From Hell’s heart, I slash at thee, dood.
“Who in the steaming HELL ate my dessert!?” This is a direct (and certainly interesting, from a translation standpoint) quote from demon-vixen Beauty Queen Etna that pretty much sets the goofy, meat-grinder, battle-of-Stalingrad-in-Hell-with-Netherworld-penguins tone for NIS America’s Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? After six years of relegation to the cosplay-purgatory of comedic-relief, second sidekick-ship in the Disgaea RPG universe, the prinnies are finally ‘getting theirs’ – like, right in the beak, dood.
[image1]For the unwashed/uninitiated: A ‘prinny’ is a sort of karmic reject in the cartoonishly-infernal Disgaea universe; a soiled Netherworld soul, needful of redemption, damned and summarily recycled into the body of a hapless, luckless, peglegged – and despite everything, confoundingly cute – aprés-vie peon slave-penguin. Also, each prinny is apparently issued a complimentary stylish fanny pack… and a knife, for some reason. Prinnies traditionally explode on impact when knocked about, but a special hero-red scarf prevents that from happening here… otherwise, this would be a really freakin’ short game.
So: Etna is righteously pissed off that someone has made off with her tasty Ultra Dessert… and she means to get it back, ingredient by ingredient, even if a lot of dying has to happen in the process. Enter the lovably-downtrodden members of the Prinny Squad (1000 of them in fact, which I suppose then makes it more like a Prinny Battalion) who are sent out into the dangerous and variously-themed realms of the greater Netherworld to fight minion and boss-monster alike, and scrounge up the individual components of the Ultra Dessert before Etna has the Prinny Squad’s collective head on a plate. (Literally. Definitely literally.)
What follows is an infernally merciless, humorous, and hard-as-hell action/platforming game in that finest, most venerable old-school tradition. That is, that of freeing potential players from the amusing delusion that they are all-that-and-a-bag-of-anything when it comes to video games.
Our reluctant-hero prinnies have a classic video game move-set, the majority of which goes back for dweeby decades: Run, jump, double-jump, slash-attack (both ground and aerial), spin-and-dash (to escape tight situations), and an item-based, pick-up-and-throw action. They also have a minor contextual clamber-up-onto-ledges move that prevents long, precisely-calculated jumps from ending completely badly—at least, some of the time.
[image2]In the Disgaea games proper, any random unleveled prinny in your party is as likely as not to end up getting chucked into the fray as an improvised explosive device once the battle starts going south. Here, however – branded by their red, flowing (and doubtlessly cheap) scarf – not only do our infernal feathered friends get actual Hero cred, they even occasionally get their own disposable, pimped-out rides too, in the vein of Metal Slug. You know — a bulbous tank, or a projectile-launching bouncy-majigger that looks like something out of the 2150 Nerf Catalog, or a hovering pod equipped with lasers and techno-vestigial tentacles.
New toys or not, the Netherworld is a dangerous place when you’re on a do-or-die mission for a hungry (and apparently PMSing) demon queen, so expect to go through those prinnies like $1 bills at a low-end strip club. On the game’s so-called easy mode, each prinny can take a whopping three hit points of damage before croaking and yielding the hero-scarf to the next poor dood in line. Meanwhile, on the stoopid-challenging, so-named ‘Hell’s Finest’ mode, that legendary constitution is knocked down to a single hit point per prinny; which means that, halfway into the game, you can conceivably check out the UI to find yourself down 197 lives… and you’re not even doing badly yet.
The sprites-over-3D-backgrounds visuals are slick and eye-pleasing, and the visceral fwack-fwack-fwacks of your prinny’s blade attacks sound great over the jaunty, spaz-jazz soundtrack stylings of game-music composer Sato Tenpei. It may all be a new step in gameplay for the prinnies, but it definitely looks, sounds, and feels like a Nippon Ichi game, from its cartoony-cute top to its anime-adorable bottom.
But, Oh My God!, is it a viciously-demanding game.
[image3]The uncommitted ‘casual’ gamer who foolishly wanders into a session of Prinny can fiddle his/her way through the first few levels. But there will come a definite, rude-awakening level-off point at which crucial boss encounters simply can’t be conquered by flurries of button-mashing attacks. It will become necessary to master timed critical jumps, butt-bounces to stun your foe (or your foes), and practice other finely-honed tactics just to limp your ass through the middle of the game.
