plays. There are plentiful examples of the ‘loving homage’ in video games, whether it’s the adoption of a specific video game mechanic, inclusion of certain genre tropes, or something more directly related. In the case of Battle Princess Madelyn, it isn’t an homage to the Capcom classic Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, it’s more like a blatant rip-off.
Battle Princess Madelyn consists of two game modes: arcade, which follows the standard 2D Ghosts ‘n Goblins formula of the player character running from left to right, battling skeletons, zombies and weird dudes with faces in their stomach on the way, and a story, which – as the name suggests – has more of a plot and varies things up for the player by providing them the option of running right to left instead.
Let’s start with the arcade mode. Madelyn bears an uncanny resemblance to Arthur, the Ghosts ‘n Goblins’ diminutive knight. Not that I’m suggesting she has a beard – far from it, her tiny pixelated face is fuzz free – but that she has the exact same base weapon attack as Arthur and the same measurement of health. That’s right, on being hit by an enemy she loses her armour, leaving her clad in what looks like pyjamas rather than underpants, and one further hit results in death. There is some complication on this classic set-up by the inclusion of a ‘magic gauge’. If she still has magic left Madelyn can respawn where she died, but once her magic is depleted it’s back to the start she goes.
So far, so Ghosts ‘n Goblins then, and that is the greatest issue the games faces. It doesn’t hold up well under the comparison to this titan of arcade video games, and despite the charming and well animated retro aesthetic, Battle Princess Madelyn is a chore to play. Basic attacks lack any sense of potency, Madelyn’s endless supply of spears do little damage and a plethora of projectiles are required to fell even the most standard of foes. Skeletal enemies leap from coffins constantly, slowing progress through a level to a slog, and then there’s the insistence that every time Madelyn is hit she bounces back in an uncontrolled arc, which usually sees her fall to her death. I did not have much fun.
Then there’s the boss fights, which have some of the worst signalling I’ve encountered. Your huge opponents offering few visual clues before launching into an attack and they soak up damage like a sadomasochistic sponge. The first boss, a giant armoured skeleton, had me chewing on my controller with frustration and, had I not been playing the game for review, I would have given up there and then. When victory is finally achieved it lacks satisfaction; I felt that I had won through random chance rather than any demonstration of skill.
The other problem Battle Princess Madelyn faces is that it doesn’t explain its controls very well. This wasn’t an issue when it came to the basics, as jump and attack are pretty standard, but it was only by fluke that I discovered that the tiny ghost dog that accompanies Madelyn could launch magical attacks. It was indicative of the issues with the combat in general, that even a tiny ghost transmogrifying into a humongous spectral Rottweiler and chomping on an enemy proved both unwieldy in its controls and unsatisfying in its execution.
There is a basic attempt to explain the controls within the story mode through signs that can be read on your adventure, though hilariously the game doesn’t tell you which input will let you read the signs. Once you figure this out, the first sign you read then tells you how to read a sign. I’m pretty sure the developer was deliberately messing with me at this point. This set-up also means the player has to traipse over multiple screens just to receive instructions on basic controls. For an arcade action game to begin in such a clunky fashion is not a good start.
The story mode has NPCs to speak to who give you simple quests – kill this boss that you would have to kill anyway, for example – and also removes Madelyn’s abilities and disperses them as collectables. No longer can Madelyn double jump, so you’ll have to use her impotent and inaccurate single jump instead, and her canine companion is back to being useless again. Having Madelyn weakened makes progress through the early sections even more of a slog, and though things start to pick up once she acquires additional powers, getting back to that point is painful.
Whilst the core idea of combining the Ghosts ‘n Goblins format with the structure of a metroidvania is sound, the frankly terrible signposting leaves you with little sense of how to progress through the vast levels. You’ll spend an hour backtracking, trying to find what you looking for with only the world’s most unhelpful skeletal pointing finger as a guide, only to die and have to do it all again. If arcade mode was weak, then the story mode is terrible.
Battle Princess Madelyn has some lovely animated cut scenes to enjoy, the plot begins in a charming manner that brings to mind the Princess Bride, and its retro inspired pixelated graphics are on point. If only they were attached to fun and compelling gameplay, then Battle Princess Madelyn really could have been a contender to capture the crown of Ghost ‘n Goblins. As it stands, it’s probably best to avoid this one and break out your SNES from storage instead.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 with NA review code
Also available on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC. EU PS4 release TBC.