Friday, 22 June 2018

Loren the Amazon Princess Review (Visual Novel/RPG Hybrid)

Winter Wolves is one of the oldest continuously active OELVN studios, which since the mid-2000s became fairly well-known for their straight-up VNs and dating sims, such as Roommates, as well as for fairly unique RPG-VN hybrids. Among the latter, probably the best known is Loren the Amazon Princess. Published in 2012, it kickstarted a whole series of games set in the fantasy world of Aravorn (including even a BL title Heirs and Graces) and gathered mostly positive reactions from the Western VN community. It’s also, to this day, the studio’s best-selling title on Steam, with around 80k owners on the platform.
              Loren… also features a very rarely seen main premise – the player does not take the role of the titular heroine, but of a slave servant, whose role is to assist the Amazon princess in her quest to find her missing mother (and, of course, eventually save the world from a great and unexpected threat). This, along with the very explicit focus on romance, creates a pretty unique mixture, somewhat detached from both the typical RPG power fantasy and even most common fantasy VN tropes. Does it have any merits apart from being slightly different though?
The main cast might be impressing with its scale and variety, but leaves some characters underdeveloped and redundant within the RPG portion of the game
One of the first things that Loren… does unusually well is the protagonist gender choice – the game lets you play either as a male or a female character but doesn’t make it merely a cosmetic difference. Both the female (Elenor) and male (Saren) protagonist are actual characters, with their own backstories, personalities and different racial backgrounds (Saren is a human, while Elenor is an elf). This has a significant impact on how they’re perceived by various factions and characters, along with romance options available to them (even if there’s an abundance of bisexual love interests that might be interested in both of them). This, while very limiting in case of customisation (also for story reasons, you can only choose between warrior and thief classes), not only makes the game more immersive, but also rewards multiple playthroughs with unique interactions and story developments.
              The story itself, while it might rely on typical fantasy clich├ęs quite a lot, is rather epic in scale and delivers impressive amounts of VN content, with fairly simple and quick turn-based RPG battles added on top of that. While at the beginning you’re controlling a party of two, consisting just of Loren and the protagonist, you quickly meet new characters and at the end of the second act can gather 12 companions, 9 of them (!) available as romance options. All those characters have their unique stories, which you both learn throughout the main plot and through talking to them in camp, between missions. With this party, you will go through 4 chapters of the game, with constantly rising stakes and abundance of dialogue to read through, while the RPG elements are kept strongly connected with the plot and mostly devoid of unreasonable grind. Also, after finishing the game once, you unlock the option to skip the combat, so you can focus on exploring other paths and choices within the story.
The clunky feel of the UI and the RPG game mechanics is the game’s biggest flaw, but thankfully they’re not broken or grindy enough to disqualify it completely
One of the game’s biggest focuses and selling point is romance and while it’s easy to see that the dev team took this aspect very seriously, the quantity pretty much won over the quality. It’s not that the character’s available as love interests are unappealing or completely lack depth, but the huge number of them simply made it impossible for Winter Wolves to give all major enough roles in the story and the right amount of meaningful interactions. This means that apart from the characters that are absolutely crucial to the main plot, like Loren herself and her mother Karen, the Queen of Amazons, the romance feels slightly tacked-on and underdeveloped. On the other hand, the variety of options is thorough enough that pretty much everyone should find something (or a few things) to their liking, with heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual characters of both genders, different races and allegiances to choose from. Also, the writing, while not perfect, is usually good enough to communicate clearly the unique traits of every member of the cast and make the rare, intimate moments between them and the protagonist appealing.
                Sounds pretty good so far? Sadly, the rest of the game deserves much less praise and that goes especially to the UI and the RPG battle segments. While the minimalistic battle system, with the very basic graphical interface, is something that mostly needs some adjusting on the part of the player (especially if you’re used to more advanced RPGs), there are some hardly justifiable problems with the core mechanics and implementation of gameplay. Horribly unbalanced classes, with mages having overwhelming firepower and thieves barely having a viable role on the battlefield are combined with very limited skill customization, redundant specializations between some characters and a weak sense of progression. Lack of interesting loot, unbalanced items available in stores and weird omissions in obtainable gear (such as lack of cloth belts in the game – mages have no items available to put in that slot whatsoever!) are somewhat hard to understand, especially when devs had multiple occasions to fix these problems, either through patches or with the Castle of N’Mar DLC. The general structure of game’s UI is similarly problematic, with malfunctioning autoplay, unintuitive implementation of some crucial functions (like the mouse wheel having the ability to rewind not just dialogue, but many other actions in the game, often leading to random cancellations of shop transaction or gear changes. If the role of combat in the game was more prominent, this could as well be a disqualifying issue – while it's not completely devoid of fun, it always falls short of that really satisfying status that could carry a less story-focused title.
The slightly unusual artstyle might not be to everyone’s liking, but the low resolution of the art assets is the real problem, taking much appeal from the game’s visuals when played on a modern, full-HD screen
Something that is also hard not to complain about is the visual quality of the game. It has a pretty distinct, partially non-anime artstyle and while I wouldn’t consider it especially pretty, it seems to appeal to many people and is definitely not bad enough to be counted as an objective flaw. The low resolution of most art assets is however quite painfully apparent on a modern HD screen. The sprites and backgrounds, and especially the UI elements and graphics used during combat simply do not look appropriate for a game released in the current decade. This is not completely unseen in indie titles like this, but might be heavily off-putting for those that expect high aesthetic values from their VNs. I should also mention that CGs, of similar quality as all other art in the game, are very few and far between, mostly showing at the conclusion of the romance routes. There's apparently some 18+ possible to unlock through a patch, but I was at no point tempted to look for it. The music consists of typical ambient tunes and while I didn’t have any issues with its tone of quality, it was also rather prone to bugging out, especially when rolling back dialogue.
                In the end, for me Loren the Amazon Princess was quite an interesting and satisfying game. It is, however, one that will only appeal to more patient and RPG-tolerant readers. Apart from the intriguing dynamic of the protagonist being a slave, earning his place as the worthy companion for the actual heroine of the story, and the fun romance subplots, it offers a very standard fantasy world and a rather predictable intrigue. It also, at least partially, falls flat as an RPG game, without the depth and polish necessary to become a really enjoyable experience in this aspect. If you think you might enjoy its story and romance elements, I still recommend it though – especially if you’re able to grab it on sale, as it still sits at a fairly high price of $20 (or $25 for the Delux Version, which includes the Castle of N'Mar DLC, adding significant amount of content to the game).

Final Score: 3/5

+ Interesting premise (the protagonist is not the main hero)
+ Huge, varied cast of characters
+ Impressive number and variety of romance options
- Disappointing quality of art assets
- Poorly designed UI
- Unbalanced classes and poor customisation in the RPG portion of the game

VNDB page
Buy Loren the Amazon Princess on Steam

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