Has NIS America Developed These Princesses for Great Victory or Epic Defeat?
The Princess Guide is a title from NIS America that I had been anticipating since its announcement. Mainly since it looked to have an eye-catching art style and seemed to be a bit quirky. Which tends to be something that I enjoy. In addition, with the announcement that NIS America would be localizing Trails of Cold Steel III, this would be a good chance to see what changes their localization process had undergone since Ys VIII. Sure, this isn’t an epic RPG, but it’s a good indicator as to how stringent the NIS America localization and QA testing process is. So, does The Princess Guide live up to my expectations and is this a title worth adding to your library? Let’s dive and give some guidance about The Princess Guide.
Four Princesses, One Instructor, and a Whole Lot of Grinding
The Princess Guide is a title developed by Nippon Ichi Software. Or, the Japanese parent company of NIS America. So, this is an internal project. Meaning, that both Nippon Ichi Software and NIS America should have complete control over the game. As for the game itself, with a title like The Princess Guide, you might think this is a princess raising simulator like the old Princess Maker games. Intriguingly, it is not. Instead, it’s a top-down hack-and-slash with some minor real-time strategy and RPG elements. Certainly not what I had envisioned based on the title, but that’s ok. What matters is if the game is enjoyable after all. So, what’s the premise here?
The Princess Guide begins with you playing as a knight. After a brief tutorial stage which also gives a bit of background, you’ll name then create your character (remember this). This is the titular guide. Next, you’ll select one of the four princesses to train. After selecting your princess and some introductions, you’ll then be taken to the world map. This is where the real-time strategy portion of the game comes into play. You’ll dispatch your princess and the instructor to various nodes on the map to initiate main or sub-missions. Starting these or running into one of the various enemies that are wandering the map will begin the top-down hack-and-slash sections.
The hack-and-slash sections are the bread and butter of The Princess Guide. In these, you’ll need to navigate to the end of the stage while surviving and completing a specific objective. Usually, just making it to the end of the level. Along the way, you’ll run into combat arenas. While you can safely skip the enemies along the path, once you enter one of these arenas you’ll be locked in and you must defeat all enemies in the arena to proceed. Note, that each arena usually has multiple waves through each arena can easily be completed in under a minute. Keep doing this and progressing to clear the stage.
Once you’ve completed a stage, you’ll be taken back to the world map. From here you can head to the next mission or withdraw to the castle where you can raise your princess’ stats. Thus, progression works in a cycle. Dispatch, RTS, hack-and-slash, rinse and repeat. Once you complete all the missions with a given princess, the story will progress, and you’ll move onto the next princess. Once you’ve completed each princess’ story, you’ll be asked to chose one of the princesses to train. This is who you’ll be training the rest of the game as well as whose story you’ll be following. With the basics out of the way, let’s touch upon the graphics.
Cute Colorful Princesses and a Whole Lot of Blur
Graphically, The Princess Guide is a very energetic looking game. The colors are bright; the characters animated, and everything looks smooth. I was playing the Nintendo Switch version of the game and didn’t notice any graphical issues in handheld mode (we’ll touch on TV mode in a moment). However, where the game starts to lose me, is during combat.
For some reason, the developers decided to put a filter over the screen during the RTS and combat sections. This filter rests behind UI, but over the background and enemies. In most stages, this effect isn’t much of a problem, just mildly annoying due to it sometimes obscuring an enemy near the top or bottom. However, during darker stages, like with the Rusty Mages Guild, it can make gameplay a chore. For an example look at the below image.
Focus your attention on that top quarter of the screen. Do you see what I mean? See how everything becomes blurry and hard to discern? Now, imagine playing this on a TV that’s six or more feet away. This is why I didn’t bother playing in TV mode. I tried and after only a few missions I had to go back to handheld mode. Sadly, this is indicative of the major problem with The Princess Guide. There’s plenty of good ideas, but there’s little attention to detail or the player experience. Let’s move onto to talking about the sound where I’ll give you another example.
A Whole Lot of Silly Shenanigans! …That I Wish I Could Understand
Musically, The Princess Guide is fine. The music is fitting, though nothing really got my blood pumping or stuck in my mind. The soundtrack here is meant to be just background music. It’s not bad mind you, just not memorable. The same goes for the sound effects. They’re all fine and perfectly serviceable. No, the real issue comes with the voice track. Namely that there’s no dub.
The argument as to whether Japanese games and anime should ever be dubbed is as old as the fandom itself. While I personally prefer dubs, there are good arguments for not dubbing a game. And a well-done localization doesn’t need a dub, though it can help. In the case of The Princess Guide though, I’m honestly surprised NIS America didn’t provide a dub since this game is meant to be humorous.
Humor is one of those things that makes more sense when it’s in your native language. Timing and tone are important for leaving an impact and making a connection with the player. In short, unless you understand Japanese you can’t rely on the original voice track to give that to you. So, you’re then left with relying on the text and subtitles. Again, if this is done well, you can leave an impact on the player. But The Princess Guide fails in this regard by subtitling some things and not others.
