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.

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