It's never a good sign when a game's title screen would make me alt-tab away if my mother suddenly came to visit.

Indie Wonderland: Loren The Amazon Princess

A few hours in

Bingo on all three fronts.

Evident in this screenshot are factors one and two: ‘I ran into misadventures’ and ‘Draco joins the party’.

Obviously I didn’t quite find Queen Karen immediately. That took plenty more misadventures, including: coerced questing under false pretenses, a dwarf thief and a dwarf trader falling love, unarmed fisticuffs, and getting angry at lizardmen. Neither was finding the Queen the end of things: I found her, rescued her from lizards, returned her to the Citadel, watched a peaceful transfer of power happen, facilitated an inter-species peace treaty, and then just sort of stopped playing.

Hey, it’s just like how *my* initially positive attitude has completely changed!

In the great list of descriptors for why I stopped playing a game, ‘I just sort of stopped playing’ doesn’t hold a very positive position. And that’s intentional, unfortunately. While I respect the interesting narrative conceit and the ambitious worldbuilding, Loren The Amazon Princess hasn’t managed to endear itself to me. The story feels at once both plodding and rushed, the art style is inconsistent (and a bit leering), and while the RPG mechanics are essentially functional, it’s also the most blatant example of superfluous gameplay I’ve seen in a while. It is, and I say this with the most care I can muster, not a very great game.

The characters are not taking it well.

The most apt criticism I can give about Loren The Amazon Princess‘ story is that it’s too much like a book. I appreciate that doesn’t sound like much of an indictment at all; after all books are rad and no mistake. But stick with me.

The thing about visual novels is that they’re not books.

I had to get the help of a dedicated Truth Master to give you this Most Obvious of Truisms.

Every presentation medium has its ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses. Because books are text-only by nature (unless you have one of those all-too-rare picture books), their only way of world building and fact establishment is describing things in text. It’s sort of a running joke in fantasy reading circles that George R. R. Martin loves to describe fancy feasts for three pages straight, but how else is he going to get across how fancy this feast is? And it totally works. Quality varies, obviously, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how skilled writers can paint vivid pictures of everything — characters, environments, actions, impossible creatures, fancy feasts — with just pen and paper. It’s a skill borne of necessity, and it does bring some drawbacks and limitations: not everyone enjoys a paragraph and a half describing a spooky spooky forest, even if the spookiness of the forest is integral to what happens next.

In contrast, visual novels are essentially comics. They’re visual. A visual novel doesn’t have to spend five hundred words establishing the majestic cliffside view of the deep azure ocean at noon, frothy white wavetops crashing onto the rocks as high tide slowly rolls in, when they can just show us the majestic cliffside view, etcetera, etcetera. A picture is worth a thousand words. There’s no need to ‘waste’ valuable word space on scene or character description when it’s not just possible to show all this, but actually expected.

No medium is intrinsically superior to the other. Book have room to describe not just external characters and worlds, but also internal monologues and thoughts. It becomes easier to show multiple viewpoints and point-of-view characters when we have the expectation and the attention real estate to watch multiple characters’ internal monologues. Not to say that every book does this, but it’s an option — common in fantasy literature, if we want to stick to topic. Visual novels more often stick to a single point-of-view character, which more directly stands in for the reader/player. The narrative centers on that character, and we learn about the world and the inner lives of other characters as they do. Again, this is not the only way to do it: last week’s Solstice tried to jump between two viewpoint characters, the way a novelization of the same story probably would. There is definitely room for experimentation and overlap. The point I’m trying to get to is simply this: both types of media (books and visual novels) have their own strengths and weaknesses, and archetypical examples of both will tend to stick to those strengths.

But Loren The Amazon Princess seems to not have gotten this memo. Loren The Amazon Princess is a visual novel that very often reads like a book, with slow, lengthy descriptions of environments, appearances, and characters’ inner lives.

Loren stared at the sword in disbelief! Even though she’s obviously not doing that on-screen! She more seems to be staring at the player, in some sort of rapt confusion.

Understand that I’m not trying to bash this game for ‘not being like other games’. There’s plenty of room for innovation in the visual novel space, and I applaud all attempts. But Loren The Amazon Princess reads like a book. To be more precise: Loren The Amazon Princess reads like someone took a fantasy novel, decided to adapt it into a visual novel, and then did so by straight-up copy-pasting the text into a game editor. Which is how we get sequences where intense combat is described (not shown) from a detached third-person perspective, in a game with a combat system. And then characters’ reaction to that combat are described the same way. Loren The Amazon Princess uses this technique so often: instead of having a character say something (‘Loren: “Do not question my judgement, I know what is best for our group.”‘), it describes the character saying something (‘Loren made it very clear that her judgement was not to be questioned. She alone knew what was best for the group.’).

