Thursday, April 18, 2024

Slay the Princess review — A very scary love story

In Slay the Princess, you find yourself in a totally normal situation.

While walking on a nondescript path through the woods, a disembodied Narrator tells you that this path leads to a cabin, and in the basement of the cabin you’ll find a princess that you must slay. If you don’t, the narrator says, she will escape and ultimately bring about the end of the world.

Screenshot of the narrator saying " you're here to slay here. If you don't it will be the end of the world." There are different dialogue options to the right
Image source: Black Tabby Games

This obviously sparks a lot of questions about your circumstances, which you can choose to ask the Narrator about. Or not, it’s your call on how you want to handle this weirdness. However, the Narrator immediately becomes evasive if you question him or push him for more information about why you need to kill this woman, and simply insists that it has to be done.

There’s another voice that accompanies you as well, that of the Hero, who is presumably who you originally identified yourself as. The Hero isn’t super keen on killing a princess in cold blood without context — doesn’t really seem like the heroic thing to do, does it? So he will push to wait, to take your time, to compromise or to rescue her. This obviously drives the Narrator crazy, but it also adds to the level of obscurity shadowing the cabin and its inhabitant. Slay the Princess revels in that uncertainty, encouraging players to try different options and questions just to see what will happen.

For example, you can choose to take the Narrator at his word and just head straight to the cabin, or you can walk away. At first, this will eventually loop you back to the cabin, as you do have to go there to progress, but the game wants you to explore and see the different outcomes that are possible along the way. It actually becomes a core mechanic of the game once you finally start to get a grip on what’s really going on here.

Screenshot of the cabin with the Narrator saying "she will lie, she will cheat, and she will do everything in her power to stop you from slaying her. Don't believe a word she says."
Image source: Black Tabby Games

But, I digress. You enter the cabin to find it mostly bare, except for a small table with a “pristine blade” sitting on it. The Narrator urges you to take the knife before you enter the basement, but it’s ultimately your decision. Depending on what you decide to do, the princess will react differently to you as you descend the stairs. This is just one of the details that make up this game’s greatest strength.

While a fairly simple concept and gameplay loop — a visual novel where you make choices and see out their outcomes across multiple chapters — Slay the Princess shows the deftness of its design with the level of detail it incorporates throughout its story. This even goes down to the cursor, which not only changes to reflect when you’ve chosen to pick up the knife, but also gives additional clues to who you, as the player character, actually are.

Paying attention to even something that small can provide insight into your situation and also helps to keep things fresh, as you do have to repeat certain sequences multiple times to advance the overall plot. This is the aspect of the game I was most skeptical of going in; I wasn’t sure how long the tension between trusting the narrator or the princess could be maintained while doing a time loop, as eventually one or the other would have to start revealing their hand. But Slay the Princess‘ writing is clever and more than accounts for that.

Without getting into spoilers, the game understands that it has to eventually lay out both parties’ agendas, so it creates a compelling reason to do so that also encourages you to keep trying different routes. As you gain more knowledge, the need to try different paths shifts from gathering information about what’s happening, to experiencing multiple different versions of events.

This does temper a lot of the dread-based horror in the latter parts of the game, as you pretty much know what you’re expected to do and where you will ultimately end up, regardless of your choices. That isn’t to say your choices don’t matter — they really do when it comes to seeing all the different parts of this game — it’s just there’s a sort of hub area you return to while looping. At first, going into the cabin and its subsequent iterations is unnerving and stressful, since you don’t know what you’re about to encounter. But with experience, that tension eases considerably.

Screenshot of the princess with a cracked porcelain mask close up to the camera saying "I wonder how many times I'll get to play with you before you break." the text is bright red while everything else is in black and white

Image source: Black Tabby Games

That said, there are still scares and creepy moments to be found in the later routes of this game. It is, after all, still a horror joint. Abby Howard’s artwork accentuates this with scratchy lines and a grayscale palette that only waivers for spooky splashes of blood red. Even after I had a pretty solid grip on what was up, there were scenes during some of these routes that still gave me the willies.

Your varied experiences also inform another of the game’s mechanics, one I found really charming in practice. After your first big confrontation with the princess, you will develop a third voice that talks to you alongside the Narrator and the Hero. The personality of this voice varies depending on how that confrontation went, and as you have more you will develop additional voices. These are all voiced by the same actor as the narrator (The Magnus Archives’ Jonathan Sims), but he gives each a unique take that reflects their personalities and experiences.

Screenshot of the princess chained to a wall while the Hero says "It's fine. We can decide what we want to do after we talk to her. Maybe she really is a monster. But killing someone in cold blood isn't very becoming of us."
Image source: Black Tabby Games

Though they can be foolish, over-the-top, or kind of a bummer, it’s nice to have anyone friendly alongside you during this strange and scary journey. When you’re unsure if you can trust the Narrator, your voices are still allies, though they’re arguably just as unreliable due to their quirks. But hey, nobody’s perfect. They also provide some much-needed comic relief during the early, tension-heavy parts of the game where you still don’t really understand what’s going on. That really endeared them to me, even when they were being downers or goofy as hell.

In what is clearly a signature part of the Black Tabby Games studio style, this game balances horror, humor, and humanity deftly. It’s not rooted in reality the same way the studio’s other project, Scarlet Hollow, is, but it still manages to explore a variety of existences, experiences, and emotions. As the opening credits state, this is ultimately a love story, you just have to be persistent and brave enough to uncover it.

Score: 5/5

A copy of Slay the Princess for PC was provided to Gayming Magazine by PR.

Ty Galiz-Rowe

Ty is a freelance games writer and esports expert.