Loren The Amazon Princess Review

Title: Loren The Amazon Princess + The Castle of N’Mar
Release date: 2012-04-30 (main game)
                      2012-09-28 (the expansion pack)
Developer: Winter Wolves
Publisher: Winter Wolves

I have previously already played and reviewed “Planet Stroghold” - another RPG by Italian developer Winter Wolves a.k.a. Tycoon Games a.k.a. Riva Celso a.k.a. Jack Norton. Today it’s time to review another game, called “Loren The Amazon Princess” and also its expansion pack “The Castle of N’Mar”.

Loren shares many similarities with “Planet Stronghold” – it’s an RPG that tells its story through ADV interface, uses animesque art, lets you choose the gender of your protagonist and romance one of many NPCs. Also, in my opinion, it has no place being on the VNDB as it’s no more a visual novel than “Final Fantasy” or “The Witcher”. Just like basically in every RPG you can choose a male or a female as your playable protagonist... with one slight exception. Your protagonist in not the hero/-ine, but a sidekick to the titular Loren, the princess of Amazons.
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away...
The story starts in a pretty simple way: Karen, the queen of Amazons went missing and her daughter Loren leaves the Amazon Citadel for the first time in her life in search of her. The only other person she takes with her is one slave – you. Of course, this wouldn’t be an RPG if 10 hours into the game Loren didn’t find herself making ravioli on the Moon or saving the world from the evilest evil that has ever evilled the world. That evilest evil is Fost – a reanimated suit of armour (I’m getting both “Jade Empire” and “Blood Omen” vibes here) bent on world domination (what else). Before you march to confront Fost you will have to amass an army, force peace between humans and elves, recruit many colourful characters and, of course, cook ravioli on the Moon.

The game displays an exceptionally big and colourful cast of 14 playable characters (including those introduced by the expansion), though only six can be used at any time in battle. The characters not in the party do not get experience from battles, but still gain it from completing quests.
Meet the titular princess.
Loren is obviously our main character, despite not being a protagonist, and is a sheltered princess of the Amazon tribe. Amazons are shown to be a xenophobic and isolationist society with no close relations with other societies and nations of Aragorn... sorry, Aravorn. It’s no wonder that upon going into the wide world Loren makes many blunders, which sometimes get her into trouble. As Amazons think that might is right, Loren’s solution to almost anything is marching up to someone and demanding things done in a regal tone. Obviously, it doesn’t sit well with some people, but she outgrows this under the supervision and tutelage of her slave.

In order to stop beating around the bush I’ll say, that I chose to play as a female elf Elenor. The other choice was a human male Saren (no, there is no Sovereign in the game). With sadness I have to inform you, that the creator forgot that the protagonist has to have a personality. Some of the characters in the game shine, others do not, but Elenor was as bland as a piece of blank paper. It’s a wonder someone would even want to romance her at all *grumble grumble*. It’s Elenor who chooses the course of the travel as Loren frequently defers the making of choices to her, but that doesn’t shape her personality and in the end I never felt connected with my elf. Some of the other characters are also dreadfully underappreciated: Sauzer, Amukiki and Myrth are some of the worst in this department. Maybe romancing the latter two adds more depth to them, but if you don't do this, you might as well have marble statues in place of them. Actually, now that I think, the game suffers from too big a cast. With 14 playable characters it's not possible to give every one of them the attention they deserve. Riva Celso should take a note that less is more for the sequel - there is a reason why "Mass Effect 3" decreased the cast from its predecessor.
Meet the Metal Crew.
On the other hand, Ramas, Dora, Mesphit, Rei, Karen are great personages. Moreover, the writer must have had a special fondness for magic users, because Draco, Gandalf Apolimesho and Chambara are the best characterized members of the party with the most defined personalities. Draco is a funny slightly ditzy half-elf pyromancer and a one-hit wonder of the first third of the game. Seriously, it would be impossible to play the game without Draco in the party as he is ridiculously overpowered in the beginning. Draco’s real name is Derry and in a hilarious scene we find that he is gay and has a crush on Ramas. If you have the “Castle of N’Mar” installed, Draco can adopt a pet named Trouble. He’s a dog... a very unusual one.

Apolimesho is a xenophobic old wizard, who hates non-humans and initially thinks that all elves are scum. Then character development kicks in and ten hours later he is brokering a peace between humans and elves. While his opinion about elves gets better and better, he really hates black magic and is in a permanent “cold war” with Chambara.
Gondor calls for aid.
Chambara is a necromancer black witch and an optional character introduced by “The Castle of N’Mar”. She initially attacks the party as a boss enemy, but later you can make her join you. However, all necromancers are hunted by the Empire and her joining puts Apolimesho’s knickers in a twist as he is an imperial agent. Quite a few characters are convinced that she is evil, but Chambara just wants to be left alone and practice her art, which she claims is no more evil than any other form of magic. Hilariously her name means “sword fighting” in Japanese.

