Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (3DS) Review

The first thing that stood out to me about The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is its jubilant, catchy theme song. The second thing that stood out to me is how bland the game felt…at least at first. A charming introductory slideshow (that is par for the course with Zelda games these days) tells of Princess Styla and the fashion-savvy, glamorous kingdom of Hytopia before plopping us right in the middle of it. There’s this odd feeling of absence when starting Tri Force Heroes; there’s no build-up or set-up besides that opening slideshow, and it just feels kind of cheap. In addition, all we see of Hytopia itself is its castle and town square and right away this place just felt off to me, and not in a good way. There’s a feeling of emptiness that pervades Hytopia and the designers really made no attempt to hide the fact that this place is purely a hub and the only buildings one can enter all serve a very specific function. There are a few people scattered about, many just reused models from The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (which normally I wouldn’t mind except unlike other Zelda titles, there is no narrative justification for these clones to be here). These recycled characters are just one of several factors that just make Tri Force Heroes feel “unreal” somehow.

Little effort was put into working the fashion theme into the game’s atmosphere as well. Only a few characters actually fit the “stylish” description of Hytopia, and outside of Madame Couture’s shop, Hytopia just doesn’t come across as the glamorous place it’s made out to be.  Like everything else in the game, the fashion motif is purely functional: it’s a mechanic, with the slimmest effort put into using it to facilitate world-building. It’s worth noting that the game contains quite a number of easter eggs and there are a decent number of little secrets to find in Hytopia if one takes the time to look, but by and large this is the blandest setting a game under the Zelda name has ever seen (except for maybe the original Four Swords). One might defend this lack of effort and Hytopia’s bare-bones nature by pointing out that Tri Force Heroes is a non-conventional, multiplayer-focused Zelda spinoff, but I would point this person in the direction of the multiplayer-centric Splatoon and the fantastic work those developers did with the lively, detailed hub of Inkopolis. Tri Force Heroes’ status as a stop-gap, filler Zelda title is just painfully obvious, and it’s disheartening to see Nintendo cut corners in a way that I have, quite frankly, never seen before.

Princess Styla and her subjects
Things get more exciting, ironically, when Link heads into the Drablands, where all the action of the game takes place. But not too exciting, because most of the locales in the Drablands are fairly generic and stock: there’s the woodlands, a volcano, a snowy mountain, etc. These places don’t even have names; the volcano isn’t called “Turtleneck Mountain” (or something), it’s literally just called “Volcano”. So actually the name “Drablands” is pretty appropriate after all. The atmosphere and look of many of these areas is very uninspired as well. The volcano is just…a bunch of lava and rocks and the desert area is just Egypt. There’s no real personality to most of it and it comes off feeling like the New Super Mario Bros. of Zelda games (it doesn’t help that there are the standard eight worlds in the game).

I tackled Tri Force Heroes first by playing online with strangers, followed by replaying all of the levels in the single-player mode. I’ll mainly be talking about my experiences online in this review, but I’ll say a few words about the solo quest at the end as well. After I ventured into the Drablands and began my journey to free Styla from a dreadful outfit she was cursed to wear, the first couple of areas went by and I found myself struggling to even remember the levels I had recently completed. Each area in the game is comprised of four “dungeons” but that word is only used on the back of the box because this game has “Zelda” in the title. These aren’t “dungeons” in any sense of the word; they are “levels” in the purest form: built, geometrically-even, linear spaces. You solve some puzzles, beat some monsters, get to the end of the straight line, and win a prize.

A basic example of cooperation in Tri Force Heroes
But here’s the thing about Tri Force Heroes: it’s not much to look at, it’s first four worlds are pretty drab, and the very bare minimum of effort was put into its world-building and narrative…but the more I played it, the more I found myself enjoying it. Tri Force Heroes ended up being a worthwhile experience for me due to its level, puzzle, and boss design being consistently strong and occasionally downright inspired, especially the bosses, and its cooperative design being very rewarding.

The more I played and struggled with countless unknown heroes, as we learned how to communicate using the basic tools the game gave us, as we failed over and over again yet persevered in spite of this and overcame a particularly trying puzzle or ferocious boss, I came to really appreciate Tri Force Heroes and what it was trying to accomplish. Even though the game’s levels are linear and basic-feeling, their design is solid throughout, and becomes a lot more interesting and creative in the later levels, featuring some clever and actually challenging puzzles that make superb use of the cooperation and teamwork elements of the game. The atmosphere and visual design of many of the later levels is also much stronger than the earlier ones. The game’s bosses across the entire experience, however, are easily the highlight of the whole game for me. I would go as far as to say that overcoming these bosses with my allies made the game worth playing all on their own. Up until A Link Between Worlds, bosses in the Zelda series had become very formulaic and by the numbers, but that 3DS gem and now Tri Force Heroes have found me actually having to think and strategize when taking on one of these giant beasts. Tri Force Heroes especially breathes new life into the tired Zelda boss structure, where three individual players, three items, and other unique mechanics like toteming (where all the Links stack up) all have to be taken into account when figuring out how to approach one of these creative boss encounters. The bosses are both puzzling and relentlessly aggressive, requiring a rigorous level of cooperation and attention; every member of the team has to be on board and has to know exactly what their role is if they’re going to stand a chance here. When, after many attempts, this level of being in sync happens and everyone works together smartly, besting a boss with my teammates in Tri Force Heroes was one of the most triumphant and exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had playing a video game.