So instead of having any character *say* that they’re impressed with Amukiki’s fighting abilities…

Remember how Elenor is supposed to be ‘my’ character? This definitely seems like a sentiment that could have been actually *thought*, in a character vignette, instead of described matter-of-factly.

I could go on.

When it comes to describing character thought and environment traits, the story often feels like a slow-burning plod. Which makes it all the stranger that when it comes to actual plot points, there is an incredible sense of rush. It’s almost impossible to get a sense of relative durations and the passage of time in this game: it simply jumps from important event to important event with almost no sense of duration or weight. Things just happen, all the time.

Oh, and take note that is is supposedly all told from the perspective of the player character, Saren/Elenor. It’s not, not really: viewpoints switch all the time, and the player’s practical power in determining where the story goes means that the ‘slave/sidekick to the main hero’ dies right out the gate. All ‘conversation decisions’ are made from the sidekick’s point of view, but all that amounts to is optional lore and a romance path. In practice, the player just controls the party, without really identifying with any particular character — not Loren, not Sarenor. Maybe Draco.

Let me give you a summary of what I’ve played, for colour. Amazon Princess Loren leaves the Citadel at the start of the game to look for her mother, the Queen, accompanied by her one slave. She meets a wizard and a thief in the human city of Grimoire, then gets jailed for a crime she doesn’t commit. A wizard blackmails her into looking for a magic sword that’s supposed to save the human lands, in exchange for information about her mother. So she and her party climb a sacred mountain, kill some goblins, best the guardians of the sword in combat, and then clear out the crypt of a necromancer and his minions, while they’re at it. Loren picks up the sword, at which point it is revealed that the sword ‘chooses’ her somehow. She rejects this, and instead travels to the swamp where the wizard tells her her mother is held. With the help of a witch, she saves her mother from lizard people and takes her back to the Citadel, whereafter her mother immediately abdicates in favor of Loren. In the meantime, a war has broken out between humans and elves, caused by demonic illusions. Representatives of the humans and elves both visit the Citadel and almost attack each other on sight. Then the human leader (the wizard from before) reveals that he actually knew the whole war was a setup, and asks Loren to lead a coalition of humans, elves, and Amazons, in order to stop the demon lords behind everything.

No, but seriously, he knew the entire time. And he was *still* about to attack Poison Elfy here.

“Wow, Jarenth, that sounds like a really reductive condensation of the game’s story,” you might say. “Surely it’s much longer and more detailed in practice.” It’s not. It took me about four hours to play through all that. Loren The Amazon Princess crashes through story beats. Loren and her part get imprisoned! In the next beat, they’re not. Loren and her party are climbing a mountain! Oh, now they’re at the top. The mountain guardian suggests Loren needs to train more to beat them! One random encounter later, the party is now ‘much stronger than when we first met’. Down from the mountain, Loren travels to the human city, then to the swamp, then to a temple, then back home, and it all. Takes. Only one. Beat.

I keep harping on this particular thing, because these two characters go from *mortal enemies* to *forming a species-wide alliance* in a time span of *five minutes*. Both out of and inside the game!

So the story goes slow when it should go fast, ignoring the media attributes of visual novels in favor of book prose, and it goes fast when it should go slow, erronously assuming that the readers care as much about the plot twist and the overarching war story of this fantasy setting as the creator does. At this point you might hope that the gameplay does something to make Loren The Amazon Princess a worthwhile time investment.

You might want to find something else to hope for.

Join me in hoping that this necromancer gets his own spin-off.

Loren The Amazon Princess‘ gameplay can essentially be summarized as a light turn-based JPRG. It has a static timing system that determines action order, based on the impact of actions taken, it has front rows and back rows, it has melee and magic, it has hit point and spell points, it has consumables, and it has enough special abilities to fill a small fan-made wiki. As far as JRPG implementations go, it’s for the most part perfectly average. And I’m not objecting to its presence on any sort sort of principle grounds: Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius had awesome space mech battles, and I had a decent enough time with that.

My issues with Loren The Amazon Princess‘ gameplay are twofold. The lesser issue is that the JRPG implementation on display here is fairly shallow. I mean this both in depth and in presentation. The combat is… well, almost the archetype for this kind of turn-based combat: you click on your enemies and select an attack until they fall down. There’s not a lot of interesting tactical space: aside from attacking and chugging potions, most character can learn a small handful of abilities, almost all of which boil down to ‘do more damage at the expense of SP’ or ‘inflict some status effect at the expense of SP’. And it’s visually rather lacking, and as a result, hard to parse. Attacks have almost no animation, save that blood spatters suddenly exist on your character portraits. It’s difficult to tell what the impact of any attack will be (on HP, SP, and time order), apart from reading the accompanying text or paying super careful attention. I appreciate it might just be me who’s bothered by this, but some level of polish would have been nice. As mentioned, Final Fantasy X used a similar time-based turn system, but in that game I almost always felt like I knew whose turn it was and why. And what I could expect to happen during that turn. Here, I’m not sure. What abilities do enemies have? Are they constrained by SP, as I am? If I put a damage-over-time debuff on an enemy, when does it trigger?

