Connect, Collect, and Clothe a Compilation of Comely Cuties! …Re:Dive!
If you are an avid reader of Nigma Box, you may have noticed how I spent a week in September 2020 putting out a multi-part 35,000+ word essay about Dragalia Lost, a mobile action RPG by Cygames and Nintendo that I have invested a lot of time into over the past year and a half. Well, back in November, Dragalia Lost had a crossover event with Princess Connect! Re:Dive. A crossover meant to bolster the playerbase of both games and get some greater interest in the global release of Princess Connect! Re:Dive, which was announced for a global release during the event’s run. That got me tangentially interested in the game, and after seeing some buzz about Princess Connect! Re:Dive after it dropped on January 19th, I decided to check the game out.
Not because I was in the market for an auto-battler RPG live service, but because I was genuinely curious about what the game had to offer. I’m fascinated by the design principles of these live service RPGs, and I enjoy seeing what different games bring to the genre. So I downloaded it and played it for about 9 days, under the assumption that the early game experience I have accumulated should be semi-sufficient for a proper review.
Princess Connect! Re:Dive Review
Platforms: iOS(Reviewed), Android, DMM
Publisher: Crunchyroll Games
I typically begin these reviews with a deep dive with the story after a brief summary of the core game, identifying its genre. But before I even attempt to talk about the story of Princess Connect! Re:Dive, I should say that I did not touch the story of this game beyond the prologue, first chapter, and a few character episodes, and for several reasons.
First, the structure of PCRD is very fragmented. Team-building takes place in the character menu, quests take place in the quest menu. Gacha takes place in the refreshingly named “gacha” menu. While the story is found in the story menu. This makes it incredibly easy for players to pass over the story early on when they are bombarded with stamina and opportunities to upgrade characters and urged to “win” as many quests as possible. If anything, you could argue that it is optimal to put the story aside until the player wants to sit down and enjoy it. When they do, they are given a narrative that… I have very mixed feelings about.
Let’s start with the beginning. PCRD follows an unnamed male hero in a fantasy world who is attacked by some super-powerful lady person and gets isekai’d to another fantasy world. Shortly after arriving here, the protagonist finds himself with a case of amnesia, weakness, and a general lack of common sense, forcing him to rely on the gaggle of young women (and only women) he befriends shortly arriving into this world. Once bound together through happenstance, the group forms a guild of adventurers for… reasons. Oh, and there’s also some weakened god-type character who ascribes a great destiny to the protagonist. Because of course there is.
This sort of thing is unfortunately emblematic of many live services. They feel the need to set up these grand and impactful openings to grab the attention of players and make them feel like there is a lot going on as they try to process the who, how, why, and where of the story while also learning the game’s systems and mechanics. Personally, I think this is just a bad approach, as it is asking new players to adjust and internalize a bevy of information while their mind is left fluttering with questions about the overall story and what they should focus on as they begin their time with this title.
I can’t really fault PCRD for taking this common approach, however, I can fault it for everything after the immediate opening, or in other words, chapter 1. After the confusing and dense prologue, the story jumps forward by a month and follows the protagonist and his servant, Kokkoro, as they decide to go to someplace for some loosely defined reason. In doing so, they tagalong with a new character, and while en route to this new location, they enter a crossfire between a carriage stowaway, a shady non-secret organization, and a quirky secret organization, all before the stowaway is taken away by one of these groups. Also, the protagonist had apparently gotten to know some of these characters in the past month, but not others.
These events are not badly executed, but after how much of a cluster the prologue was, PCRD could have greatly benefitted from a more straightforward introduction to its world, characters, and overall tone. Because based on the prologue and chapter 1, I don’t know what the developers want to do with the story, and because of this, I found it difficult to care about what was going on.
However, I gave the game more of a chance by checking out the character stories. Which are date or social link type interactions between the silent, mostly unseen protagonist as he converses with one of the female playable characters and gets to know them better through some activity or situation. I only checked out the first four episodes of poster-girl Pecorine, servant-girl Kokkoro, and best-girl Lima, but I considered going in for more. Why? Well, because I actually enjoy these segments. They’re lighthearted, silly, the cast is an affable bunch of sweet cuties, and I enjoyed seeing writers and voice actresses breathe life into the fetching designs the art team gave these characters.
However, as I went through these sections, I couldn’t help but notice how these scenes are written, or rather the clear audience they are written for. Going into Princess Connect! Re:Dive, I assumed the game was designed to appeal to men, women, boys, and girls, or at least as much as a game with the word “princess” in its title could. But nope! This is a harem game that assumes you’re a teenage boy!
From the ways the entire female cast expresses clear affection for the male player character, doting on him, blushing in his presence, or interacting with him in a manner that makes it clear they are romantically interested in him. To the choice in protagonist, deliberately doubling down on the idea of the protagonist being a man when they could have just kept things ambiguous, given how rarely the protagonist is shown. It all feels pandering, gauche, and… just needless. I’m not sure why the developers went with this approach instead of doing the Hyperdimension Neptunia thing of making every protagonist a cute girl, but if I were to give a reason, more for my own sake, it would be that the developers were stuck with the idea after they committed themselves to make Princess Connect! Re:Dive a sequel.