The bosses are an exhilarating, creative, and challenging highlight
I’ve heard some decry the lack of online voice chat, but using the limited palette of emoticons in the game and finding other creative ways to communicate is one of the best parts of the game for me. In addition to the emoticons bringing a lot of personality and just being a lot of fun to play around with, trying to learn how to work together without words is a novel and ultimately gratifying challenge. That said, the limited communication can indeed lead to frustration and there were many times I found myself wishing I could just tell someone: “GO OVER THERE!”. This game is consistently challenging and can often be mercifully unforgiving. It demands that everyone cooperate and the tiny heart meter that is shared between all three Links will rapidly deplete if even one player slacks off. But even though this led to countless moments of agony and defeat, and countless replays of entire levels, like I said with the bosses, finally figuring out how to work together and ultimately triumphing is extremely gratifying and makes any prior frustration worth it. Celebrating with my comrades in a wild, hysteric maelstrom of pom pom waving and thumbing up never failed to put a huge smile on my face. This game had me moaning, cussing, smiling like a maniac, pumping my fist into the air and cheering, and finally feeling a bit melancholic when I had to say goodbye to a team that I’d made it through hell with, knowing I’d probably never encounter them again.

This is all, of course, when the damn game works properly. If you don’t care about doing the extra “Drablands Challenges” like me, Tri Force Heroes is actually a pretty short game, but the experience was extremely drawn out both by the challenging nature of coordinating with anonymous strangers (and occasionally people being uncooperative or leaving two thirds into a level) and unfortunately an abundant amount of technical issues. Awful lag, error messages, and random disconnects plagued my experience. Sometimes the lag would start as soon as I met up with other players, but occasionally it just randomly started happening after a long period of smooth play. The online is a complete wildcard: sometimes I would get two levels done in half an hour, other times it would take that long just to finally get a stable game going. My worst experience in the game came when I had made it through the entire final world with an awesome team and just as the final boss was starting the game decided to inexplicably start lagging after over an hour of stable play before crashing and scattering two allies I had built up a level of camaraderie and affection for to the ether. If I was a less patient person (and hadn’t spent $35 on it), I would have given up on the game probably before I reached the halfway point. I should note that my experience playing online was done before Nintendo released an update for the game in early December, which in addition to adding a new area and some new outfits also tweaks some other aspects of the experience, including possibly a better online performance, but I’m not sure.

A look at toteming and the emoticons
Something else that annoyed me about the online experience in Tri Force Heroes is the way that levels are selected while in the Drablands. After deciding which area to visit, a player is matched up with other players in a lobby and then all three players vote for which of the four stages in an area they want to play. The winner is selected via a random roulette. I can understand why such a system was implemented, but I hate it. As someone who just wanted to push through the main story and had no intention of wasting time grinding for materials to make costumes, I found myself constantly having to leave a session and reconnect due to a level I’d already finished getting picked. I felt bad ending the game for everyone as soon as it started, but I simply had no choice, lest I waste fifteen minutes or more of my time. The other reason I don’t like this system is because it throws the game’s pacing off. I hated when I was forced to play the fourth level and fight the end boss of each world before completing most of the other levels in that world; it just felt so backwards. Because the levels can be played out of order, it makes everything feel very disconnected, and along with the linearity and boxed-in levels, Tri Force Heroes just doesn’t feel very much like an adventure.

After completing all the levels online, I tried out the Coliseum mode as well as tackled the single-player adventure. In single-player, two lifeless, disturbing dolls known as “Doppels” take the place of human players and all three characters must be manipulated by a single player (Link literally switches his soul between three vessels). This turns Tri Force Heroes into quite a different game that at times I found to be much easier because I could take things at my own pace and only had one Link to worry about, and at other times to be simply infuriating because of certain parts that all but demand there to be three separate Links running around. I don’t think the single-player is terrible; it’s just fairly boring and feels like a chore. This game’s personality, for me, mainly came from the countless people I met online, the silly emoticons, the failures and triumphs shared with complete strangers, and like the Doppels themselves, single-player feels very notably lifeless by comparison. In addition, aspects that are absolutely brilliant in multiplayer like the bosses are far less exciting and noteworthy in single-player. It’s worth trying but can also just be safely avoided; definitely play the multiplayer first and foremost in any case. There’s also the Coliseum, a multiplayer battle arena mode where two or three players can simply duel to the death on eight different maps based on the game’s eight different worlds. I didn’t expect much going into it, but I played it for about an hour online and actually ended up having a surprising amount of fun with it. It’s simple and nothing special, but it’s nice that it’s there and could be a fun way to have a few laughs with some friends.

