Review: Princess Debut (Nintendo DS)

Princess Debut
Developer: Cave
Publisher: Natsume
Genre: Rhythm/Dating Sim
Release Date: 11/01/2008

Dating sims in English are a bit of rare breed, in part due to their salacious reputation (which, to be fair, is a reputation with plenty of games uphold with a vengence) and partly due to their lack of mainstream appeal due largely to said reputation. Rhythm games on the DS are also scarce. There’s Elite Beat Agents (as well as the Ouendan games if you import), but that’s about it. Therefore, a combination of the two should be a winning combination, right? Two birds, one stone and all of that.

Let’s see how compatible of a match the two are.

Story/Modes
You play a high school girl (default name is Sabrina, but you can choose whatever name you desire) who dreams of being a princess surrounded by princes. Her dream is fulfilled when a princess and her little flying animal assistant come tumbling out of her closet. The princess just so happens to look exactly like her (save eye color – how no one notices this the entire game is a mystery), have the same name, and…well, IS her in a parallel world. They ask that she switch places with the princess because her majesty loathes dancing and lacks acumen in that area. So off goes the soon to be formerly ordinary high school student through the portal into the other world to sharpen her dancing skills, find a partner, and become the belle of the ball at Saint-Lyon. Of course, your job is to guide her along her way. The game gives you 30 days to do so.

You have a choice of six princes to woo, one of whom is unlocked after beating the game once. There’s Vince, a mischievous and tact-handicapped boy who likes playing pranks on people. Liam is a nice polite guy who’s passionate about flowers and his sister (no, not in that way – Kana Little Sister this isn’t, so heads out of the gutter). Klaus is Mr. Popular who has a fanclub that follows him everywhere and acts rather possessive of him. The playboy of the game would be Cesar, who flirts with any female he lays eyes on and is always has cheesy pick-up lines at his disposal. You also have your classic sullen silent type in Luciano. Finally, Keifer, the secret prince, is the bespectacled taciturn bookworm of the group. It’s also possible to end up with your dancing coach, Tony. Each of the princes corresponds with one of your character’s classmates in her world, which she notes when first meeting them.

Some humorous scenes are also abound, such as the one wherein Klaus’ fanclub chases him around trying to rip off his pants to mend them (those who have played The World Ends with You should be getting deja vu). One could say they have other…motivations for wanting him to doff his trousers, but of course they can’t show that in an E-rated game. At one point Kip breaks the fourth wall by remarking, “Only the person playing this game will know”. After one playthrough, you can also skip some of the long explanations at the beginning when starting a new game by saying, “I know all of this”. Alas, all the events in the game are conveyed through description, so you don’t actually get to see any of this unfold, you just read about it. Given that this is a dating sim, there’s also plenty of mushy moments to behold.

The main story remains the same through each playthrough, but the ending does vary depending on who’s your partner in the end. The princes do receive some character development as you grow closer to them. However, neither the plot nor the characters get much deeper than a puddle, and you can easily file the princes into archetypes. Nonetheless, they do have their charm.

In terms of modes, what’s here is pretty much what you’d expect, but they offer enough to occupy you for some time. Story Mode is exactly what it sounds like. In Practice Mode, you choose a song, accessory, partner, and location and go through that one song. It’s useful if you’re having trouble with a certain song or just like a song, but with how relatively easy the game is, you probably won’t be making much use of it for the former purpose. In Ballroom Mode, you go through a gauntlet of five songs with a different partner for each song. If you don’t earn enough points to at least reach the minimum score shown, you’ll fail and have to go through all the songs again. The Photo Diary lets you view the ending pictures you’ve unlocked so far. Finally, Movie Mode allows you to watch a specific dance and provides you with the option to move the camera around and zoom in or out, display the steps on the screen, and have the dancing footage loop.

