Never judge a book by its cover.
With that thought in mind, it’s probably a good idea to never judge a game on its first looks. If you did, there is quite a big possibility that you’d be giving Amazing Princess Sarah a big old miss. Not only is the name something that will turn off an entire hoard of gamers, but the pixel art visuals should ensure that those who were initially slightly interested will also be deciding to spend their money elsewhere.
And that would be a bit of a mistake! Especially when you put together a lowish price and a good few hours of game time.
Amazing Princess Sarah may strike a cord in your mind, especially if you’re a long term Xbox gamer who previously held an interest in the Xbox 360 indie games scene. For this is where the delightful young Princess first came to my attention – hiding away as a super cheap indie title, one that wasn’t deemed great enough for full Xbox Live Arcade status. For a couple of quid, the cheap Princess flogged her wares, begging any gamer who may happen to stumble across her adventure the chance to take in some standard retro platforming.
The begging obviously worked because just one year later we heard that Sarah and her platforming goodies had indeed made a splash with the big dogs over at the [email protected] scheme and that we’d soon be treated to a version of Amazing Princess Sarah on Xbox One. That is exactly what we have here and you know what? It’s pretty decent.
Mind you, it’s leaped up in price and isn’t without issues. But for something to wile away a few days of gameplay, is more than worth a shot.
Amazing Princess Sarah puts you in the shoes of the busty blonde Princess Sarah (not sure if you’d have guessed that yet!), as she attempts to travel through a number of castles in the search for her kidnapped father. Apparently the demon queen Lilith has taken the King against his will and it is up to Sarah to battle the queen’s forces as she attempts to rescue her father. The lame story behind the game has been seen a million times already and really does nothing to entice you in, but thankfully the gameplay itself is solid enough to warrant a look.
Starting off with a rather feeble health point counter, it is up to Sarah to fight off Lilith’s demons with the help of her trusty knife and super strong lifting prowess. Stumbling around in the dark castles, Sarah will come up against all manner of enemies and as she thrusts a knife into their back or stabs them in the throat, she’ll find her experience points increasing, which in turn will ensure she can withstand harder, faster, stronger attacks. In fact, fight on through the castles, dungeons and caves as Sarah looks for her father and it won’t be long before she becomes strong enough to withstand some of the biggest baddies the game has to offer. Leveling up is pretty key to Sarah’s survival and it is something you’ll need to learn to do rather quickly. Getting through each stage as fast as possible with very little in the way of confrontation may sound good, but long term, you’ll find Sarah struggling big time.
Some of the enemies you come up against are fast and will need you to keep Sarah on her toes, dodging and jumping out of the way of danger before plunging a knife into their heart, whilst others will fire arrows from range in the hope that they can pick Sarah off before you can get her close enough to do damage. For the most part, that is one hell of a plan from Lilith’s attackers, but should Sarah be able to find a corpse or statue laying around, then a swift lift, jerk and throw in the direction of the long range shooters will ensure they are finished off without the need of any hand to hand combat. You see, Sarah is an amazing Princess and isn’t in any way limited to just a hop, skip and jump before plunging the knife in. Whilst you may find that is the best way to overcome the few enemies found in the first couple of levels, progress through to the latter of the five and you’ll need to be exploiting the powerful lifting power, and the long range attacks that it brings.
With each enemy throwing a decent amount of XP into Sarah’s health bank, you’ll find that your time with the young Princess grows fonder by the minute. I know that I was quite happy to switch things off pretty soon after first witnessing the dodgy retro visuals and absolutely horrible sound effects, but here I am, hours later, still happy enough to send Sarah down a dark alley in the hope that we can soon find her father. The only difference now is that I’ve got the music switched off and the volume on my TV low enough so that the shrieking Princess doesn’t wake the neighbours.
Aside from the first castle and then the ice stage that follows it, many of the areas you’ll frequent come from the same pot with just a different colour paint allowing distinguishable features to stand out. Each stage that is in place will take a good hour or so to battle through and there will be many times when Sarah will be left to die a miserable death. Whether this be at the hands of the many dark forces that Lilith has sent out, impaled on spikes, or just as she falls down a non-returnable hole, you’ll have to quickly get to grips with the fact that Sarah is going to die. A lot. Thankfully a very well placed and utilised checkpoint system ensures that you’ll want to keep on playing, safe in the knowledge that once you’ve worked out the best route through a section, you’ll no doubt stumble upon a new save point, giving Sarah the chance to fight on with a full health bar once again.
Reach the end of each stage and Sarah will, as is the case with near on all retro titles, need to fight off the end of stage boss. From the moment you witness the boss in the very first castle (a stiletto heeled uber baddie), you’ll realise that what is to come CAN be defeated. Just you may not be defeating it at the first time of asking. Tactics and a sense of planning will need to come to the fore, and when combined with a huge slice of luck, should just about see you through to safety. Battle your way past five areas and six bosses and you’ll be given the chance to go back and do it all again, just this time with a few extra little additions in the new game+ modes. The fact that Sarah keeps all pre-earned health points from previous runs ensures that multiple King rescues should be a tad easier each time.
So far then and the Amazing Princess Sarah all sounds rather amazing does it not? Well yes, it very nearly does. But there are some big old issues.
Firstly, the combat mechanic that is in place is more than a little dodgy. Not only is it super tricky to get Sarah placed perfectly for the fight ahead, but far too often you’ll find she stumbles onto the same platform as an enemy, unable to strike them down as she just gets too close for comfort. With each collision seeing Sarah being stripped of health and thrown back a few feet, this issue very quickly sees our protagonist ending up back at the nearest checkpoint, cap in hand, begging for the opportunity for cheap mechanics to not ruin her run again.
Additionally, precision is something that was completely forgotten when the developers decided to bring Sarah to mass market and the amount of times I’ve found her facing and thrusting a knife in the completely wrong direction just because, well, just because she can, I’ll never know. This is no more apparent than when fighting it out with some of the big end of level bosses, with a step in the wrong direction proving fatal. Something which normally occurs just as the heat gets turned up a level and fast reactions become a necessity. At first I thought it may be an issue with the thumbstick on my controller but multiple controller options haven’t fixed the problem.
But those issues aside, I’ve enjoyed my time spent with the Princess. The levels are well created and offer a nice blend of ‘I’m never getting past this, stupid bloody game’’ to some ‘ah, that’s how you do it, nice one’ gameplay moments. For something that was very nearly switched off before it was even given the chance, I’m rather amazed at the fact I’m still sat here playing it, happily leveling Sarah up many hours later.
I guess that is the sign of a solid game. Something that is fun to play whilst being stupidly annoying at times. Ultimately though a game has to be given the chance to redeem itself of all misdemeanors before dragging you back in for another blast.
Amazing Princess Sarah does just that.
Related: Let’s Play Amazing Princess Sarah on Xbox One!