The newest game in the Legend of Zelda series, subtitled Tri-Force Heroes, is the eighteenth game in the series since its inception 29 years ago. Link has come a long way since that first adventure (well, they’re all different incarnations of Link, really), and now we have three Link characters all playing cooperatively together in the same adventure. Does it work well? I don my green Hylian garb, grab my bow, bombs, boomerangs, (Ed: And my axe!) and master sword, and head out into the Drablands to see what’s up.
Tri-Force Heroes takes Toon Link to a new land called Hytopia (we assume a portmanteau of Hyrule and Utopia), ruled by King Tuft. The kingdom is fashion-obsessed, but an evil, jealous witch has cursed the king’s beautiful daughter, Princess Stylia, to wear a horrid jumpsuit for all eternity. The king believes in a legend of three totem heroes who can enter the Drablands and save the princess from her dreadful textile fate. Depending on how you play this game, you’ll either be a single hero heading into the mess, or one of three heroes working together to save the princess. Word from above says that this game doesn’t form part of the regular Legend of Zelda narrative, so no need to try contorting it to fit the canon timeline.
Unlike many Legend of Zelda games, there’s no large overworld to play in. You get the main castle as a hub, and that’s it. You can find a few shops in the town, but they all serve the main purpose of getting Link into different outfits that affect his abilities. Once you enter the castle, you have three options: play alone, play with others, or play against others. In the single player mode, you’re given two other dolls to play with, called “doppels” (we assume a contraction of “doppelganger”). You select a doppel from the touch screen and you control that one alone. There are no AIs, so when you change from one doppel to another, it becomes a statue that you have to fetch.
A big part of the gameplay is solving puzzles by using all three characters. The opening stage of each level gives a selection of secondary weapons; sometimes they’re the same three weapons, and often enough they’re different, meaning each character (or doppel) has a specific role to play. Many of the puzzles are height-related, and this is where the “totem” bit comes in: you can stack the three Links on top of each other to form a totem. The top one is the one that attacks and the bottom one controls movement. The middle one is there to …uhh…hold the top one in place, I guess? Once you’re in totem formation, you can throw each other about, hit things of different heights, and throw each other onto higher levels. Much of the gameplay demands this sort of interaction. What I liked is that many gameplay elements demand a gorgeous amount of cooperation between players, especially regarding solving puzzles. None of the puzzles are ridiculously hard, but they require a decent quantity of coordination. Once you’ve completed a set of levels, they become available for play again under different conditions, such as less health, less time, or even trying to complete the level by destroying all the balloons. Each level has four different win conditions, so plenty of replayability there, despite the core 30-odd levels.
For the first time in forever, I’m going to say that the single-player experience is severely inferior to the multiplayer game. In fact, some levels become almost stupidly hard as a single-player game, as you need to juggle back and forth to the right doppel and move them into place before platforms or whatnots fall away or disintegrate, or getting your doppels into the right places quickly before Bad Things Happen. Naturally, in multiplayer, the other Links take care of themselves and the game passes quite quickly as you each accomplish your own tasks toward a common goal. Common goal also means that you play together or die together: this means you share a single health bar. The level has to be completed with three players or none at all. What does this mean for online play in shaky network conditions? if one player drops, the whole level ends and you get booted back to the lobby. It’s a pain, but that’s how it works. Three individual players also means that each player can don their own outfit, granting a wider variety and array of powers that complement the level. Like many Nintendo titles, there’s no voice chat, but you can communicate via a series of emoticon tiles. Half the fun is trying to figure out what someone is trying to say to you via the tiles, and there’s this wonderful “aha!” when you figure it out. The flip side of this is that it can also be fairly irritating, especially if one of the people you’re playing with seems dimmer of wit than usual. You can’t use the tiles to say “Go there, get into totem, and hit the switch”, although the joy at finally getting it right kind of compensates.
The game is far more stable in local play, of course, and thank heavens that the game supports Download Play! You only need to buy one copy of the game per three friends if you all play together regularly. This does, of course, mean that you need three friends and three 3DSs all within kicking distance of each other. The whole communication issue is bypassed by you being able to talk to your friends, and this makes coordinating your efforts far simpler, but somehow ultimately a tiny bit less fun than using the tiles. Those hoping for local two-player co-op are fresh out of luck. On the other hand, if you have friends in other parts of the world, you’re given the opportunity to play with them instead of randoms from the Internet. And if you find that some Internet player is being a bit of a troll, it’s easy to blacklist them. If they play like that too often, they’ll find themselves blacklisted enough to not join any games. It’s a system that works well enough. If you accidentally blacklist someone, you can undo the action, so it’s not necessarily a permanent thing, either.
In a minor nod to PvP play, there’s a coliseum where players can duke it out for points. It supports two players, but it’s such a tiny portion of the game that I doubt it’ll make much of an impact anywhere. I imagine, though, that players can do that while waiting for a third party to join. I’m not sure. It feels like another afterthought.
Tri-Force Heroes uses the A Link Between Worlds’ graphics engine, and the game thankfully looks amazing. The colours are put to brilliant use here, and for once I’ve no complaints about assistance for colourblind players. The three Links are coloured red, green, and blue, but there’s a good gap in contrast between the red and the green that you can’t mistake the two. Things get a little murkier with the costumes, but I’ve yet to encounter a situation where two Links are wearing the same costume. The sound design is some of the best I’ve heard in a long time, and I absolutely love the music and sound effects. Play enough and you’ll be humming the music for days.
I think the most important aspect of the game is the answer to this question: is it fun? Boy, is it ever, as long as you’re playing it in multiplayer. The single-player portion of the game feels horribly tacked on, though, and even though there’s precedent in Four Swords Adventures, it doesn’t feel strictly like a core Legend of Zelda game. I’m not sure who the game is necessarily for, because the costume mechanic feels out of line with the rest of the series, as is the clothing-focused storyline, but it’s still a great game based on puzzles and solving the level with the tools you are given, and honestly, there’s just something about that tile of Link waving his pom poms that makes me guffaw every time I see it.
Final Score: 7 totem-poled prawns out of 10
Distributor: Nintendo South Africa
Platform: Nintendo 3DS Family
Release Date: 23 October 2015
Age Rating: 10+