Either by original design or per NIS America, there are subtitles for when you’re not playing as your chosen princess. If you’re playing as the instructor your princess will chime in with dialogue during the battle which is subtitled in the lower left-hand corner. If you’re playing as that princess though there are no subtitles. Sure, subtitling each line would be tedious, but it would add to the experience. Also, I’ll point out that the lines from the instructor are never subtitled even though you can select a voice-style for them during character creation. Kind of a pointless option for most players then. Though that’s not the only issues with character creation. So, let’s start talking about the game’s design and I’ll touch more on that.
When Someone Puts Menus in the Wrong Order It’s Confusing
Since I’ve already touched upon the general flow of the game, I’m going to focus on the various design quirks that The Princess Guide has here. While some oddities are negligible, some do affect the game as a whole. Let’s start with something simple though, creating your character.
Character creation is a simple process in theory. Give the player some customizable options then allow them to name their character. Except The Princess Guide does this in reverse for some reason. Yes, you input the name before creating the character. This might not seem like a problem, but since names are often tied to gender you usually want to know the gender of the character you’re naming.
So, imagine my annoyance when I thought I didn’t have the option to create a female character, used a masculine name, and then got brought to the screen where I could choose my gender and had to back out to change the name. Again, this is a minor thing, but it’s indicative of the bigger problem. Lack of foresight. To illustrate this, let’s tackle a major mechanic, raising your princess.
The Not-So Complicated Guide to Raising Your Princess
No matter who you choose, this process is the same. You need to defeat enemies, capture relics (think of these as in-stage hazards you can use against your enemy), and complete missions to obtain Materia. Once you have Materia, your princess needs to master them. You do this by either completing specific tasks as them or more commonly using Direct Guidance which allows you to scold or praise the princess. Once you’ve done this enough (usually 2-3 times per Materia) you’ll master it and automatically move onto the next one if you’ve obtained it. Got it? Good, let’s now touch upon Direct Guidance.
Direct Guidance can be used three times in any stage and in addition to learning Materia also confers benefits. These are usually temporary status boosts coupled with HP restoration. You can even trigger Direct Guidance when your HP hits zero and use it to resurrect the princess. Thus, Direct Guidance is something you’ll want to be using throughout the stage. Both to buff/heal yourself and to teach your princess Materia. Though you’ve learned Materia you’re still not done. Next, you need to teach that Materia to the princess. This is done through the Guidance Menu back at base and only when the princess isn’t dispatched. So, you’ll have to withdraw to base for this next part.
In the Guidance Menu, under Teach Materia, you’ll be able to teach the princess any Materia she’s mastered so long as she has the capacity points for it. These are indicated by the heart in the bottom-right corner of the menu. Each Materia you teach the princess will act as EXP to a different stat. These are located on the right side of the screen. Once the gauge is full that stat will level up and your princess will get stronger. In addition, each taught Materia will award you with Skill Points that you can use to strengthen the instructor. Which you will almost never need to do since there’s no point to play as anyone but the princess.
The reason for this is because you need to use Direct Guidance in order to master Materia. Since you can obtain Materia with any character, you might as well use the princess to do that while you master others. Plus, not having the healing and buffs from Direct Guidance makes each stage significantly harder as you don’t heal between stages. Just when you withdraw to base or use a healing item on the map. This makes the RTS sections rather pointless and feel like padding. Especially since there’s no penalty to letting enemies wander around the map and the few missions that require you to defeat all enemies give you plenty of time to do so. This makes a good portion of the game superfluous and the rest of it monotonous.
This is the major problem with The Princess Guide. The game is overly complex and sadly, not very good at communicating how to do things to the player. Yes, there is a tutorial and it does tell you these things. But it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. In fact, it took me about four hours to finally get the hang of things.
By the end of my first playthrough, I had only really leveled up my fourth princess since it was only about then that I had a handle on the Materia and Guidance systems. This shouldn’t be this hard. If you want the characters to just get stronger give me a simple EXP/Leveling system. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. However, while I find this system cumbersome it’s not the biggest technical flaw in the game. For that, we need to delve into something that’s always a hot topic when it comes to NIS America: localization.
“Sensei” Can Mean Four Different Things and Make Sense
Mentioning NIS America and localization in the same sentence is a quick way to start a flame war sadly. One of the largest publishers of niche Japanese games just can’t seem to catch a break. All things considered, most NIS America titles are localized well, but those blemishes such as Ys VIII are the ones people don’t forget. And with Trails of Cold Steel III being localized by them instead of XSEED Games, people are more than a little nervous. So, let’s use The Princess Guide as a litmus test. Do I feel that Trails of Cold Steel III is in good hands? No, but not for the reason you’re probably thinking of. To explain, let’s first delve into the major task of localization which is the process of making the game make sense in English.