Link and Doppels
There are plenty of other aspects I haven’t really touched on with Tri Force Heroes. I didn’t really mention the soundtrack, which while not exceptional still has a few standout tracks and goes a long way in giving the game an identity where many other aspects of it lack one. Also, even though the game’s world-building is overall pretty poor and its narrative bare-bones, the game does have shades of untapped potential and a few characters and moments I really enjoyed that could have been something truly great if the game was given more time to blossom (for example, I really like the villain, but she’s criminally underutilized). Lastly, I didn’t really talk about the outfit mechanic, which is a large part of the game that mostly works well and also adds a good amount of charm to the experience. The bottom line is that when the game works, Tri Force Heroes works very well, and cooperating and triumphing with anonymous teammates is a wonderful feeling. Conquering challenges together only to part ways at the end of it all led to a very memorable experience and I found myself feeling sentimental as the credits rolled. Tri Force Heroes as a game and concept has a ton of potential that it doesn’t fully live up to, but I still overall enjoyed the experience quite a bit despite all its problems, more than I expected to anyway.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gone Home (Spoilers)

Gone Home is a strangely personal experience. Maybe it’s the nostalgic sense of place: an American family’s home in the mid-90s, which was the golden age of my childhood. A palace full of VHS tapes, music tapes, Nintendo tapes, and gaudy colorful school folders and highlighters. There are references to Harrison Ford, Street Fighter, and those little black label message thingies. Or maybe it’s the way the main character, Sam (not to be confused with the player character, Katie) reminds me of myself. No, I’m not a teenage girl, but I was once a shy kid in high school, who frequently imagined my own characters and stories and who still has old doodles and school assignments scattered around. I also had a high school teacher who encouraged my creative writing and I ended up going to college for it. Maybe it’s other small details: the reference to one of my favorite films, Pulp Fiction, or spotting a host of books I studied in school and have fond memories of in Sam’s bedroom (Frankenstein, Treasure Island, Jane Austen’s Emma…), or that Janice Greenbriar has the same birthdate as my own mother…or perhaps Gone Home would have just felt personal anyway, even without all this, because it’s just an intimate experience by nature. When I first walked into the empty foyer of the Greenbriar home, it was just another location in a video game, but by the time I approached Sam’s journal in the attic, after opening drawers, reading letters, listening to music, picking up crumpled manuscripts, finding secret notes under the bed, looking at newspaper clippings, looking at photos, and otherwise immersing myself in a lived-in, inhabited space, I felt like I knew the Greenbriars intimately and they felt like a family as real as my own. Like Sam could have been someone I went to high school with and I just never knew about everything she was going through.

It’s this sense of discovering a family, of discovering people, via the traces of themselves and their experiences that adorn their home that makes Gone Home special. Not just learning about Sam’s experiences and her relationship with Lonnie, which is the crux of the narrative, but learning about the marital problems of her parents, the affair her mother almost had, and her father’s struggles as an author of a series of bizarre JFK time travel novels. These people feel real, and I feel like I know them personally even though I never actually met any of them face to face in the game. Especially Sam, whose characterization felt so tangible (and the music that accompanies her diary is so perfectly matched) that I couldn’t help but tear up every time she sighed or expressed her frustrations and dreams.

Ironically, the only member of the Greenbriar family I learned next to nothing about is Katie, the one who I literally stepped into the shoes of. I learn she traveled around Europe and she occasionally has some reaction text to certain objects in the house (“Gosh, Sam” she says when discovering her sister’s issue of “Gentleman” magazine, the magazine for men, and “Oh, barf” when finding a condom in her parent’s bedroom dresser), but the only personality trait I really glean from her is that she is the “straightedge” Greenbriar child: the athlete, the scholar, the “responsible” one. In other words, pretty boring. One of the funniest moments in the game comes from discovering a Sex Ed assignment in one of Sam’s school folders in which she took a hilarious amount of creative liberty with a rather simple assignment (“See Me!” was the grade she got from her teacher in bright red letters). Then later on I discovered Katie’s own take on the same assignment, which of course was done perfectly and properly and got a bright red “check plus”. But I suppose it’s unfair to call Katie boring, because I’m sure that if I had the opportunity to rummage through her own stuff (still packed away in boxes in the guest room of the Greenbriar’s new home, which was to be her room when got back from Europe), I would find a three-dimensional person with her own struggles and experiences. Gone Home makes it clear that it’s not about Katie though, but rather her family and principally her younger sister, Sam.