As the overly long title implies, Re:Dive is a sequel to the simply named Princess Connect, a mobile live service that ran from February 2015 to June 2016. Now, I could not find a detailed summary of the events of Princess Connect, as Cygames only released the game in Japan, but I was able to gather how the story begins and ends. Princess Connect takes place in the year 2030 and follows a group of VR MMORPG players as they enjoy an in-universe fantasy game. However, something nefarious begins brewing and the protagonists are called to action against an antagonist over the fate of this virtual world.
In the good ending, the antagonist is defeated, and the world is saved. But in the bad ending, and the ending that leads into Re:Dive, the antagonist uses the power of a wish of some sort in order to trap all played in the virtual MMO, repressing or erasing their memories of the real world and replacing them with memories of living in this fantasy video game world. Meaning that this game is a trapped-in-an-MMO isekai where nobody knows they are in an MMO.
Now, I only found this out by poking around old Reddit threads and fan wiki comments, so I could be completely wrong here, but I think this is what happened in the original. However, I think this concept is actually quite interesting, has some depth to it, and could be used to tell an interesting story about fragmented identities as people try to reconcile two sets of memories and identities while deliberating on whether or not they want to give up their peaceful fantasy days.
Sadly, the game does not make this plot point very clear from the outset, and that kind of pisses me off. Because this is not a spoiler. This is something that you can learn about by looking into the prequel and can be supported by a conversation you can unlock within a few hours of playing the game. If the game made this clear to me when I started, I would have been vastly more invested in its characters, plot, and world. Instead, they gave me… whatever chapter 1 was supposed to establish. I mean, this is a trapped-in-an-MMO story where one of the characters is a llama with the mental capacity of a human being. Either the creative teams were blind to what they were making, or marketing told them to make the game more appealing to the masses. I hope it was worth the revenue.
To summarize my thoughts on the story, there is a great concept here, but it hides the core appeal behind a layer of fluff and sawdust. However, even if I don’t particularly like the story of this game, I do need to praise it for its presentation. The character voice acting is excellent to the point where I could tell why these voice actresses have a fanbase just by listening to their honeyed words. The visual novel presentation of most story scenes, while a bit hard to read on tiny screens, features expressive sprites and gorgeous backdrops. And the inclusion of anime cinematics to accentuate certain scenes gives the game a more dynamic feel and gives players routine rewards for going through the story.
It’s ultimately a more robust and thorough presentation than what I’ve seen in a lot of AA Japanese console RPGs I could name, let alone any other live service that comes to mind. Baring minor quibbles like stock UI buttons, Princess Connect! Re:Dive is an incredibly attractive game and my biggest qualm with the presentation would be the fact that everything looks so tiny on my iPhone 6s. It makes me wish the game could be played in a browser or had a native Windows release.
Though I would actually argue that Princess Connect! Re:Dive is even more prone to the mold of a browser or desktop game because of its gameplay. The title is an auto-battler RPG, a genre that I have little to no experience with, and I would describe it as a JRPG that does away with action inputs and impulsive problem solving, and only prioritizes the planning phase. You upgrade characters, assemble parties, but when going about battle in quests, you pretty much just watch your characters cycle through their attacks, skills, and super moves while they wail against waves of enemies. If your numbers are big and composition is good, then you win. If not, then you don’t.
Admittedly, there is more to the game than just that. Such as the variability caused by damage ranges, planning around enemy weaknesses and attack targets, and the ability to automatically use supers or save them up for later, but compared to a proper JRPG, it’s pretty simple. Go on quests, auto-battle the waves of foes, and walk away with spoils for this game’s expectedly semi-obtuse upgrade system where the player is asked to recognize a bunch of items in order to figure out what they need to upgrade their characters.
Characters, waifus, heroines, girls, or waffles as I like to call them, have four main sources of upgrades. They have their own level, which boosts their basic stats, is limited by the player level, and can be raised with EXP from quests and potions. They have skills that can be enhanced, boosting their efficiency, DPS, and survivability. They can have their star-based rarity increased through the use of character-specific fragments that can be obtained through a multitude of ways, and also gacha. But the primary way of upgrading them is by giving them equipment.
Equipment in Princess Connect! Re:Dive is obtained via quest drops or rewards and, unlike equipment in most games, serves as permanent upgrades that boost character stats. Give your gal a sword, hat, or doodad, and she’ll hold on to it forever and once you give her a full set of six thingamabobs, then she will advance to the next rank and be able to equip more equipment. Thus raising her stats and sometimes unlocking new skills.
It is all digestible; the game makes it incredibly easy for players to find the relevant quest to farm for certain equipment, and while I have only glimpsed the path of progression, it seems like a fairly lax one with little in the way of obtrusive gatekeeping or paywalls. The game gives players oodles of stamina every day, allowing them to clear a lot of quests, and even if their stamina does run dry, there are plenty of daily quests that give players hearty helpings of valuable resources. From the daily 0 stamina grotto runs that give invaluable materials to the PVP-flavored content in the form of an arena where players fight off against other player’s teams in order to advance through the rankings and get assorted goodies. Which requires a different approach from the PVE content found in most of the game, due to how characters have far more versatility to them than your common monster.
It even breaks away from the standard battle format with the dungeons, which are a series of battles where the player has their full roster of characters at their disposal, but not only do the enemies scale based on… some metric, character health remains where it was at the end of each battle. Thus forcing the player to think about the long-term compositions of their teams, as at the end of this journey stands a super boss that is practically designed to rip and tear through whatever you throw its way.
As a whole, I would say that I like the systems of Princess Connect! Re:Dive and consider the game to be well designed. It does not require a lot of engagement from the player beyond menu navigation, its progression path is girthy without seeming impossibly long, and the cast of characters all seem to have their own quirks and uses as far as I could tell
Unfortunately, despite team building being the most mechanical input the player has to this game, Princess Connect! Re:Dive does a crappy job of explaining what makes a good team. Hell, it doesn’t even offer team building tips when you fail a quest. It just tells you to upgrade your units more.
As somebody who has played myriad party-based games before, I naturally know that the most important thing of assembling a team is developing synergy between my characters. Considering the team composition is 5, I assumed the best bet would be creating a team with a tank, healer, support, physical DPS, and magic DPS. However, the game does not necessarily classify characters like that and in order to understand what role they fulfill, you need to analyze their stat spread, their skills, and possibly experiment with compositions in order to see what truly sticks.
There is no single screen that breaks down everything you need to know about any given character, and considering the influx of underdeveloped characters players get early on, it’s hard to decide who to invest in. Personally, I just stuck with the three main heroines, Pecorine the tank, Kokkoro the self-sufficient DPS and attack buffer, Karyl the magic DPS and debuffer, and I gradually fluttered towards two support units. Yukari the drunkard priestess who does decent damage, buffs against magic damage, and heals the most vulnerable units. And Yui, the poster child of the original Princess Connect and a magic user with a team healing super skill. This team served me well, and while I felt like I should have experimented more with my compositions, the game does not really give me the information needed to make that judgment.
You see, when you are playing a tactical RPG, a turn-based RPG, or an action RPG, you can judge and weigh things based on numbers, but most of what you learn, you learn through play. When you defeat an enemy without using too many resources, that informs your future playstyle. And if you fail a challenge, you can imagine a different strategy based on the tools the game has given you. But with an auto-battler… it’s kind of hard to determine why you succeeded and why you failed because you don’t have any direct involvement in the combat. Or at the very least, I could not look at the combat to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, even if I took things slowly and monitored every action in slow motion. There’s just too much going on in combat.
It would be nice if the game offered more specific advice to help the player learn to appreciate and internalize the mechanics of team building, but that would also be somewhat counter-intuitive to the game’s design. Live services are meant to keep an audience engaged with the game, so obfuscating certain mechanics inspires people to enter and explore the community. And as they scrounge through videos, Discord, or subreddits to learn how to effectively play the game, they will become more engaged with the title, more likely to speak about it on social media, and more likely to spend money on in-game currency in exchange for progression or staying ‘meta.’
Putting the moral dubiousness of this practice aside, it works, and I say this from personal experience. I got into the community for Dragalia Lost as I scoped out team compositions to clear content, and it’s part of the reason why I’m so invested in the title today. But with Princess Connect! Re:Dive, I simply never felt the urge to dig in deeper, look up resources, or really try out different compositions. Partially because I only invested a few days into this game and did not feel I needed to have a ‘meta’ early game team. And partially because the game does actually give players glimpses of other teams, and they did not follow any obvious patterns that made me think that I was doing something wrong… even as they continued to beat my boney bum in the PVP arena.
I also feel that I should comment on whether the game is predatory or urges players into summoning for new units, and I honestly don’t get that impression. I got nearly enough for 100 summons throughout my time with this game, the title seems fairly generous with its summoning currency, and due to the relatively small roster, I do not get the vibe that the game urges players to pull for specific units in order to clear content.
I ultimately went into Princess Connect! Re:Dive to satiate my curiosity and see what this game had to offer. What I found was a game with high production values, a warm and welcoming aesthetic, and simple gameplay driven by planning, analysis, and a steady yet substantial progression system. It is a game that I’m sure players can get deep into as they min-max their team spreads, but it is also one that can be played on a very casual basis with daily or bi-daily check-ins as players soak in the cuteness whenever they play, and occasionally experience chunks of story with close heart-to-heart scenes with their favorite waifus and a story that… has some good ideas.
It is not a title I see myself ever returning to beyond diving through a fan wiki recap of the full story, but I cannot say I consider it to be bad by any stretch. Its systems are solid, it does not feel hostile towards players, and just through the sheer aesthetics, I can see why people would like if not love this game. However, its gameplay is not for me, and even if I were in the market for a new mobile live service, I think I would look elsewhere.