What happened to my RAD and Code of Princess Reviews?
Last week, I tweeted out that I was working on reviews for RAD, Double Fine’s new action rogue-like, and Code of Princess EX, a remake of the unofficial Guardian Heroes sequel that first launched on 3DS.
I’ve played a healthy chunk of both of these games, but I haven’t finished the main campaign in either one, which is what I’d consider the bare minimum for writing a review.
The reason? Difficulty.
I’ve been playing games for a long time, but I don’t know that I’d consider myself an expert. I’m better at some genres than I am at others, and indeed, both of these games are theoretically right up my alley.
However, they’re both pretty darn brutal, and I’ve hit a wall in each one.
RAD has the modern rogue-like progression where you slowly earn stuff that slowly helps each run to be a little easier. But the runs are so complex and fraught with peril that it’s a struggle to even get to the point of earning a few powerups, or leveling your character to a meaningful degree.
Also, the top level progression is very slow, so even though you’ll unlock abilities and upgrades that do make the game slightly easier overall, getting those things takes a really long time.
The game feels padded and unnecessarily difficult. You can go from full health to dead in a matter of a couple of seconds.
Sometimes brutal difficulty can be fun in an action rogue-like, but the game design has to have the precision to back it up, and give the player just enough options that you always feel like you can improve. Enter the Gungeon is a brilliant example of this. That’s one of my favorite games, even though it’s also one of the most difficult. The combat has an instant response to it, and every death is a learning experience.
In RAD, there’s just enough of a 3D physics element to the gameplay that things feel soft and kludgy. The central melee weapons are all bats, or derivatives of bats, and although they have a slow satisfying thwack to each swing, it’s also deliberate enough that many enemies can hit you in the middle of a swing.
It’s a little like Ubisoft’s ZombiU, except where that game rewarded precision, RAD has enough random chaos that it doesn’t feel like you can get much better. Some of the powerups add ranged attacks and those dramatically change the balance of the game, but since the main character advances at such a glacial pace, it’s tough to get enough health not to die instantly.
I love many of the aesthetic touches in the game. The UE4-powered visuals are great even on the Switch, and the narrator has a strong Gauntlet/Gauntlet Legends vibe. I like the weird retro-80’s-neon technology, and the story seems like it could be good if it were more than an opening cutscene.
But the gameplay feels like it was only ever tested by an expert QA team that sat down the hall from the designers. I don’t feel like the game was playtested by any normal people. And as such the balance almost feels like it needs a complete overhaul.
Code of Princess EX already got that overhaul, and I’m not sure if it was for the better. This side-scrolling brawler originated on 3DS, and it’s basically Guardian Heroes without the license. You can jump back and forth between three planes, and you fight your way through arenas full of enemies. Each stage is over in a few minutes, and the cutscenes between stages are fun and very well written.
Unfortunately, the game once again has several difficulty spikes, in the form of bosses that can obliterate you in a few moments.
The original Code of Princess allowed great flexibility in leveling up the different playable characters by assigning you attribute points to assign to your heart’s content. In the EX version, the attribute gains are pre-set for each character, meaning that gear is the only way to customize your build.
I’ve had some luck switching out all my gear to adapt to the bosses i’m stuck on around halfway through the game, but each time I get past one, an even harder one is just a few levels away. And some of the levels are so easy that I barely feel them.
I know that difficulty balance is hard to get right. Everyone is different, and everyone approaches every game with a different set of skills. But the difficulty balance in these two titles, for me personally…isn’t very fun.
I’m sure I’ll eventually come back to them and grind my way through to the end, but it’s always frustrating to hit an obvious wall that requires me to “play the earlier parts more then come back,” unless a game is specifically designed around that. The Dragon Quest series mastered beautiful grindy design a long time ago. Diablo and Torchlight both do this exceptionally well. Wolfenstein Youngblood is getting a patch this week to reduce the grind. It’s another one I bounced off of due to difficulty spikes.
Neither of these games outwardly presents themselves as a difficult thing. Challenging, perhaps, but not brutal.
It’s one thing when a game is designed around its challenge, a la the Dark Souls franchise. That’s fine. Heck, I encourage it. But games like RAD and Code of Princess EX, where a linear experience point progression is the main balancing mechanic, perhaps shouldn’t then also have nigh-impossible enemies in them.
I’m not sure either one’s challenges can be overcome entirely through grinding alone.
Also, in the case of RAD’s gameplay, your experience might also be totally different due to the random nature of the rogue-like systems. I’m guessing that’s a big part of why its reviews were all over the place.
Both of these games are fun, but both hide extreme challenges within.