Even the ludicrous number of prinnies at your initial disposal won’t be of much use until certain techniques are mastered, because if your puny three-hit-point (or one-hit-point) hero eats the dirt hoagie before the boss-of-the-moment falls, you’ll just restart the battle one prinny down… and with a completely refreshed foe. Well, damn, dood.
Know this, gentle player: The controls are tight, responsive, and meticulously geared to platforming challenges and conquering enemies and obstacles that have been maliciously tweaked and re-tweaked, pixel by pixel, by the developer – and evidently, in fugues of absolutely sadistic, cackling, toweringly-evil glee. Each time you’re ready to chew off your own head, stuff your PSP into an eye-socket and knuckle-ball the works through the nearest wall in frustration because you just missed a tough-as-neutronium timed double-jump for the 73rd goddamned time, know without reservation that the hair-tearing nearness of the thing was intended. Know that each time you die – just a feather’s-breadth from finishing off that boss-monster – and howl with vexation, rest assured that, at that very moment, a level-designer somewhere is fluttering his eyelids and filling his undies with happy-goo. I’m not sayin’ good or bad, I’m just sayin’.
And how about this, just to drive the proving point home? When you’re ready to wager your life that a particularly frustrating platforming or combat challenge is unbeatable, one of your PSP-owning, so-called ‘friends’ can record and save – for your miserable, playback pleasure – the spectacle of his/her own successful execution of the area you just flubbed, as if to say: “You see? The game’s not broken! You are! Hyahh, bitch! Giddyap!”
[image4]Since it’s an NIS game, there are all kinds of little extras, unlockable goodies, and bits of fan-service galore – the sum of which gives the rewarding sense of all this herculean effort having, y’know, been for something. And there are the little nice touches here and there, such as specific levels offering varying challenges if tackled in ‘daytime’ or ‘nighttime’ (early or later in the line-up).
Inherent, intentional difficulty aside, the sole ‘mechanical’ issue that’s likely to rear its unwelcome head (for some players) is that of the jump scheme. Technically, it works fine… but doesn’t cotton to any of that coddling, ‘change your jump in mid-air’ nonsense, and once you have tapped the button and flung your prinny into a directional jump, your choices are rigidly limited: Land where you’re headed, tap again to initiate your one-and-only, course-correcting double-jump, crack off a few aerial slash attacks to clear out the ground below you, or truncate the jump by doing a butt-bounce attack and coming immediately, straight down with your best bun ground-ward (good, if there’s a stunnable enemy beneath you… bad, if there’s, like, a bottomless pit).
It’s also fair warning that, in a game of this nature, there will (some might go so far as to say ‘should’) be a fair amount of try-and-die involved. Keep a watchful, wary eye (as any justifiably-paranoid infernal servant would), and thank your inverted stars for the nine hundred or however-many-the-hell reinforcement prinnies you have waiting in the wings to pick up the hero-scarf after the guy at the front of the line bites the big weenie. And I just know that somebody out there – certainly not me – will make it his/her life’s mission to keep at this game until they can do it without losing a single man. Demon-penguin. Whatever. [Don’t look behind you, Chris. ~Ed.] You show me somebody who claims this game doesn’t have some serious, obsessive, perfectionist replay value, and I’ll show you a pervert.
Just to make everybody feel lamer than they already are, Prinny offers viewable playbacks of each level, wherein you can watch each area played through flawlessly. Although being the doubting-Thomas that I am, I would be very interested in actually witnessing anyone—including anybody at Nippon Ichi or NIS America—actually bludgeon their way through to the other side of this crazy-challenging game with all 1000 prinnies intact [somewhere on the other side of the internet, a 12-year-old Japanese kid blinks and looks around, as though hearing his name].
With all that, you’ve been informed, forewarned, and forearmed, dood. Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? is a humorous, beautifully-presented, straight-up, side-scrolling, hard-as-a-Hero’s-honker, silly spin-off action-platforming game that has some serious legs—even if its hero doesn’t.