Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Princess' Heart's Missed Opportunities for Character Development

I just don’t know what to make of you, RosePortal Games. Every damn time I play 1 of your games, I get this vague but insistent impression that you want to include and address heavy, dark, real-world issues that rarely get as much attention as they should in this medium...and every single time, you thoroughly underwhelm me with a complete inability to portray these issues adequately, or actually do anything of significance with them. Or hell, even just tell a compelling surface-level story in the process!

I’ve made my complaints about Whisper of a Rose, and I’ve talked about how Sweet Lily Dreams failed to utilize its narrative’s structure. Well, I’ve just finished The Princess’ Heart, another of Roseportal Games’s creations, and so I’m here again. I know it must seem like I’m just picking on this developer at this point, but they just keep disappointing me in new ways! Or maybe it’s not new, so much as it is that with every additional RosePortal Games creation I experience, I realize another way in which their writing just doesn’t work.

Here’s the problem with The Princess’ Heart (and, frankly, it’s the same for Whisper of a Rose and Sweet Lily Dreams, though thankfully not quite as dire for them): RosePortal Games writes the way a fresh, inexperienced child does. You know that lesson you learn, early on in learning to write creatively, that you need to always keep in mind that your reader doesn’t know everything you do, so you need to make sure to show and describe everything adequately? The creators of The Princess’ Heart did not learn about this. They seem to assume that you’re simply going to intuit every nuance of their characters and the story’s heavier issues on your own. There’s no showing, there’s no telling. The majority of what you ever get to know about Princess Aerin, the protagonist, or any of her companions is surface-level personality stuff, nothing deeper or more complex.

Like, you learn that the priestess character had a past as a prostitute who sold her soul before she got religious, and it’s clear that Princess Aerin has a drinking problem. That’s about it. The rest of the cast are just 1-dimensional support dialogues in human form, you never get any details of why the priestess character sold her soul nor why she turned away from that life, and Aerin’s drinking problem just magically clears up between the game’s opening and its ending. I’m serious! The game opens with her launching a drunken attack on her prince boyfriend’s castle (clearly this is the red wine variety of inebriation), she briefly laments the fact that her boytoy got mad at her for her drunken brawling, she gets put in one hell of a relaxed rehab that oddly has located itself right next to a demon’s tomb, and after she goes and makes a deal with said demon, she just walks the hell out of rehab - and that is the last you hear of her alcoholism until the end of the game, when she gives her boyfriend the happy news that she spontaneously doesn’t have a drinking problem any more.

I guess Alcoholics Anonymous has been doing it wrong all this time; that 12 Step Program is highly inefficient! They should be advocating the Princess Aerin 2 Step Method:

Step 1: Have a drinking problem.
Step 2: Don’t.

The whole “romance” of this game, if such it can honestly be called, is another example of this whole thing of RosePortal Games just assuming everyone can read their minds. Basically, it goes like this: at the game’s beginning, Princess Aerin and Prince Tommy are together, but Tommy has allegedly cheated on Aerin, and doesn’t seem especially fond of her, even considering that she’s been stomping around his castle causing a mess. He boots her out, Aerin’s sent to rehab. She walks out the door completely unimpeded so that she can go to a nearby demon’s crypt, and make a deal with said demon of desire, Izdul-Kalag, to make Tommy be in love with her. A quick fetch-quest later, she’s up 1 boyfriend and down 1 soul. Experiencing immediate buyer’s remorse, as one does, Aerin goes on a quest to find a way to renege the deal and get her soul back, joined by her friends/employees, as well as an irritated priestess, a randomly promiscuous catgirl ship captain, an optional fairy party member that you goddamn better get because this game’s battles and bestiary aren’t designed well enough for you to go without her, and Tommy, who is madly in love with Aerin because he’s under Izdul-Kalag’s curse. Finally, at the end of the game, the deal is undone, Aerin’s soul is saved, and Tommy is free to hem and haw just a bit before he decides that he actually does super-duper love Aerin, and they get back together. It will work this time, the game tells us, because Tommy and Aerin have grown as people and are now more ready for a serious relationship.

...When? How? Exactly what was it that happened to make this true? Tommy was hypnotized the entire game’s course; at what point did he have a chance to mature as a person? In terms of his actual, real consciousness, he’s jumped straight from maybe cheating on Aerin at the beginning of the game to being woken up and told he’d been brainwashed for a while. Even if we buy the idea that he has had an epiphany about his feelings for Aerin, he hasn’t had time to develop himself! And when did this maturation happen with Aerin? She made a bad deal and spent the entire game trying to get out of making good on it. Trying to save your soul from a demon isn’t growing as a person, it’s basic self-interest! RosePortal Games clearly has this idea of what Aerin has learned from all this and how she grew along the way, but all they’ve actually shown us is a story of solving a contract dispute with violence!

Take what’s in your head and put it in your game, RosePortal!

Of course, there are also plenty of opportunities for this to have been an interesting game with compelling character dynamics and personalities, and a more standard failure to take advantage of any of them. Aerin’s party includes a long-time friend and a knight with a long history of service to her and her kingdom - but do you think either of them ever engage her in a real conversation about her problems, her relationships, what she’s done and is doing? Aerin flat-out murdered multiple guards during her drunken rampage at the game’s beginning, and her own knights who she ordered to assist her were executed afterwards for their part in the matter - but do you think she ever spares even a single line of text on any guilt or regret for the fact that she’s responsible for the death of these innocent men? Tommy is mind-controlled by Aerin’s deal with a demon into being madly in love with her for the rest of the game until the curse is broken at the end - do you think the staggering immorality of this situation is ever discussed or even acknowledged by anyone in the cast, beyond a single scene of Aerin gloomily acknowledging that Tommy’s current ardor is not authentic? The catgirl pirate that later joins the party makes a pass at Aerin - do you think Aerin responds in any way to a situation in which someone showed an interest in her without the coercion of a Faustian pact? Aerin’s friends are cursed by the demon that she sells her soul to simply by the fact that they’re in the same room with her when it happens - do you think any of them ever shows a natural resentment towards her for the fact that their souls are in danger because of her selfishness?

No. The answer to all of these questions is No. Because taking the slightest narrative advantage of the scenarios that they themselves have created would require the developer to be paying attention to its own work, and RosePortal Games writes The Princess’ Heart with all the care and presence that a motorist puts into driving while he carries on a text conversation on his phone.

The game can’t even make good on the character development it outright promises you. There’s a point in the game in which Princess Aerin finds out that, in order to save her soul from Izdul-Kalag, she has to confront the other 4 demons of the world, because there are parts of herself and her past that tie her to each of their domains over the negative aspects of the human mind and heart. It was at this point that I perked up and had my hopes renewed, because let’s face it, even if it’s a common narrative tool, you really can’t go wrong having your protagonist confront literal manifestations of the demons of their past and the dark parts of their soul, right? Finally, we’d get a chance to delve into the theoretically troubled psyche of Aerin, make her more than just a shallow, petty NPC who accidentally got the role of protagonist. This was where it was all going to turn around!

It astounds me, sometimes, that even after 30 years of experience with bad RPGs, I can still be so incredibly stupid.

You wanna know how the confrontation for each of these demons goes? You walk up to a coffin, Aerin warns you that you’re about to get into a boss battle, you acknowledge that this is intentional, the priestess in the party tells you the demon’s name and what sin he/she represents, you have a boss fight, you win, and you leave. That’s it. There is quite literally no more narrative involvement in this confrontation against a demon who represents the sins blackening Aerin’s soul than there is with a random forest bandit encountered earlier in the game. Aerin walks up to the manifestation of her own mortal failures, she hits it a few times, and she leaves, absolved of its claim on her. The game dropped the bombshell that Aerin’s soul is rife with the sins of all demons, it tells you she’s going to have to confront each demon and overcome its hold upon her and purify herself, and the sum total result is 4 utterly silent boss fights neither preceded nor followed by even a single line of monologue from Aerin about the matter. For this level of not even trying to deliver on what’s been promised, you usually have to get Todd Howard involved!

Just once, I’d like to play a RosePortal Games title that’s good. Or even just average! This is getting really tedious.


  1. "Like, you learn that the priestess character had a past as a prostitute who sold her soul before she got religious, and it’s clear that Princess Aerin has a drinking problem."

    Man, if you're getting slap on an edgy background or two, make it work. Seedy pasts and addictions are IMMEDIATE characterization and development fodder; half the work or more is already done.

    Your rants make me want to make a lame RPG Maker parody of these games.

    1. Frankly, I think your proposed parody would be indistinguishable from the genuine article.

    2. My primary assumption is that any attempts at parody would immediately make my game frighteningly more clever than the original article. Which means I've no choice but to miss the mark. Ah well.