Poking fun at bad games is great and all, but it's so satisfying to play that rare gem, that one game that makes all the effort you exhausted to track it down worth it. I am happy to announce that this week's game fits that bill to the letter.
It took me a few weeks to wrap this guy up. My living arrangement isn't quite conducive to long stretches of quiet time during which I can gather my thoughts and get serious work done. That's why I've got to find another place to live. If anyone is renting out a room or if you know of a foreclosed house that I could squat in for a few months, I would love to hear about it.
But I digress. This was a lengthy title but was well worth it. Before I even jump into the review, I'm giving you guys the thumbs up to track it down and give it a go. This game's quality shouldn't be all that surprising. When your source is the venerable Zelda series, you have to really be gunning for bottom-of-the-barrel status to produce anything less than excellence.
OFFENDER: Alundra DEVELOPED BY: Matrix Software RELEASED ON: PS1, 1997 TASTES LIKE: The Legend of Zelda
Alundra was the first title developed by Matrix Software, a company composed of members that had worked on Landstalker for the Sega Genesis. I have not played that game, but from what little I've seen of it the art style is unmistakably similar. I wish I could say that if you enjoyed Landstalker then you will enjoy Alundra, but I honestly wouldn't know.
If you need other credentials, Matrix Software is also responsible for the 3D Final Fantasy remakes on the DS as well as that new Light Warriors game and the recently localized Nostalgia. Hopefully, that should give you enough of an idea of where these cats are coming from.
For the company's freshman effort, it crafted an action-adventure that shares more than a few elements with Nintendo's Zelda franchise. Now, this game was released a whole year before Ocarina of Time landed, so the innovations brought about by the latter were yet to be realized. In stark contrast, Alundra keeps to the overhead perspective that gamers had been familiar with up until then. This presents a remarkable divide in how the genre could be advanced. Alundra is like what Zelda would have been like if it had used the power of the then-current technology to expand upon the 2D template as opposed to embracing the third dimension.
As you may remember, the manual for A Link to the Past includes a long-ass back-story that reads like a history book. Likewise, the manual for Alundra is unnecessarily thick and contains its own game world primer. To be as brief as I can, you are Alundra, a member of the elvish Elna clan who possess the ability to explore the people's dreams. In Alundra's world, the King had decreed that all idols of deities be destroyed, yet praying to idols is the only way for the people to maintain their connection with the gods. Without divine blessing, the people lose zest for life and become plagued by health-affecting nightmares, so it is upon you, the Dreamwalker, to exorcise the demons from these troubled souls.
Essentially, the story is a critical condemnation of idol worship as well as religion in general. At times the message is subtle while at other times it's all up in your face. It definitely surprised me and I'm sure it would make some of you just a tad bit uncomfortable. But regardless....
HOW SHAMELESS IS IT?
Preachy messages aside, this game is phenomenal. It has an identity of its own yet borrows enough from Zelda to remind you of its roots. You can equip both a weapon and a subitem at once, ranging from swords with charge attacks to bows and from bombs to screen-blanketing magic spells. You collect Life Vessels to add HP to your stamina meter and cut down bushes and break into people's homes to acquire Gilder, the game's currency. There are pig-faced creatures reminiscent of Moblins, a fairy in a pond, and even a fortune teller.
Of course, all games have their share of problems, but the better a game is, the more apparent and unwelcome its issues wind up being. Therefore, before I really dive into the meat and potatoes of Alundra, I want to talk about how it displeased me. I figure I'd just get the bullshit out of the way so that we can enjoy ourselves without any heavy clouds hanging overhead.
Alundra's default moveset is identical to that of Link save for two additional techniques. There is a dash, similar in function to the Pegasus Boots, as well as a jump, similar in function to Roc's Feather. The former is a rarely needed except for a couple of puzzles while the latter is required for just about any situation. Jumping in Zelda is a simple affair -- hop a little pothole here, clear a gap there, always on level ground. In Alundra, you will be hopping like a spastic jackrabbit as you traverse the rockiest overworld in video game history.