It would be unfeasible to mention every character forming your travelling companions, but it is worth mentioning that you can romance many of them with the exception of Apolimesho (who is old), Sauzer (who is a monk), Trouble (who is a dog) and Dora/Ramas (who romance each other). Some of the romances are gender specific, but at least four of your companions swing both ways. I of course romanced Chambara, because what could be better than a hot lesbian witch with a penchant for BDSM.
What happened to the good old handshake?
Obviously Big Damn Heroes need a Big Bad to kick his ass and take names. As mentioned before, that Big Bad is Fost with his two sidekicks Grob and Jul. Disappointingly, Fost himself is an underwhelming villain with no smarts or wits to oppose our characters. His sidekicks, do not fare any better and there is no threat that actually would be able to pose any challenge to our companions. At the very least a good villain has to be either funny or frightening; growling menacingly just doesn't cut it in this day and age. Still, Jul apparently will return for the sequel - I wonder what her role will be then.

The game borrows some themes and gameplay mechanics from the works of Andrzej Sapkowski and “Mass Effect”. Immediately upon leaving the Citadel you are thrust into a conflict between human and elven nations that are on the brink of war and Fost doesn’t wait long to introduce a spark into this black powder keg. Both races distrust and discriminate each other, which really smells of the situation in “The Witcher”, but apparently there is no particular prejudice against dwarves. At the same time, “The Castle of N’Mar” introduces personal quests for most of the characters that look a lot like the loyalty missions from ME2. Sadly, completing them or not doesn’t have any influence on the game, other than money, experience and the best equipment for each character. At the very least Mr. Celso could have made so that you absolutely had to complete the personal mission for your love interest. Those missions are quite hard as you will usually have to make do with only two persons in a party, but they are manageable, except for Loren’s. There is absolutely no way to complete her mission on anything harder than easy difficulty. I played through the whole game on “Normal” and that was the only instance where I had to lower it.

I’ll come out and say, that I really liked the gameplay and it was the best part of the game. Riva Celso really knows how to make his games engaging. I fancied combat in “Planet Stronghold”, despite the fact that he amped the difficulty by increasing the miss factor, which was simply not fair. Loren’s combat is much more complex and refined. The fights are similar to those of “Final Fantasy” and other jRPG games. The combatants are in two rows. The back row can use magic and ranged attacks, while the front one can use melee, ranged (at a penalty) attacks and magic. You can spend skills to buy special attacks that will get more and more useful in the long run. I also offered a prayer to all the gods that I didn’t have to suffer a “missed attack’ notification ten times in a row like frequently happened in PS.
Everyone hates goblins.
To be fair I have to mention something that I will call “Winter Wolves” phenomenon. Already while playing “Planet Stronghold” I have noticed that warriors a.k.a. tanks are the least useful character class that puts out the least amount of damage. That is upped to the eleven in Loren. Here wizards are hard hitting powerhouses that wipe the floor clean with the enemies, while thieves and warriors can barely do any damage and are the first to die. That is just so fucking weird!

I also adored the endgame for it introduced both mechanical and thematical things that I really liked. The ability to order your armies to attack specific enemy armies was a welcome gimmick, but it was used only one. Would that I could have done that earlier in the game. The Fost's Trial was a refreshing change from the battles, but I found it too easy. I would have liked for it to be much trickier to save your companions.

The game uses anime style graphics and peoples the world with bishoujos and bishounens. The art is very charming and I think I preferred it to that of PS. The world is vividly coloured, but sadly lacks variety. Background images are frequently reused and it is mildly disconcerting to see the same assets used for an interior of an imperial inn and the vampire castle. The enemy portraits are very limited and you actually cannot tell how powerful the foe you are facing is, e.g., the snake of level 1 looks identical to that of level 10. Other games solve this problem by slightly different colouration and so avoid the inevitable confusion. Moreover, the character sprites change their expressions according to the mood, but they always stay in the same position and never change clothes. The latter becomes especially poignant when during Chambara’s visit to Elenor's tent, text heavily implies that she wears a nightgown or a similar outfit, while the sprite stays in the same magician robes. Jarring to say the least, just like ravioli on the Moon.
Dancing in the rain.
Let's not forget the soundtrack. The music seems to fit the corresponding scenes and although I noticed some people on the Net complaining that it doesn’t suit this kind of game, I disagree. The game is not voiced (thank gods!), but there are battle cries for each and every character and they really help to establish the mood.