Upfront, I think the localization of the text itself is done well. Other than a few odd lines here and there, I really liked how NIS America interpreted the personalities of these characters. It’s one of the reasons I’m disappointed there is no dub. A script like this just begs for one. The four princesses are quirky and diverse enough that you’d never mistake one princess’ line for another. A good example of this is how they all address the instructor.
Take Liliartie for example. While the Japanese audio says “sensei” NIS America chose to use “Boss”. While purists may disagree on this choice, it makes a lot of sense when you consider Liliartie’s overall personality. She’s bright, excitable, energetic, adores the instructor, and it just seems more like she’d call him that in English. Also, keep in mind that sensei doesn’t strictly mean teacher. Just “one who has come before/gone ahead”. Despite addressing doctors as sensei in Japan you wouldn’t localize that text in English as teacher. Context matters after all. This also extends to the other princesses who have their own way of addressing the instructor.
Veronica calls him Teach. Monomaria calls him Master Knight. Alpana instead calls him Hero. Each fits their personalities and makes sense. Remember, localization is not translation. It’s instead trying to take something from another language and have it make sense. Both contextually and culturally. In some cases, such as if the story was taking place in feudal Japan, using vocabulary and terminology from that country and time period would be more appropriate. However, in a generic medieval fantasy realm, you don’t need to be as strict. Sometimes changing terminology can leave a bigger impact on the player. Teacher is pretty boring, Teach on the other hand shows some endearment in English. Though, if the localized text isn’t an issue what’s the issue? Two words: Text Formatting.
Tired of Text Overruns? Just Make a New Line in the Middle of a Sentence!
The formatting of the text in The Princess Guide is atrocious. I honestly can’t remember a game with text this messy outside of otome titles. And at least those have the excuse of having the tiniest of budgets usually. For those who are a bit confused, let me explain.
Once the game text is localized by NIS America, it still needs to be put back into the game. In most cases, this is done by the original development team. This is not as simple as copying and pasting the new script into the game. Japanese is a much more condensed language. As such, sentences in English often require more space than their Japanese counterparts. Unfortunately, word-wrap doesn’t exist natively in programming languages. So you need to keep each line of text under a certain amount of characters to prevent text from running outside of a text box. The Princess Guide thankfully averts this. Instead, new the game just has line breaks randomly in the middle of sentences.
As you might imagine, as a writer this annoys me. As a gamer, however, this infuriates me. This is a product that is supposed to be professionally translated, localized, edited for clarity, and tested. These last two things are not done here. Which is what led to a lot of the issues with Ys VIII. Quality assurance testing is more than just looking for grammatical mistakes. If something doesn’t sound right or the text looks funky then QA should flag it. Heck, where was management on this? The localization manager should know this game inside and out, backward and forwards. This astounds me. Now, more than ever is when NIS America needs to prove that they’ve learned from the mistakes of the past.
This is why I’m being so critical regarding the localization of The Princess Guide. Sure, admittedly this is a budget title due to its price point of $39.99. However, more than ever, NIS America needs to show that they are on top of things like this. Sure, we could argue that the reason The Princess Guide didn’t get the scrutiny it deserves is that NIS America has put every resource they have into Trails of Cold Steel III. However, that’s still a mismanagement of resources. It’s trading one problem for another and gives the impression that NIS America didn’t care about this game. Which is sad, because there are people who cared about The Princess Guide.
The developers cared enough to make this game. Sure, I might not like everything about it, but there is effort there. The Japanese voice cast is energetic. The people who had to translate and rewrite these lines obviously put time an effort in making sure that each of these characters was distinct and memorable. And despite all my complaints, I cared enough to spend the time to write 3000+ words about The Princess Guide in hopes that someone else at NIS America or Nippon Ichi Software might actually care as well. But I’ve rambled on enough. Let’s close this out.
The Princess Guide, a Confusing and Monotonous Title with Some Charm. And Sadly, Another Example of NIS America Being Inattentive.
The Princess Guide is, sadly, a missed opportunity to restore people’s faith in NIS America and as a game. When it comes to the game itself, I can see what the developers were going for. In fact, I think if you really like these small niche titles or enjoyed Penny Punching Princess (which I haven’t played) you’ll probably enjoy this. In small bursts, I think the game is enjoyable. But your mileage will definitely vary. In terms of a quality product, however, this did not make me feel confident for the future. I wish I could say it was only the small details that were lacking, but when your QA team lets text this badly formatted through, I can only worry.
After spending 13 hours, completing two full playthroughs and seeing three endings, I can only recommend The Princess Guide to the hardcore niche gamer who is looking for a light experience. Especially at $39.99. I’d say to wait for it to go to half off at least. However, if you’re interested, give it a shot, maybe you’ll be surprised.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4; Publisher: NIS America; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software; Players: 1; Released: March 26, 2019; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Nintendo Switch review copy of The Princess Guide given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher