The Princess Maker series of video games were popular simulation games in Japan from back in the late 80s to early 90s. The game’s creator GAINAX, of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame, even developed it into an anime. Despite its huge success the games never got an English translation and now decades later Korean company CFK has released a translated version of one entry in the series to Steam. The new version of Princess Maker 2 Refine comes complete with trading cards, achievements, and improved graphics.
Princess Maker 2 may have earned a reputation as a classic in the Japanese fantasy life simulation genre, but even with the latest improvements Refine brings to the title, I’m not sure it can live up to its own legacy. Everything about the game screams retro, from the midi/wave music tracks to the outdated representations of femininity expressed in the dialogue. For those that enjoy a good nostalgia trip (technical limitations and all), this game delivers. For those that don’t care about a retro experience and just want a good anime simulation game, there are better titles out there available at a discount.
That’s not to say the game isn't worth playing. It’s easy to see why people took such a liking to this series back in the day. There are some complex decisions to make with many branching pathways in the game's admirable attempt at simulating parenting.
In Princess Maker 2 Refine you’ll take on the role of a former war hero living in a fictional kingdom that seems stuck in an anachronistic time frame, somewhere between Europe's middle ages and Victorian era. The story echoes the classic Japanese tale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” in which the heavens give you a child to raise into a proper young adult. Over the course of eight years, you’ll manage everything about your daughter’s life from her education to her wardrobe. You even have to manage her weight.
In game terms, that means you need to increase your daughter’s skills and stats throughout the years, speccing her out to be the type of person you want her to be. There are a lot of possibilities for your child's future ranging from a renowned warrior who can go toe to toe with demons like her foster father or a traditional housewife praised for her cooking and cleaning skills. Whatever fate you chose, it all comes down to how you plan out her days with schooling, part time jobs and socializing for the next eight years.
Of course just leveling up the desired skills would be too easy, so the game throws some obstacles in your path. Working and studying can stress out your little girl, and the more stressed she is the more likely she is to get sick. You also have to manage the finances, food and physical condition of your child. Feed her too much and she will become overweight. Feed her too little and she will be more likely to get sick. There’s a similar dynamic to clothes. Make sure she’s bundled up for the winter and doesn’t overheat in the summer. But, clothes and food cost money, as do classes. So managing all these factors will take some careful planning, especially at first when your ward is terrible at all of her part-time jobs and won’t get paid very well.
Getting started in Princess Maker 2 Refine can be a bit frustrating because the game has a weird financial system where you get your lordly salary dealt out in one lump sum around the middle of the year, so it’s very easy to get in the red before you’ve learned how much money you can expect to be getting and when. There’s also a complex combination of skills and traits you can instill in your daughter that are difficult to navigate at first. Some skills are opposed to each other, while other complement one another and pave the way for other talents, but the catch is that you have to figure out what they all are by trying them out sink-or-swim style. For example, sending your daughter to work as a babysitter seems like an appropriate job for a preteen but she’ll be horrible at it until her strength is up, which can be improved from other activities. The more she babysits, the more sensitivity she will gain. Having sensitivity can enhance talents like cooking, but other activities (like working at the graveyard) can decrease your sensitivity.
The complex system of skills, attributes and talents is one of the game's core strengths. Playing around with these combinations is where the strategy of the game lies and most of your planning will revolve around how to get the highest possible combination of proper skills to win contests during the Harvest Festival or become the most noteworthy person in your chosen field of study or work. Although it’s nice the game doesn’t hold player’s hands through a long and boring tutorial, some tooltips or additional info for activities would be nice. Instead, players will be punished for trying out a better paying job because they had no way of knowing it would decrease a stat that’s crucial to their build.
Throughout Princess Maker 2 Refine, players will encounter various events depending on the decisions they’ve made. The variety of paths and possibilities in any given playthrough is a really nice aspect of this game however, it’s hard to tell how much effect it actually has on the end result. The best strategy seems to choose a few complimentary skills to focus on as early as possible and to neglect the others, making things like combat and cooking virtually incompatible.
This not only limits the possible events and endings in the game, (which is a completely understandable design decision, you can’t be a jack of all trades) but it also prevents players from fully experiencing some of the gameplay. Like errantry for example: when engaging in errantry your daughter will be sent into the outskirts to adventure. The free-form exploring and turn based combat is an interesting addition to the game of basic decision-making, but if you haven’t invested in weapons, armor, and some combat skills then you will likely lose any altercation with the numerous beasts that can be encountered, drawing your time short and making it seem like a huge waste of time that could have been better spent studying or working.
There's a lot of depth to this game, and many players might not realize it on their first play because it’s so hidden. Serious players will likely play the game with the help of a guide or two that details the various stats associated with each blood type, astrological sign, job and personal connection. However, needing a guide to get the most out of a game is never a great solution. A little guesswork in simulation games is the norm and gives players a sense of mystery and discovery, rewarding them for figuring things out. In Princess Maker 2 Refine there’s just too much guessing, which gets in the way of the planning, which is what the game should be all about in the first place.
As far as the English translation goes, this version is good and not great. There are some grammatical issues, but overall everything is perfectly understandable and the menus are easy to navigate. The Japanese voice acting sounds good but the sound design for the rest of the game is terribly dated. The music is simple and the sound effects echoey, as if they were recorded on a low-end headset mic. Unless you understand Japanese, you won’t be missing much by just playing with the sound off.
The story in Princess Maker 2 Refine is also disappointing. Although the game starts out with an epic tale of championing demons, divine intervention and what seemed like meticulous character building with details like birthdays and blood type, in the end, there’s little plot and it’s all about the numbers. There are some fun encounters and dialogue, you can become scandalized in a sleazy bar or be blessed by a spirit living inside of a necklace, but all these things add up to are how they influence your stats. What you’ve accomplished in eight years will determine what your daughter does with her adult life but it isn’t much of a story.
In the end, things like getting married, getting fat or entering a profession are all tied together based on your stats to tell your own unique life’s tale but without much build up throughout the rest of the game even the most interesting of possible endings don’t have much impact. A good slice of life tale can be enjoyable but Princess Maker 2 Refine fails to be very engaging on a narrative level. The game's strength is its complex skill system with many branching possibilities yet, it's overshadowed by lackluster storytelling, difficult to understand mechanics and outdated everything.
And you can’t even become a princess, what’s with that?
Princess Maker 2 Refine was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
A solid retro fantasy life simulator, with a lot of depth and possible paths. However, the myriad of possibilities are too obscured to make for effective and strategic planning.
- Complex Skill System
- Many Branching Paths and Endings
- Finally in English
- Poor Audio
- Disappointing Story
- Difficult to Understand Skill System