Tell me what’s going on here, I dare you.

The greater problem with Loren The Amazon Princess‘ gameplay is that it feels incredibly, aggressively tacked-on.

It’s something of a running argument that many JRPG games have random-encounter combat just and only for the sake of random-encounter combat, and that you could take the whole system out without much impact. One reviewer, I think it was Yathzee, has likened the experience of playing random encounter JRPG games to ‘playing a normal game, except every five minutes you have to chuck your controller across the room and go pick it back up’. I don’t fully agree with that in most situations; even apart from ludic considerations (i.e. a game should also be fun to play), there’s an argument to be made that even random battles can be used to help form the setting and sell the narrative. Going back to Final Fantasy X (for only the third time), I could (for instance) make the argument that ‘overcoming struggle and difficult odds’ is an important part of the narrative theme — and that having the player face those odds and actively fight that struggle helps connect them to the characters. It’s not a particularly strong argument, and I could argue against it too, but it’s something. Even random battle systems can have a place, even if I’d much rather see almost anything else.

But what sets Loren The Amazon Princess apart is that the game itself seems to know how ancillary the whole thing is. On more than one occasion, I saw screens that essentially boiled down to ‘you can go off the rails to grind for a bit, if you want’. You can go into towns and fight an endless stream of generic BadGuys, for no other reason than to gain XP and gold — to fight more BadGuys. And when the human-elf war plot takes off, there is one moment in particular where the game actually literally says “you will have to fight three encounters to get past this bit”.

‘You can pick to fight humans or elves, but it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.’

I want to be careful here and not accuse Loren The Amazon Princess of things that I would let slide — and have let slide — in other games. But it just bothers me how weightless everything is. ‘You should go fight some goblins to train,’ one character says, and then there’s one goblin encounter. ‘There are many lizards in this swamp,’ followed by three battles with near-identical lizard enemies. ‘You can rest in-between battles, but it will make successive battles more difficult,’ except that doesn’t matter one whit, because I’m strong enough to defeat almost anything anyway. I almost have to be. I have a full party of six, Pokémon-style, and what else is the game going to do? Stop me if I lose?

‘You found: Queen Karen! The lost Queen of the Amazons, Loren’s mother, thought to be dead! She’s now an optional party member.’

Maybe the whole thing feels shallow and tacked-on because the JRPG mechanics clash with the visual novel ones. Loren The Amazon Princess really tries to drape itself in RPG terms and conventions. Like the ‘quest’ you get at the start: find Queen Karen, that’s your quest, because that’s what RPGs do, right? But a quest system only makes sense if the choice to pursue it or not is mine. Even a ‘main’ quest can be ignored in favor of side quests, can be postponed because I’m not strong enough, can be set to the wayside because I’m not ready to proceed the story yet and I would rather play around in the world some more. It’s a conscious choice, with an appropriate reward. But Loren The Amazon Princess is too enamored of the story it’s trying to tell. And, maybe, of its narrative angle. So ‘Loren’ takes on the quest to find her mother, and then ‘obviously’ tries to do that to the exclusion of everything else. There is no player choice here: the story beats on, ceaselessly. You will go to Grimoire, and you will take on the sword side-quest, and you will go to the swamp, and you will meet the swamp witch.

Too late, you realize… the swamp witch is rad and you’d rather hang out with her.

But if there’s almost no option to deviate, and if the game is going to (basically) admonish you to stay on the path as much as you can, then you cannot blame players for being underprepared for any fight. Loren The Amazon Princess understands this. Which means that any fight must be such that the absolute lowest-level player to reach it (the ‘just the facts, ma’am’ player) could beat it, in theory. And that turns the combat into toothless pseudo-challenge. A time-waster, if you’ll excuse the value judgement.

And even that would be acceptable if the whole thing meant anything. There ‘s a story waiting to be told here, about Loren and her party trekking through frozen mountains and fighting a mysterious Shadow Men ambush, or them getting stuck in a draining sludging swamp and having to press onward for the sake of rapidly-cooling leads to the Queen’s whereabouts. How does it feel to make camp in that situation? Is Loren frustrated at the weakness of her ‘allies’? Is Elenor scared that Loren is pushing herself too hard? Did Draco leave the stove on at home? And when the party travels on the borders of the war, the choice of whether to face humans or elves should be agonizing. Everybody knows this war is nonsense, but both parties can’t be reasoned with. Who do you take it out on? Especially with Elenor and Elf-Hating Fantasy Name McWizard in the party, this is ripe ground for character conflict.

