Friday, March 29, 2013

Tea Time with Star Stealing Prince

I want to use his chin to open cans of soup.
Back in the day, kids had to send their brilliant ideas to Squaresoft if they wanted it made into a game that only coincidentally resembles a combination of The Sword of Shannara and Tenchi Muyo. The Internet changed all that; was it for good, or for evil?

This tea time, we'll be spending our two hours with Star Stealing Prince, an indie RPG where every character is way too concerned with making sure the camera gets their good side.

Once Upon a Time, the Boss's Weakness was Firaga

Star Stealing Prince is the story of Snowe, the ruler of a dystopian kingdom where his latent mind control powers force everyone to adore him, trapping him in an idyllic village where the eternal snow reflects the deadening of a heart fed on false love. There may have been liberties taken with that recounting.

As a disclaimer, I'm not involved enough with the RPG Maker community to recognize if any art assets are taken from some open source database. This review will speak as if most everything can be attributed to the game developers. It's the most flattering way to do it. That said:

This game's strongest point is its artistic design. The sprites are meticulously detailed in most areas. Each house that the player barges in to ransack looks lived-in thanks to the creators going beyond copy-pasted beds, tables, and doors. The enemy art is simple in the lower level areas, but further on they become more impressive. It would have done the game more credit to front-load the art excellence on the first enemies you encounter despite them being slightly more dangerous than training dummies.

This is the first time I've had children call me out for ruining their running paths. My secret vice, judged.

The sprite art is mixed with full illustrations. The major characters all have multiple portraits to add emotion to the dialog and the townspeople all have a head-shot. Unfortunately, everyone being rendered in profile cuts down on the impact. Full-on face shots are far more helpful in creating characterful expressions. It may have been worth it to ditch all the other portraits in favor of spending more dev time on the main characters, though the creator seems to have made a conscious choice to personalize as many NPCs wandering about town as possible.

The illustrations are also occasionally used to great effect in the game's cut scenes. The story, setting, and characters have a fairytale quality about them, so the occasional cut to a fully illustrated moment has a charming picture-book feeling that compliments the game's overall vibe.

Inform Prince Fyre that his brother is dead.

Star Stealing Prince also boasts a thematic soundtrack. It plays very close to the standards of console RPG music - the town music sounds like town music, the castle music sounds like castle music, et cetera. Imagine some RPG music for adventuring in a snowy forest and you probably won't be surprised. The music sets the stage, but it doesn't take risks or have much character of its own.

The story itself also treads familiar paths: the idyllic kingdom that isn't what it seems, the young royal troubled by his family's legacy, a princess that requires saving, dark dreams that foretell of some future doom that can be solved with swords. Again, competent and lovingly presented but without risks.

Let's Ask My Patience if It Wants to Play Hide & Go Seek

The obvious reverence for old-school console RPGs is highly concentrated in the guts of Star Stealing Prince. The game design drips with it, from the combat system to the exploration philosophy. Throwbacks to the golden days of the SNES are more often dangerous than flattering when it comes to game play.

When you first walk into town, the prince declares his intention to visit with the people. There's plenty to see if you take the cue. You can talk to the townspeople, sure, but Snowe is also attentive enough to have a comment for practically every object lying around. Here's where it gets troubling: you're often rewarded for checking every single thing.

Most of the time, it's just some generic consumables. With troubling regularity, it's something more important. This ranges from the typical "equipment that is slightly better than what you're wearing" to "you've made things significantly harder on yourself by missing this, and you can't go back to get it."

"Good thing I had this lantern" is right. If sadistic Japanese men hadn't trained me to steal everything that's not nailed down, I'd have to walk back.

Hiding little goodies around the world is a tricky thing. On one hand, players feel rewarded for exploring. Many players enjoy this scavenger hunt game play. Other players view it as a chore. If you decide to tell the player that sometimes copy-pasted logs will have items in them, the best course is to make sure that whatever they find is helpful but not necessary.

If someone takes the time to bump into walls until they find a hidden passage that takes them to some equipment, it should ideally be a temporary power-up to be equalized with the non-scavenging players at a later date. The usual trick is to have the item be sold at the next town. In this play through, shops were superficial and only encountered once. Sabotaging a player's game because they missed something and can't go back to get it is some King's Quest caliber dickery.

Star Stealing Prince does employ some old standbys to make things less tedious. A hidden passage may have some rough ground in front of it, for instance. Most of the time, that nondescript portion of the kitchen counter top will inform you that there was a key hidden in the spice rack.