Sam is one of the most richly drawn people I’ve seen in a video game (or, sorry, I guess I should say in an “interactive exploration finding and reading stuff emotion story simulation experience”). I hesitate to call her a “character” because she seems so real and authentic. Her voice actress does an excellent job but Sam’s personality also shines through in the pieces of herself she’s left lying around her house: in the scattered chapters in the ongoing tale of Captain Allegra and her First Mate, in her Street Fighter cheat codes lying on her bedroom floor (repeatedly crossed-out and revised), in her angry note to her parents chastising them for not letting her go out with Lonnie in the city, in her aforementioned unique take on schoolwork and the various scraps and doodles and letters that all in all paint a very vivid portrait of a human being. Gone Home does a wonderful job of setting up a series of mini-narratives that get told through pieces of the Greenbriar’s life around their home (would Danny ever get his Nintendo tape back??) and I enjoyed following all of these, but of course the narrative I was most invested in was that of Sam and Lonnie. This is where Gone Home is also just a sweet story of young romance, one that treats Sam’s homosexuality not like a twist or a discovery, but rather a given, natural fact of her life, while still managing to address the very real issues of what it means to be a gay teenager in high school (especially in the mid-90s). This is a story that moves, but also aims to inspire empathy for a life experience that some might regard as foreign and strange. A story that might make some people realize that a gay relationship is in fact not these things, but just as relatable and human as any other romance.

That is the key word: Gone Home struck me in how human it felt. It shines a lens on one family’s, and one girl’s, personal struggles, it promotes empathy for our neighbors, for our friends, for complete strangers, for those we might regard as pariahs; it reminds us that we are all human and that we all go through shit. Speaking more personally, it allowed me, a straight man, to empathize with a gay young woman and the pain of dealing with disrespectful parents and peers; the fact that I have so much in common with Sam made it all the more easy to relate to her. I can relate to being shy around people I like (seeing that “gold star” around someone but not knowing how to talk to them), and so much of what Sam experiences and says and writes and does reminds me of myself and my own experiences, I can’t help but easily put myself in her shoes. Perhaps it is because of all this that I really did not want to enter the attic at the end of game. I felt a connection with Sam and I wanted her story to have a happy ending, but the more the game went on, the more I got the idea that the diary that I’d been hearing throughout the experience was Sam’s last words, and I was afraid of what I’d find up there. When all I found was an empty sleeping bag accompanied by a final, joyful diary entry from Sam about how Lonnie decided she couldn’t live without her and the two ran off together, I was ecstatic. A surprise happy ending, a joyful outcome when I expected a grim one, is one of my favorite discoveries in fiction, and Gone Home’s conclusion left me in happy tears.

Gone Home is the kind of experience I’ve been wanting to play for a long time. It’s simple and really nothing extraordinary, but that’s exactly what makes it special for a video game in a medium where interactive experiences so often feel the need to couple extraordinary circumstances with their pathos. In Gone Home, there are no monsters (or more specifically, no ghosts), no combat, no big dire mystery or circumstance. Why is the Greenbriar home mysteriously empty and seemingly abandoned and what happened to Sam? The big, dark, earth-shattering answer: Mrs. and Mr. Greenbriar are off at couples counseling and Sam ran off with the love of her life. I’ve played a lot of games before where much of what I do is walk around and read stuff that fleshes out a world or a narrative, but I respect Gone Home’s restraint in not shoehorning unnecessary violence or fantasy elements into its plot, and still managing to keep me interested in its characters and story through compelling writing, voice acting, and world building. This is just a patient, grounded, human experience and I appreciate it for that. There is still much room for growth when it comes to interactive narrative, and Gone Home is only one of many unique ways in which the interactive medium can deliver an interesting experience, but for now I wouldn’t mind seeing more games like Gone Home. Relaxed experiences where a character simply walks around, talks to people, look at objects, perhaps finds clues and solves a mystery…or maybe just talks to a friend, buys a hot dog, watches a sunset…stuff besides slaying monsters, going on adventures, and saving the world, stuff that doesn’t need violence or combat or even esoteric puzzle solving (as compelling, and often emotional in their own right, as those experiences can be). Of course, this kind of experience can still involve an intriguing mystery or something fantastical, but the point is that a video game can still be something compelling without shoving ten hours of gunplay in-between low-key narrative exploration sections (leers slowly in the direction of BioShock Infinite). I don’t blame someone for criticizing Gone Home’s narrative as being too small, but I think that the game is quite revolutionary for being a video game that is just about exploring a family’s home and learning about their lives. I also think it’s just wonderful that something like Gone Home and something like Shovel Knight can both exist in the same medium, or at least under the hazy umbrella term of “interactive experiences”, and I think this is a testament to the power, potential, and overall amazingness of this medium.