Story/Modes: Above Average

Graphics
As expected, the art style is brightly colored, cutesy, and resembles a magical girl anime, complete with sparkles and flashy transformation sequence (yes, really). All the princes do look appropriately pretty and debonair. Even Tony, an anthropomorphic rabbit, manages to look rather suave in his large form, which is…mildly disturbing unless you’re into that sort of thing (or at least until you get his ending). The art style’s not particularly unique, but it’s cute and fits the game well. The character portraits are fairly expressive and change according to what emotion the character is feeling at the time.

Unfortunately, the 3-D models in the dancing sequences are, to put it succinctly, quite poor, which is made worse by the fact that they’re what you’re looking at for a large part of the game. Your character’s arms look like pointy twigs, and hands are not particularly well defined, with fingers being barely distinguishable. Their faces are doll-like and never change expression, nor do they blink. Their hair always stays in place as one large chunk no matter how much they move. The costume designs are cute and varied, but they’re rendered poorly. There’s also clipping issues aplenty. For instance, the ball gowns and other dresses with full skirts are the worst, as your partner’s legs tend to go right through them, which looks awful. It’s a shame, since they move so fluidly.

The official product description claims that all the dancing in the game was taken from recordings of professional dancers. The dancing is certainly realistic enough to lead credence to this claim, which means you could learn dancing by watching the dances in Movie Mode if you had the patience and can look past the mediocre 3-D. While you’re playing, though, you’ll be focused on the bottom screen anyway, so what the top screen looks like has less bearing.

Graphics: Mediocre

Sound
One would hope that a game that revolves around dancing would have good music. Fortunately, there are some nice tracks among the mix of songs you dance to. There’s twenty tracks in total, split into two sets of ten. You only have access to one set at a time in Story Mode, but you unlock the other set after beating the game. You can also access every song you’ve unlocked in Practice Mode and Ballroom Mode. Some well-known songs are included, such as “Turkish March”, “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and “Swan Lake”, and even if you don’t recognize them by name, you’ll probably recognize them upon hearing them. Some of the tracks are still pleasant to listen to after multiple hearings, and none of them are really grating. On the other hand, I ended up turning down the volume for one song because I got tired of hearing it after doing it so many times (since it’s the first song you get). On that note, more song variety would’ve helped since you’re locked into the same 10 songs (or less, depending on your level) while going through Story Mode. The music in the overworld fits the light-hearted and upbeat atmosphere, but is otherwise fairly unremarkable.

Whenever you land a move, some chipper voices will cheer you on with such snippets as “Woo!” “Yeah!” and “Yay!” It gets a little repetitive after a while, but hey, if you’re hearing them that much, that’s a good sign. When you successfully complete a dance, an invisible audience will applaud you and cheer you if you get a new high score. Conversely, when you fumble a move, a little bloop will play. Should you fail to get through a dance, said audience will lament your failure with an “Aw…”

Sound: Enjoyable

Control and Gameplay
Upon starting up the game, you are prompted to pick a name and input a birthday. The resulting astrological sign affects the princes’ initial love percentages. Ultimately, the boost makes little difference as you progress through the game and trigger certain events that boost the prince’s affections. The events can easily make up for any low starting affection levels as long as you select the right dialogue choices. You can be a player and raise everyone’s affection levels, but you can only have one partner at a time. However, you can change partners by accepting another prince’s request to dance together, leading to a scene wherein the jilted prince is basically told “Hit the road, Jack” (in much nicer terms of course). Some take it better than others, naturally. For example, Liam and Klaus accept their rejection graciously and don’t even lose much affection for you, while Luciano’s none too pleased, and his affection level drops like a rock.

The controls outside of the dancing sequences are entirely menu based. To go from one location to another, just pick the place you want to visit on the map. A not-so-random and obvious trivia tidbit: all the locations are named after dances. You’ll have to do a lot of travelling to ensure you don’t miss anything, as encountering the prince of your choice and choosing the right dialog options are the only way to increase love percentage and thus chances of partnering up with him. You also discover some amusing scenes by doing this, so it’s worth it to do this. Conversation is even more straightforward: just press A to scroll through the dialogue and highlight the one you want when a choice comes up.

Before you start dancing, you select an accessory, you change outfits in a Sailor Moon-esque transformation sequence, and away you go. When dancing, the top screen shows the two of you dancing, with miniature portraits on top and a heart meter in the middle of said portraits that fills up as you successfully complete each move. The better you do, the closer the portraits move and the happier they look. If you miss a step, the screen gradually grows darker until finally you fall to your knees and shake your head in defeat, and it’s curtains for you. The bottom screen is where the action takes place. During the dancing, there’ll be lines for you to trace from one big green dot to the other. A purple circle moves along the line to the timing of the song, and as long as you stick to that like flypaper, you’ll be fine. The start and end points are always in the same place, except you’ll alternate between going left to right and right to left. At a couple of points in the song, you’ll get a break in the form of a cascade of stars or flowers on the top screen and a bunny icon with the words “Are You Ready?” below it on the bottom screen. The upside is that your hand gets a break. However, it also disrupts the flow, especially if you were on a roll with landing the moves. You earn points based on how many Perfects, OKs, and Bads you earn. Obviously, you earn more points for Perfects and lose points for Bads.

As you get more practice, you earn stars. Five stars nets you a level up, which boosts your Technique, Artistry, and sometimes Stamina. And yes, the princes do have their own Technique and Artistry stats and their own level. However, the former two don’t seem to impact much of anything; as long as you nail the dances, you’ll do well and progress. Stamina, however, affects how long you can practice. At first, you can only dance one song before you get too tired, but eventually you’ll be able to do up to five songs a day.

Control and Gameplay: Good

Replayability
With 14 possible endings, there’s a good amount of replay value unlocking them all. One playthrough doesn’t take very long (around 5 hours or so, give or take), so unlocking every ending isn’t an onerous task, especially if you take advantage of all 3 save slots, keep save files at key points in the game, and reload said files and pick a different choice. I was even able to switch to 3 different partners in one file – oh yeah, I totally got my game on (though OK, fine, I admit I did feel kind of bad). There’s also different scenarios and dialogue trees depending on where you go on what day and which answer choices you pick. In addition, the music tracks you unlock in story mode alternate depending on how many times you beat the game. An odd amount of times nets you the pink set, while an even amount gets you the green set. In addition, there’s the lure of unlocking every accessory in order to see what outfit they bestow when donned. Unlocking everything also involves going through Ballroom mode. And of course, you can always shoot for a higher score for each song.

I do wish there was a way to skip dialogue, as it does get a bit tedious having to read through the same text over and over. Also, the wild goose chases Isabel makes you go on can get very annoying, but I suppose there’s not too much to be done about that considering they’re for storyline purposes, however much that’s worth. That doesn’t make them any less annoying, though.

Replayability: Enjoyable

Balance
While you do unlock harder songs as you go along, it never gets as challenging as, say, Elite Beat Agents, and there’s no difficulty adjustment. You can really go through the whole game with the volume muted if you so desired, as all you would need to do is just trace the lines well and keep up with the purple circle. The harder songs do tend to be faster, and it’s possible to get thrown off by a fast moving unfamiliar path. The pacing of the lines does generally keep in line with the tempo of the song, so that added a bit of realism to the gameplay – well, as much as there can be in a game involving tracing lines to simulate dancing.

Overall, it leans on the easy side and you’ll probably be earning Perfects left and right once you get used to the patterns. In fact, after some practice I was eventually able to focus more on the top screen and still do well, even on the harder songs. You can always select the song you wan to dance to, even during the contests and the final ball you spend the whole time preparing for, which means you could just stick to the easy songs if you want to. The Technique and Artistry stats also impact nothing, which makes me wonder why they were even included, unless they were intended to be just for show. The only reason to bother practicing and levelling up is to increase your Stamina and unlock songs. While the songs do not carry over if you start a new game in the Story mode, they do remain unlocked in Ballroom Mode.