A few items that were arguably necessary for the first boss are only given to you if you decide to go out and visit all the townspeople for a second time before enacting the prince's plan to head to the woods. This particular trip was even more annoying since the player likely explored the town five minutes ago when the game prodded them to.

This appears to be a conscious decision on the part of the creators. The player is outright told that items to teach you new spells are scattered about the world, and then you're guided to one. Its location impresses upon the player that they could be hidden in normal-appearing scenery. It's enough to send whatever part of a gamer's brain is associated with obsessive exploration into overdrive. Mercifully, for the weak among us, there's a strategy guide on the website with collectable locations. Even then, "Use this thing. If you didn't get it, whoops." isn't fun to read.

Giant Bird Monster Really Wishes this Game was Rated R

Star Stealing Prince's combat system is nothing revolutionary in structure. That doesn't have to be a bad thing. Wine & Roses fine-tuned a classic RPG combat system to a level that was truly engaging. That kind of attention is sadly absent here.

Persistent HP/MP makes an appearance, along with the usual bevy of Final Fantasy consumables to back them up, complete with familiar names. One bit of experimentation is with the concept of spells tied to equipment. The spells tied to some of your items can be cast with Item Points, a resource that builds up as you are attacked. This may lead to interesting situations where you might have to decide between an item with a useful spell and another with better stats, or where you must decide which character can best use the spell and thus must have the item.

I'd make a joke about a "Skeleton vs. Ghost" movie but then it'd come true.

The difficulty level is not tuned very well. The first chapter can be waltzed through by spamming Attack with the occasional Cure spell mixed in. That is, if you haven't been around the full-restore shrine lately. The second chapter introduces monsters that are not only capable of significantly more damage, but are also able to cast status effects.

In fact, the monsters in Chapter 2 can end your game on a whim by deciding to chain-cast Sleep and Stun while curb-stomping Snowe in between. The ability to save your game at any time is really handy here.

The monsters are not even significant as a facet of game play. They're there because RPGs have wild monsters. Many RPG monsters serve the role of speed bumps. It's not fun to fight them - in this case, you're just managing your HP while waiting for an opportunity to get a hit in. The problem is the monsters here are speed bumps in form, but not in function. Snowe's Cure I spell is a full-heal for cheap. You're drowning in free consumables. On top of that, there's an easily accessible shrine that fully replenishes HP and MP in every area.

Star Stealing Prince missed the idea behind monsters that aren't fun to fight. They're supposed to  create pressure on the resource management system, which is theoretically the fun part. The resources are meaningless because there's just too much to ever worry about running out.

That brings us to the last refuge of fun in old-school RPGs: bosses.

The average number of wings on an angry ghost bird is "go hang yourself."

This tea time brought us one boss, and it was a hot mess. The first time around, it actually destroyed my party of three in the first turn. That is a somewhat excessive method of telling the player that their strategy was incorrect, especially one round in. Luckily, the sleepytime phantoms in the tower had reminded me of save file discipline.

The boss ended up being a flurry of AoE attacks that would wipe out or fatally cripple the party in one go if they were not blunted with an item. This item is given to the player by a child tucked away in the corner of a building that you may or may not have visited before heading out. With its damage lowered, the battle was another exercise in HP management. Maybe something was wrong - afterward, I read the strategy guide to get an idea of what the creators intended. It indicated that the boss only cast its Blizzard spell when under 25% HP. In my game, the guy came out swinging with it.

The solution to defeating the boss if you missed the item earlier in the game is to grind a level or two on random monsters. Very old school. Very boring.

What Are the Semiotics of a Character Named Snowe Casting Fire Spells?

Star Stealing Prince is a very lopsided game. A lot of effort and craft went into the presentation, and the fairytale feeling is genuinely a strong point. Experiencing that will make the game worth it for many players, even if the story at first blush is typical RPG fare.

The 'typical RPG fare' is what really comes around to bite Prince on the ass. When games ape design conventions, especially older ones, they run the risk of accumulating useless facets of game play that just aren't fun.

Then again, the same can be said for many console RPGs from the days of yore and even now. For the players who didn't take joy in meticulously editing the spreadsheet workbook that is a typical RPG party, wasn't the goal of the game just to get to the next cut scene so something interesting would happen?

For better or for worse, Star Stealing Prince is cast in that mold.

Want to get medieval? Visit the game's blog.

Want to suggest a game or genre for next tea time? Email me at
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