It's insane just how far the developers shove the assumingly simple act of jumping down your throat. What's so nerve-wracking is that the overhead view makes judging elevation a trial-and-error exercise. I dare say it's worse than Scurge: Hive since your only concern there is whether or not you are able to judge distance properly. With this extra degree of frustration, compounded by the frequency jumping during puzzles and basic overworld traversal, I figure that you spend roughly a third of total playtime climbing back up layers of platforms because the cliff face that you thought was on your level was actually ten feet higher.
My next issue concerns the overworld map or, more specifically, the lack thereof. One of many faults in the original Zelda is the absence of an overworld map, but at least you have a position marker to give you a general idea of where you are. Alundra doesn't even offer that much, so you must rely on memorization or archaic note-taking to guide you. Granted, the world isn't all that massive, but still. Three buttons on the controller open up the inventory... you would figure at least one of them could have been used to open a God damn map screen.
Shockingly, there is an overworld map. When you visit the fortune teller in order to gain your bearings, she will identify your next target with a flashing marker on a map in her possession. If the developers went to all the trouble of actually programming that shit into the game, why couldn't they have given you access to it at any time? There is a physical map included in the game case, but everything other than the central village is blurred out as though someone has smeared Vaseline on the page. That's dickery at its finest.
No, dickery at its finest would be the lack of maps even in the dungeons! Dungeons are laid out in a linear fashion to compensate for a lack of guide, but you still need to travel off the beaten path to discover the more elusive treasure chests. Nevertheless, as the game progresses and the dungeons grow more labyrinthine, you really begin to curse the developers' apathy. How else are you going to know for certain if you have collected all the treasure in a particular level?
It's that last bit which leads me to the rancid walnut topping on this hot fudge ass-cream sundae. This game is rife with one-time item pickups. There are key story events after which areas of the world or certain dungeons are no longer accessible. If you don't remember to collect a zone's items in the allotted period then you are royally boned. In Zelda, if you pass over a bonus weapon or Heart Piece, there is nothing preventing you from returning at a later time and retrieving it. If you missed something in Alundra, fuck you. You should have bought the strategy guide, dumbass.
It's bad enough that you are given time-sensitive windows, but even worse is how missing one tiny thing initiates a chain reaction of absurdity. There is a particular item called the Secret Pass that I didn't learn about until consulting GameFAQs towards the end of my adventure. The Secret Pass grants you access to the casino under the bar into which I spent most the game trying to gain entry. At no point does an NPC tell you, "Hey, you can't come in without a pass!" No clue was given, so I was forever restricted from playing the casino games. As such, I couldn't earn a slew of Life Vessels. As such, I was never told the purpose of these bullshit Gilded Falcon statues I had wasted time collecting. As such, I couldn't trade those statues for even more Life Vessels and four very useful bonus weapons and accessories. All because I forgot to climb into some dude's chimney during the two times in the game when his fireplace wasn't running.
You know what though? Quibbles. As bothersome as these problems are, they do not mar what is on the whole a marvelous experience. Everything screams "polish" in Alundra. For example, take the sprites which are highly detailed and rival the best of the SNES era. Using the power of the PS1, there are a few extra graphical flourishes that highlight the attention to detail. Unfortunately, the overall aesthetic is hindered by some stiff animations and a rather dull, washed-out color palette, but again, quibbles.
Let's talk about the sweeping score. It's like a blend of Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu with a sprinkle of Chrono Trigger's Yasunori Mitsuda thrown in for good measure. I wouldn't say it's the kind of music you'd find yourself humming in the shower, but I do not deny its quality. Just check out the overworld theme and hear the influences yourself.
That's why I find it so curious that Working Designs, the US publisher, opted to write a new intro theme for the localization. As you can see below, we get disgusting butt rock that is at odds with every other composition in the game. Was this necessary? Chalk it up to the ol' American Xtreme marketing angle. Gnarly, bro.
In a way, Alundra is indeed an extreme game. Whereas the Zelda franchise aims to be as accessible as possible, Alundra is targeted squarely at those players who do three-heart, no-death runs for kicks and giggles. It's a title for the seasoned adventurer, one who is well-versed in the nuances and mechanics of the action-RPG genre. In-game text instructions for particular puzzles are unbelievably vague and many environmental obstacles demand an almost innate approach to circumventing them. Whether you consider that a plus or a minus depends entirely on your gaming history.
