Developer Black Tabby Games has a reputation for great storytelling. Their previous title, Scarlet Hollow, was a really good narrative adventure told in episodic format. While a really solid game, its format followed a somewhat traditional layout for visual novels. Slay the Princess, however, breaks the rules in many surprising ways, while still keeping hold of that really good storytelling backbone.
The adventure begins with a simple enough task that could be the beginning of almost any fantasy adventure. The unknown protagonist which the player controls starts out in a lonely woods with only the game’s narrator for company. The narrator, who is voiced most excellently by Jonathan Sims, explains that your task is to walk down a short path to a cabin where you will find a sacred dagger. You are to take the dagger and head into the basement where an evil princess is chained to the wall. Then you are supposed to slay the princess and save the world.
It seems like a simple enough plan, but longtime gamers will probably be highly suspicious at this point and will have the option to ask the narrator some questions. He reluctantly agrees to answer them, although he is very evasive or dismissive, trying to lead you back to the main job at hand without offering too many specifics. But because you don’t know much of anything about this world, the princess, the narrator or even yourself at this point, your question choices at first are pretty limited. Eventually, you will simply have no choice but to walk down the path towards the cabin.
The cabin itself is pretty nondescript. It reminded me of the lonely house described at the beginning of Zork, or the starting point of many other games. It’s illustrated very skillfully however, as is the rest of the art in Slay the Princess. Everything from the backgrounds to the characters is hand penciled by Ignatz-winning graphic novelist Abby Howard, and it shows.
Once inside the cabin you will have a couple more choices, like whether or not to pick up the sacrificial dagger. Eventually you will head into the basement and meet the captive princess, who looks nothing like a monster. She is excellently voiced by Nichole Goodnight and seems pretty friendly at first, although like the game’s narrator, refuses to directly answer any of your questions. It’s clear that both the princess and the narrator know a lot more about what is going on in this world than you do.
At that point, you need to decide whether to slay the princess or try to save her. Having played assassin-like characters in many titles, I decided to pull an Agent 47 and finish my contract before anything really weird could happen. Slay the Princess awarded me a trophy for winning and saving the world, and it looked like that was the end of it after five minutes of play time. Thankfully, there was a lot more to it.
Regardless of what you do at first, eventually you end up back in the woods outside the cabin again with the same narrator giving you the same mission like some horror version of Groundhog Day. Only now, you can ask a few more questions since you learned more about the world. The narrator is still cagey, but grudgingly gives a bit more information. And so the story continues.
At that point, the number of branching paths becomes pretty complex, more so than I have experienced in other visual novels before. I literally started to try everything I could think of to attempt to figure out what was really happening or to break the constant cycle of restarts. I rebelled against the narrator and refused to walk towards the cabin, went a different direction, tried to befriend the princess, argued with her, attempted to engage the narrator, teamed up with the princess, let her slay me, locked myself up in chains and even killed myself. The game had an answer for all of that, and the cycle repeated itself again and again.
However, every time the adventure starts over again, players begin with a little more information than they had their previous time, including knowing what happens as a result of certain actions. Sometimes either the narrator or the princess recognizes you from previous runs, and sometimes they don’t. It can drastically change the situation if, for example, you made them mad or betrayed them before. The world also changes at least a little bit every time. The cabin looks different sometimes too. It has more furniture, turns into something else or maybe even ceases to exist all together.
You also end up with many more voices in your head, with each one taking on a different personality type. For example, the Voice of the Hero spurs you on to strange but heroic-seeming actions like trying to rescue the princess by cutting off her arm, while the Voice of the Opportunist advises you to instead do whatever you can to protect yourself. The Voice of the Skeptic questions everything either the narrator or the princess says by pointing out all of the many inconsistencies in their stories or the overall situation. Those voices not only contribute to your overall knowledge of the world, but sometimes directly talk with either the narrator or the princess, which is often pretty funny. Suffice it to say, Slay the Princess will keep you on your toes and guessing about what comes next.
Thankfully, the tale actually does have an end. Players can eventually figure out what is really going on and can actively work towards the story’s conclusion. Even then, there are probably going to be a few surprises in that final run. It only took me two and a half hours to reach the real ending (not the fake one you get when you first slay the princess), but it seemed longer than that since I was really engaged with the story by then. There is also a lot of replay value as there is no way to see all of the possible choices and consequences in a single playthrough.
Slay the Princess is almost more of an experience than a game and is certainly unique among visual novels. Most gamers will likely appreciate a title that can still offer some nice surprises and an atmosphere of mystery regardless of how many previous ones they have played. That alongside the professional quality of everything in Slay the Princess from the artwork to the voice acting makes it one that you will want to save to your must-play list.