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When I first got my PlayStation 3, I remember being so excited to actually be able to download demos, a concept that was previously regulated to the PC crowd. The first one I grabbed was the demo for the original BioShock. I played 10 minutes, turned it off, and immediately ordered the game. It only took 10 minutes of that demo to fully sell me on what they were offering; I just wanted to wait to experience it in the context of the full game.
This exact same thing happened to me last year when I tried out the demo for the horror visual novel Slay the Princess during Steam Next Fest. Its striking visuals and clever writing got its hooks in me, and I didn’t need to see more than the first 10 minutes. I ignored all trailers and previews, waiting patiently for its release.
Now that the full game is finally out, I’m happy to say that it lives up to its promise.
“You’re on a path in the woods, and at the end of that path is a cabin. And in the basement of that cabin is a Princess. You’re here to slay her. If you don’t, it will be the end of the world.” This is the simple, yet jarring premise you’re presented with when you start the game. If you’re thinking, “killing a princess seems bad” or “how is she supposed to end the world,” then you’re doing exactly what the game wants you to do. A fairy tale-like narrator guides you on your quest, and dialogue options allow you to challenge him every step of the way. It’s a very focused set up to the story that gives you options to push and pull the narrative into wild and surprising directions.
Visual novels are well-known for their ability to branch off based on your choices, but sometimes I find that frustrating because I’m forced to play through a long story over and over in order to find them all. Slay the Princess smartly keeps the loop of story small so that you can constantly be seeing different paths. Once you go through the loop once, you’ll find yourself back on the path, sometimes with memories of what came before and sometimes not. These loops slowly build on each other until they reach a larger conclusion, which sheds some light on the overall mystery. Get enough pieces toward the metanarrative and you’ll be treated to a definitive ending.
It took me about three and a half hours to reach the credits of the game, but I immediately dove back in because there were clearly other paths I had left to follow. As the game tells you, “there are no wrong answers, there are only fresh perspectives and new beginnings,” and it’s a joy to try to experience them all.
Each of the runs you do in the game feels meaningful and interesting, telling a unique tale that adds to the tapestry of the universe presented. I played through several runs on my way to the ending, and each one of them played out in a completely distinct fashion. As you progress through these runs, you’ll gain additional voices that you talk to, which provide yet another element to take into consideration as you decide what to do with the Princess this time. You always start with the “Voice of the Hero,” but your choices determine the others added to your inner dialogue. Maybe you’re stunned by the Princess’s beauty, so next time you have “Voice of the Smitten” talking to you, or are lied to in some way and end up with “Voice of the Paranoid” in your head. It’s an incredibly compelling way for these runs to build on each other and feel like their own thing.
It’s immensely impressive how many different branches the story can go down, based on seemingly small choices, without feeling like the twists and turns come out of nowhere. Without getting into spoilers, Slay the Princess can go to some dark places, while still balancing the horror with dark humor and a surprising amount of heart. It can’t be stressed enough how this is top of class writing, weaving horrific situations that keep you on your toes.
If you sometimes find visual novels dry in presentation, there’s been a great attention to detail in that matter. It’s fully voice acted, with Jonathan Sims as the narrator (and your inner monologue chorus) and Nichole Goodnight as the Princess. Both of them have such range, grounding every shift in the story in their excellent performances. There are times that just the change in tone of Goodnight’s voice sent a chill up my spine as the mood of a scene shifted towards the macabre. Scenes are brought to life with beautiful monochromatic hand-penciled art from Abby Howard, who does such a great job with the combination of mundane and fantastical that’s presented to you.
Slay the Princess is a story about how people are shaped both by how they are treated and how they treat others. The choices presented to you all feel weighty, and the narratives crafted throughout reflect that. It also sets up a great mystery, then gives you satisfying answers without losing its mystique. Some may find that the conclusion to the story a bit too philosophical and grandiose for the initially small narrative it tells, but the journey to the end is definitely worth it, even if the destination is not your cup of tea.
Even though I never ended up stumbling on the same path twice, I wish there was some sort of decision tree map that was unlocked after completing the game so you could find your way through every iteration of the story without having to do too much guesswork. Going back and watching the trailer, I’m seeing images that I didn’t see in my playthrough, which makes me want to dig even deeper for all the fresh perspectives the game has to offer.