All the women (and men too) are portrayed in a very skimpy outfit. However, every connoisseur of the genre knows that the less a woman wears in a jRPG, the better she is protected from bodily harm. I’m shocked that apparently some testers disliked such glorious look and demanded the author to censure his own game. Thus an option to change the mature content level was added to the menu as a compromise (it's set to modest by default). I am firmly on the other spectrum of the audience – I believe that if there already are two content options, the third one that goes fully hentai should be easy to implement. After all, the game is already put in the adult section of MangaGamer’s website in order to avoid misunderstandings. Riva should really think about adding H content to the upcoming sequel or, at the very least, create an explicit addon.
Is it just me or has the room grown hot?
Now, let’s talk a bit about the plot and here the game suddenly falters. Back in my review of “Planet Stronghold” I said that the plot was kinda sucky and suggested the developer to fire his writer. Apparently PS was written by Mr. Celso himself and I basically told him to fire his own self :-D Loren was written by someone named Aleema and sadly I have to repeat my suggestion. The plot sucks hairy donkey’s balls:-P Nah, I'm kidding - it's not so bad, just underwhelming. Oh, I don’t contest that it is mighty ambitious and, dare I say it, epic. Loren is many times longer than PS and might take 20-30 hours to finish once, with many places to see and many people to do. It’s also the most cliché ridden inconsistent mess I have ever seen. I conjecture, that the scope was just too much for the writer and s/he couldn't chew what s/he bit. There are so many interconnecting events, side quests, character interactions and... did I mention ravioli on the Moon that they poorly join together and the overall feel is inconsistent and incoherent. Events come out of nowhere with no foreshadowing and leave us baffled, character development takes huge leaps from one behavioral extreme to the other. It doesn't help that the dialogues are very stilted like something out of an early 40's talkie movie. It's all quite charming in a B-movie sort of way (unlike PS which was simply bland), but I expected more.

Shortly after the core game, "Winter Wolves" released an expansion pack titled "The Castle of N'Mar". I haven't played the game without it, but knowing what it added I have to applaud. The huge amount of new content really enlivens the world and is seamlessly integrated into the core game. Seriously, if I didn't know I would have never guessed which characters and quests were added by N'Mar. One main complaint I have toward the expansion is the introduction of additional character Mesphit (I always want to read his name as Mephisto). His presentation is kind of schizophrenic and hard to follow and the plot is all over the place until it gets on tracks. Sauzer and Chambara fare much better with no apparent inconsistencies. The biggest and most appreciated change that the expansion pack wrought is the ability to reach much better ending solutions. From what I read on the Net about the original ending, it seemed to be kind of bittersweet. N'Mar introduces two additional happier ending solutions (it would probably be unfair to call them completely different endings) and one of them is canon upon which the sequel will be built.
Hello, ghostly apparition.
Game has some small design flaws that can be quite jarring. For example, you can enter the Citadel during the plague if you are doing Loren's personal quest. In my opinion this quest should have been suspended for the duration of the sickness. There are some spelling errors and mistakes; the funniest of them just reads "Default" instead of a spell name when enemies cast "Phantom Form". Oh, and apparently one of the creators cannot tell the difference betwixt a druid and a driade (though I conjecture that this is quite intentional). On the other hand, I was surprised to see some racial stereotypes broken. When I hear "dwarf", I think "Discworld", thus it was pleasantly surprising to see a female dwarf that uses a bow instead of an axe and doesn't have a beard.

While parting I cannot stop but offer some remarks for Riva's use of silly DRM scheme that is more trouble than it is worth and can be circumvented in two minutes if you know what you are doing. What use to copy-protect your games on your main site if apparently Desura and MangaGamer offer Loren DRM-free? Rhetorical question. I would have bought the game on MG if not for the fact that at the time WW was offering a discount. Oh, well.

In the end, "Loren the Amazon Princess" is a charming indie RPG, that does some things well, but if "Winter Wolves" want to be taken seriously, Mr. Celso needs to find a writer that can infuse the story with believability and at the same time present it coherently. Still, it's a step forward from "Planet Stronghold" and I personally hope that the sequels to both of these games will not disappoint.
P.S. Ravioli on the Moon is a lie!

Links of Interest

Official website for the core game
Official website for "The Castle of N'Mar"
Developer’s blog
Also you can buy the game on Desura (strangely the expansion doesn't seem to be available there), MangaGamer (core game, expansion or bundle) or Humble Store.

Final Verdict: 75%

1 comment:

  1. Nice review :) I think the writing is not so bad as you say, at least many people enjoyed it a lot. Of course, it can still be improved.
    About the DRM, I'm about to change everything to serial codes beside online activation, so it will even better than Desura or other portals. But I am waiting for a new version of Ren'Py to become stable before doing the big update to all old games! :)