Games adapted from novels are something of a rarity on Xbox. We get a fair number of comic book or movie adaptations, but we suspect books are more of a challenge as they’re not a visual medium, and – in the nicest possible way – there aren’t many books that you could point at and say, man, the average Xbox player would love to play that.
If there was a genre that had the best chance of successfully adapting a novel, though, it’s the visual novel. It’s obviously not the largest leap between media, and it’s not a huge bet either: you could probably make a hundred visual novels for the cost of Bobby Kotick’s annual dry-cleaning bill.
The people at Hanabira clearly had this idea, and found a novel old enough to be in the public domain, in the form of ‘A Little Princess’ by Francis Hodgson Burnett. Burnett’s other novel ‘The Secret Garden’ is slightly more popular on these shores, but A Little Princess is reasonably well-loved, and even surfaced as a 1995 movie featuring our favourite Onion Knight, Liam Cunningham. It’s in a nice spot of being popular enough to generate interest, but not a cultural staple where everyone knows the plot.
There are some liberties taken with the source material. Some characters are excised, while the plot has been pushed more into the Yuri mould: a subgenre of visual novel where your aim is to build platonic relationships with other girls, in this case the residents of Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Young Ladies. If you’re familiar with Yuri novels, you will choose girls to spend time with, effectively building up a ‘friendship’ bar, which unlocks more opportunities to chat with them. You’re cherry-picking your friends in A Little Lily Princess, and you’ll be pushing away or making enemies of the others as a trade-off.
You play Sara Crewe, daughter of the extremely well-to-do Captain Richard Crewe, and – until now – you have both been living a good life in India. But you need an education, and that means shipping you back to London to a seminary with other girls your age. But it’s not all bad, as you’re given the best suite in the house, you’ve got your own live-in maid, and (pretty much) everyone sucks up to you for your wealth, including the owner of the seminary, Miss Minchin.
As you brush up on your book-balancing, etiquette and French, letters start arriving from your father, who intimates that he might visit at any point. First, however, he has to make a massive investment in a diamond mine, which excites all the girls at the seminary, and looks like it might bump you up into ‘princess’ levels of wealth, as per the title.
For anyone who’s read a Dickens or Austen novel (or Burnett’s original novel, of course), you will see the plot turns coming from an absolute mile off. It’s a riches to rags to riches affair, much like the David Copperfields of this world, and Victorians absolutely loved this kind of wish-fulfilment. It’s extremely old-fashioned in that sense, and if you come in aware of the source material and its templated plot, then you will be in much better stead to enjoy A Little Lily Princess.
Does mapping an established Victorian novel onto a visual novel work? Yes and no, but mostly yes. In the first act, A Little Lily Princess focuses on what happens between the moments in the novel – the day-to-day experience of being in the ladies’ seminary – and it gets a lot of joy from that. The social politics of being a wealthy woman among less wealthy women is well-explored, and you’ll have to deal with sycophants and rivals, as well as the propriety of talking to servants. In latter acts, it bears similar fruit, as a narrative pivot showcases what it was like to live in the servant and peasant castes, and the opportunities (or lack thereof) in Victorian London.
The main mismatch between novel and visual novel is how it handles the main character. Most Yuri visual novels hand you a cypher, someone you can project any kind of personality on, but Sara Crewe is not a cypher and can’t be – not without deviating from the source novel. It highlights why cypher characters are so valuable in visual novels. Sara is unbearable: she lives in a fantasy world and deflects any real world issues by dressing them up as fairies and princesses. She sees herself as a saviour when it comes to the poorer castes and servants, sprinkling her benevolence and glowing afterwards. You’re kind of, sort of, meant to sneer at her, but it’s hard to enjoy dialogue when you’re rolling your eyes, and you get the sense that she is meant to become more bearable as the plot wears on. We definitely didn’t get anywhere close to liking her.
The other characters are a mixed bag, extrapolated from the novel with some homosexuality and racial themes, which are reasonably well-handled. The traditional ‘uppity snob’, Lavinia, hits all the right notes, and will rile you up in all the right ways. There’s a complex relationship running between Sara and her maid, Mariette, with a lot being said in the unsaid, and it proffers the best of the many endings. Not everyone comes across well, though. A younger girl, Lottie, dotes on you as her ‘Sara-mamma’, and was too sappy for our tastes, while budding-dancer Jessie’s character doesn’t land anywhere in particular – she spends the plot trying to work out what she wants from life, but never really figures it out, leaving her character short of a true ending.
As is increasingly traditional with Ratalaika visual novels, A Little Lily Princess has a structure that leans on timetable management. Roommates and C14 Dating did the same, allowing you to timetable what you do in a given week, gaining ‘resources’ that open up further conversation options.
A Little Lily Princess tries a slightly different tack from those games, and it feels better as a result. Rather than fiddling about with multiple activities in one day, you’re only choosing one thing per day, and it feels less micro-management-y as a result. And rather than each task giving you a guaranteed resource, each task randomly gives you one of three sets of rewards. In the other games we mentioned, the guaranteed output meant that you were doing maths every week, totalling up to make sure you’ve got enough of what you need. Maths is rarely much fun, and the randomness here is more enjoyable. You don’t get unduly punished for getting bad rolls, though, which offsets the randomness. In fact, there’s a lot of leeway given to you here: you can fail to get the resources you need three or four weeks on the trot, and still get good endings.
The branching errs towards the naff. You’re given a decent amount of agency over which character to make friends with, and each of them has a satisfying, personalised ending. But A Little Lily Princess oddly railroads you, making it feel more scripted and unsatisfying as things go on. In the second act, you can only choose one friend, and that locks out talking to everyone else for ten or so weeks, which is far too long to have one focus. It might have made the scripting of the endings easier for the developers, but the second act felt like a right-old trudge and less fun, as the rest of the cast virtually disappeared.
As you’d expect with a modern visual novel, there are multiple endings with achievements attached. Unlike other visual novels, these endings aren’t secret or hidden in any way: it’s dead easy to understand what you need to get them. There are ‘Act 1 Endings’, where you just need to exhaust the dialogue options with different girls in the first act, and there are ‘Happy Endings’ (no, not that kind) where you choose one of the girls to focus on and unlock their ending. You’d be hard-pressed NOT to get a couple of the Act 1 endings and one of these happy endings, so it’s all a matter of playing through with a focus on a different character each time. A decent ‘skip’ function means you can bypass all the dialogue that you’ve already seen, making it a breeze.
On reaching the end multiple times, and seeing Sara yo-yo from wealth to pauperdom and back again, we can say – with some confidence – that A Little Lily Princess is a capable, well-put-together visual novel. It sits above the par, although not too far above, and anyone with a taste for period adaptations (if you got hot under the collar for The Duke of Hastings in Bridgerton, for example), will forgive an annoying main character, some mawkish writing, and a very, very predictable plot. The lack of a romantic subplot was also welcome too, pushing it away from the rest of the visual novel pack. It’s all rather innocent, really.
For those who like a bit more edge, raunch or excitement, well, avoid this one and hope it leads to other popular, out-of-copyright novels emerging as visual novels.
You can buy A Little Lily Princess for £11.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S