Speaking of which, Ballroom Mode does add some challenge to the game since you do have to be on the ball in order to reach the target scores. Even just a couple of Bads are enough to ensure that you fall under the bar and thus have to start over. For that reason, it can take a while to get through Ballroom Mode.

Balance: Above Average

Originality
Few dating sim games ever make it outside of Japan, so that there’s not much else on the market like it. Thus, there’s not much to compare this to or for it to compete with. On top of that, it’s not often you see a dating sim combined with a rhythm game, so in that sense, it is a novel concept and not something you’d experience often. Furthermore, it even includes realistic dancing, which was a nice touch. How much dancing you can actually learn just through this game is somewhat questionable, but it does make the game more interesting to watch. That being said, while it serves its purpose well in giving you a reason to be ballroom dancing, the plot and characters aren’t particularly original or ground breaking and can get clich├ęd in places. Still, they are implemented well and fit the cheery mood of the game.

Originality: Above Average

Addictiveness
The fact that I started a new game as soon as I beat my first one, after reloading my save to get both endings with my partner at that time, should tell you something about how addictive this game can be. In the end, I ended up pouring hours into this game. I found myself wanting to unlock all the other pictures in the photo gallery, fill out the accessories bureau, and get the other half of the song list. I also wanted to go through the game with another prince to see what kind of background details they reveal when you’re partnered with them. While no, none of the princes have layers upon layers of depth, you do still learn more about them when dancing with them than you would otherwise.

Who knew wooing teenage boys through ballroom dancing (guys, you can just think of it as helping a girl along her way if that makes you feel any less emasculated – er, better) could be so compelling?

Addictiveness: Good

Appeal Factor
Those in the Y chromosome bearing half of the population who fear that the pink dominated and cutesy nature of the game will somehow decrease their virility will likely stay far away from this. But if a graphical style akin to that of Rhapsody doesn’t bother you, this game’s look probably won’t ruffle you either, and it may in fact endear you. In addition, given that this is an E-rated game, those expecting any of the raunchiness often associated with the dating sim genre will be rather disappointed. Although if you really anticipated anything remotely prurient after looking at the packaging of the game, you probably need to find an outlet of some sort for whatever led you to that conclusion. In the end, Princess Debut definitely appeals to its target audience, but not much beyond that.

Appeal Factor: Poor

Miscellaneous
Most of the time, the correct dialogue choice for is essentially telegraphed, so getting with the prince you want and raising everyone’s affection levels is generally rather easy. However, there are a couple of princes that can be difficult to partner up with – or keep – even if you choose your words “correctly” and max out his affection level (I’m looking at you, Luciano). This proves frustrating when attempting to unlock every ending. But hey, if you’re into someone who likes playing hard to get and/or just like a challenge, well, there you go.

There’s a few points where the game refers to you being partnered with one prince when you’re actually partnered with another. While it’s an easily overlooked gaffe, it does make the story almost feel like it’s a fill-in-the-blank in regards to the princes. Yes, having choices is nice, but it does make the game feel more shallow considering the core story flows (and ends) essentially the same way no matter who your partner is, and a mix-up of that nature smacks you in the face with that fact.

All that being said, I actually wasn’t expecting to like the game as much as I did. I didn’t exactly approach the game with high standards, but I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the fact that the developers took the time to portray the dancing as accurately as this game did. This game did relight my interest in games with dating sim elements as well (stop looking at me like that). It also helped somewhat satiate my yearning for more rhythm games along the lines of Elite Beat Agents.

Miscellaneous: Above Average

The Scores
Story/Modes: Above Average
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Enjoyable
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Poor
Miscellaneous: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary: Princess Debut is a cute game that does a good job of combining two different genres that aren’t often put together. It even includes actual dances, and the 3-D character models do move well, even if they’re not particularly pleasant to look at. However, being quirky has a price, this is a pretty niche title that, while charming, will only appeal to a limited audience. A broader and longer track list would’ve helped it’s mass appeal, but in the end, what’s here is enjoyable and fun to play through.