But Loren The Amazon Princess never commits. It’s more interested in telling you its story in broad, fast beats. It has the breathless air of a fantasy author so enamored with their own ideas that they never stop to consider that other people aren’t them. I would much rather have spent significantly more time on the mountain and in the swamp, taking that time to flesh out character relations and build up the payoffs that (as it stands) are often introduced and resolved in the same beat. Shadow Men attack! That must mean they were summoned. Draco is carrying a summoning stone, but under McWizard’s magical mind control spell it’s revealed he doesn’t know where it came from. What does that mean? Why was McWizard so quick to distrust Draco? What does it mean for inter-party relations now that everyone has seen how quickly this old man reaches for the nuclear option? How does Draco feel about all this? Never mind all that, let’s move on — we’re at the crypt now!

Don’t think! Play! Thinking’s for suckers!

And while Loren The Amazon Princess keeps telling its larger story, breathlessly and in increasingly rapid beats, I find myself sitting on the sidelines. Uninterested by the large story, disappointed by the lack of smaller stories. Bored by the book-style prose, wishing the writing in this game would pick up on the fact that it has visuals, and bored by the combat, which is an semi-acceptable ludic speed bump at the best of times. And on occasion — only sometimes at first, but with increasing frequency — wondering when exactly I can say I’ve played enough of this game to start writing about it. So that I don’t have to actually play it anymore.

Final thoughts

Going through my draft and screenshots, I find I didn’t even address my issues with Loren The Amazon Princess‘ art style: lack of visual consistency…

At least four different artists worked on the components for this scene.

…and this game’s visual treatment of women.

I call this image ‘MaleGaze.PNG’.

In the grand scheme of things, these things didn’t matter very much to me quite as much as the fact that I was reading a story I wasn’t interested in, involving unsympathetic characters moving at astonishing speed through a story written in bookish prose, stopping every now and again to run myself through the obstacle course of low-grade, tacked-on JRPG combat. It was, to put it gingerly, not a particularly enthralling experience. I didn’t play the DLC, so maybe that makes the whole experience worth it? I doubt it, but let it be on the record that I can’t judge that particular part of Loren The Amazon Princess.

Though I can totally judge how the DLC is presented and pitched.

What I can judge is the experience as a whole. I judge it unconvincing. As always, feel free to go take a look for yourself, particularly if your tastes run counter to mine: I have to assume there is some reason for the game’s 79% positive review rating on Steam. The game runs 20 dollars, so judge for yourself how much my un-recommendation is worth. But there is a demo, so don’t let my grumping stop you from at least checking things out.

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Jarenth is more of a sorcerous prime minister instead, anway. Talk arcane policy with him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

6 comments

  1. It’s a shame this game has no polish–buffs and debuffs in combat are worthless compared to damage, many leveling options are complete traps, whole characters are clearly better than others. I do like the idea of the story. It’s not done well, but “main character is competent but entirely in the power of a clueless, naive leader” could be interesting. I cannot comment on the art; all magna-style characters are firmly in the uncanny valley for me. I do wish the cast had at least some diversity, though.

    1. Lack of polish is a good way to describe it, yeah. And that’s a good point about the diversity — especially after last week’s Solstice, seeing The Amazing Adventures Of Primarily White People (with a blue person thrown in for effect, in the DLC, but no actual people of colour) is disappointing. That I didn’t pick up on that in the review is a little disappointing, honestly.

  2. Loren The Amazon Princess uses this technique so often: instead of having a character say something (‘Loren: “Do not question my judgement, I know what is best for our group.”‘), it describes the character saying something (‘Loren made it very clear that her judgement was not to be questioned. She alone knew what was best for the group.’).

    Oh look, it’s that thing that drives me nuts when I see it in text. Show, don’t tell, people!

    You will go to Grimoire, and you will take on the sword side-quest, and you will go to the swamp, and you will meet the swamp with.

    Witch.

    I call this image ‘MaleGaze.PNG’

    The male characters seem to be just as pointlessly fanservicey, like AbsDwarf.

    I have to assume there is some reason for the game’s 79% positive review rating on Steam.

    Boobs, I assume.

    1. One last typo watch for 2016. Cheers. :3

      Thing about the male gaze comment is: while Buffbod von Axensteijn is definitely also fanservice, you can make the argument that it’s still man-oriented fanservice. Rather than being drawn to titillate women, he’s a power fantasy for men to aspire to. Almost all dudes in this game are: Gladiator McDumbname and ‘Saren’, the male protagonist you can pick, are also good examples of this.

      If we follow the guidelines laid out by Dave Willis, the only character that seems to be written for the straight female gaze is pretty wizard boy Draco. And without wishing to spoil much, he’s revealed to be gay very early on. Which, you know, bonus point for sexual diversity there without making it a whole thing.

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