In regards to enemies, you'll find yourself near death more often than in any recent Zelda title. Foes, especially bosses, are extremely aggressive and can drain a sizeable fraction of your health in a single hit. With no shield available to you, encounters tend to reward first-movers more often than careful planners. For this reason, the game stocks health-restoration items in roughly two out of every three treasure chests. You will find so many herbs and tonics that the problem becomes having to leave some behind because there is no more room in your inventory. Even so, if you wish to see the reach the end without facing a game over, you will have to burn through those potions until your supply is exhausted, and there's still no guarantee that you will survive long enough to score your next fix.
That's not to say you aren't thrown a bone here and there. Unlike in Zelda, you have an unlimited supply of bombs and arrows. It feels great not having to micromanage your ammunition on top of health and magic. It's also nice that, aside from starting a new game or continuing one in progress, you never once see a loading screen. Loads between areas are so fast that it never becomes an issue. I wish more games from the PS1 era were as streamlined as this.
In an unusual twist on typical clone game expectations, there are a few elements in Alundra that predate their Zelda counterparts. For one, there is a volcano dungeon with a dragon guardian and what sounds like Muslim chanting in the background. Fire Temple, anyone? Second, one of Alundra's weapons is a metal flail that can be swung around the head, something that Nintendo just recently introduced in Twilight Princess. Coincidence, or was Eiji Aonuma inspired by a certain forgotten PlayStation classic?
If there is one area in which Alundra and Zelda do not compare, it is in their narratives. Even at its most dire, I wouldn't consider any Zelda game to be "dark." Alundra, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to drive the impact of the terrible evil that is sweeping the land. Even when the mood is light and jubilant, there is always this gnawing at the pit of your stomach, making you feel guilty for finding joy during a period of great suffering.
The game is effective at evoking those emotions because of its narrow focus on a single town. Everything begins and ends in Inoa, the village that took you in after you were found unconscious and shipwrecked. You meet every NPC, each with unique quirks and relationship ties. You live in the home of Jess, a blacksmith who lost his wife and child yet grows to love you as a son. All these characters put on a strong front, faithful that their gods will deliver them from the nightmares plaguing their slumber. With the aid of the dream researcher Septimus, you start entering people's dreams (trippy miniature dungeons with bosses and everything) and casting out the evil spirits.
The more you try to help, though, the more the villagers suffer. The dark force at work, Melzas, a centuries-old alien invader masquerading as a god, has tricked the people into worshipping him and restoring his power. When he notices you restoring the villagers' dreams, he crafts deadlier nightmares. Soon, people start to die. You are blamed for their deaths. Every time someone passes, a new tombstone appears in the cemetery, a painful reminder that perhaps your noble intentions are placing Inoa in greater jeopardy.
Each time someone dies, Jess becomes inspired to forge you a new tool. It's a chilling means of expanding your inventory. In Zelda, most of the major items are found in dungeons. In Alundra, each weapon represents a recently deceased soul. When you wake up in the morning and hear Jess hammering away in his smithy, rather than being excited, you feel dread as you wait for the other shoe to drop, to hear news that another one of your friends, the folk who have welcomed you with open arms, has died before his or her time.
It escalates. More people fall. Distrust is sewn. People's faith is challenged. Soon, you face a tragedy so great that you wonder if the pain you bear will ever leave. In your despair, you question if you are truly the person you thought you were. Perhaps the whispers were true. Perhaps you are the demon who has come to the village to shatter the last vestiges of hope that these unfortunate people clung on to.
Damn. Link never had to deal with this.
Your blood boils. Someone has to pay. These people must have their faith restored. They may hate you, but a true hero isn't in the business for the fame or the glory. That's who Alundra is.
Why the fuck aren't you playing this game right now?
THE FRESH PRINCE SCALE OF HEAVY "SAMPLING" IN ORDER TO... NAW! I AIN'T GONNA MESS WIT' WILL SMITH!: