Tri Force Heroes is a bag of different experiences, each with distinct levels of quality
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is part of a package of Nintendo games that aims to extract some of the company’s greatest franchises out of their natural environments and put them in relatively unusual contexts. While some of those titles have been undeniably victorious, such as Yoshi’s Woolly World, which brought a great deal of inspiration to a series that was stuck inside a dreadful creative lull; others, like the two Animal Crossing spin-offs, failed to achieve the same level of success because the meddling with the property’s core gameplay mechanics ended up going way too far.
As it turns out, Link’s incursion into an odd kingdom that is totally obsessed with fashion does not land on either of those extremes; it falls somewhere between both ends, but with a considerable tilt towards the more positive portion of that spectrum. The not-so-new concept of designing a multiplayer The Legend of Zelda game, instead of coming off as a haphazard attempt to create something different, ends up shifting the adventure’s focus to what is probably the franchise’s most intriguing feature: its dungeon-exploring facet. However, some of the limitations imposed by that cooperative structure emerge as flaws under certain circumstances, stopping it from reaching full and unquestionable success.
It all begins when the princess of Hytopia, a bastion of fashion and style – therefore the most admired figure in the kingdom – is cursed by a witch, whose spell forces the young girl to wear a hideous unremovable black jumpsuit. The place falls into distress due to the horrifying events and a trio of heroes is enlisted to travel into The Drablands, the home of the evil lady, to recover the pieces of an outfit that will enable the princess to revert to her adorable and well-dressed self.
It is understandable that, due to the fact Tri Force Heroes works as a spin-off, Nintendo would want to create a plot on the lighthearted side, given it is never really the focus of the experience. However, the writing fails on the most important point when a story of the sort is built, which is letting players in on the joke. The touches of humor and, most importantly, the nods that this whole scenario is not meant to be taken seriously never really surface; it is never blatant the game and those who created its script are not lending the situation one ounce of graveness. The plot, consequently, becomes awkward and occasionally cringe-worthy.
Thankfully, though, the disaster that befalls Hytopia is never the focus; there are no significant developments along the way to the finish, and so Tri Force Heroes is left free to deal with its most important and delightful aspect: the cooperative undertaking of dungeons. The Drablands are divided into eight different locations with themes – such as forest, desert, ice, sky, and haunted ruins – that have been taken directly from the franchise’s long history, and each of those areas features four distinct dungeons, bringing the whopping total to thirty-two mazes.
Since this is a game meant to be played alongside other players – it is possible go through its challenges while partnered with friends either locally or over the internet, or with random strangers – the dungeons never reach the epic scope of what the franchise usually offers. Instead, they are each neatly segmented into four portions with checkpoints in-between and the trio of Links, which share the same bar of heart containers – something that imposes cooperation and the caring for one another, has four attempts to clear the whole level.
The size may be – correctly so – reduced, but the same cannot be said for the level of quality of the design. These are spectacularly crafted stages that present an almost perfect difficulty curve and a glorious balance between puzzles and battles, two scenarios in which cooperation is absolutely necessary for survival; the three chosen heroes must combine their powers and wits to, in the former, figure out what needs to be done; and, in the latter, come up with a strategy to beat the foes
That need to act and think together is achieved through a few smart mechanics. Firstly, there is the new totem ability (activated via a simple touch of the A button), which allows the characters to stand on top of one another to reach higher portions of the levels, trigger raised switches, and deal with bosses or enemies that are only vulnerable to elevated blows. Secondly, there is the fact that – right at the beginning of each stage – three pieces of equipment are must be picked up by the team; there are the usual suspects – like the arrow-and-bow, boomerang and hookshot, but also some more uncommon items in the Zelda canon like the water rod, the gust jar, and the hammer.
With those simple bricks, developers have built an absolutely mesmerizing, smart, and varied set of dungeons. The nearly endless possible combinations of items that can be used paired up with the totem skill opened numerous doors of design options, and the stage creators have gone through them and found some rather unique situations – only possible in a cooperative scenario, and consequently mostly never seen before in a Zelda game – to put players to the test. Each dungeon grabs its three available pieces of equipment and runs with them for great effects, producing puzzles and battle scenarios that are extremely refreshing.
Unsurprisingly, given Nintendo’s track record, Tri Force Heroes lacks any sort of voice chat to support its mandatory cooperation; an absence that will undoubtedly make some gamers mad. However, as an alternative, it presents a system of eight buttons laid out on the 3DS’ bottom screen that automatically send predetermined messages accompanied by an expressive Link cartoon. This option is certainly not as effective as audio communication would have been, but there is a great deal of charm to it. The messages, which include prompts to tell your teammates that they should use their item, form a totem, and signs of approval and disapproval, work very well. And although they do not cover all troublesome situations, they solve most of them.
Moreover, it can be argued that not only do those small signals fit perfectly with Link’s status as a silent protagonist, but also that working with them and helping one another figure out what do – which, in some situations, is a relatively complex web of timed actions – is part of the game’s challenge, albeit one that will be frustrating for some.
As it turns out, one of the game’s most unexpected and delightful characteristics emerges from that chaos. With the messaging system, and by forcing players to communicate through it, Nintendo has unearthed hilarity inside the Zelda gameplay. Depending on the situation and, of course, on the number of times players will be forced to go through a stage due to communication miscues, Tri Force Heroes can be funny unlike any other Nintendo game ever released.
There is a large degree of humor to be found in witnessing three Links desperately exchanging messages between one another while simultaneously struggling to go through a dungeon’s room and watching their venture fall apart quickly. It is an uncanny source of genuine laughter, and it alleviates a huge part of the anger that the quirks of online gaming often cause. Tri Force Heroes can, then, be truthfully laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Still, there are a few issues that emerge from the need to rely on online strangers; a situation most people who cannot gather with another two 3DS owners for somewhat lengthy periods of time, i.e. almost everyone, will encounter. For starters, there are the punctual difficulties to find a couple of partners that will not disconnect or act in a bad way. It is fair to say, though, that the game deals with the last problem by allowing players to automatically block anyone they do not want to play with anymore.
Secondly, and perhaps more common and harmful, is how the choosing of the stage that will be played is done. In order to speed up the formation of groups, Nintendo has divided the online mode into eight hubs (each leading into a specific area of The Drablands), and so players need to vote for one among the four levels of the chosen land. The selection is then randomized between the voted options. The problem is that when the stage that is picked is not the one a player wants to play (perhaps because they have already beaten it), it is frequent to encounter people that will simply disconnect, thereby ending the match automatically.
That structure, which is somehow necessary not to dilute the players who are online into many rooms, added with such behavior means that it might take quite a while for someone that is looking to play a specific stage in the area to find a group that is willing to do so; a situation that is absolutely frustrating.
Tri Force Heroes is, then, a bag of different experiences, each with distinct levels of quality. Playing the game alongside other friends, especially in the same room, is as delightful and engaging as possible; a beautiful meeting between the straightforward and easy to pickup and play nature of a Mario Party game, a quality that is achieved thanks to the great and simple controls, and the impeccable design of a Zelda game. Pairing up with strangers online can be equally satisfying, but there are various issues that will occasionally bring the experience down.
Meanwhile, tackling the game through its single-player mode, which turns the other two Links into statues that need to be “possessed” by the player in order to be moved is downright dreadful. Not only does it feel like a chore to have to alternate between each of the characters, there are some specific puzzles and, especially, battles where the fact that, at all times, two of the Links do not move makes it borderline impossible to advance, which leaves it very obvious that the single-player was quickly tacked on without much thought.
To those who fall in love with the experience, and there will be many, there are various reasons to keep on playing even after the main quest is done. Each dungeon has three challenges to be cleared – like getting to the end without using swords, carrying an orb to the finish, popping all balloons, not popping any balloons, adventuring in the dark, avoiding volcanic rocks, and more – and most of them are fun, nicely thought out, and difficult.
Additionally, and as one of the game’s central mechanics, materials can be gathered by beating the dungeons, buying them from the daily refreshed village shop, or battling others in the game’s Arena Mode. Those can, then, be converted into pieces of clothing that – aside from making Link look like either an awesome hero (like the skull-and-horns helmet of the Boomeranger outfit) or a ridiculous one (like the Legendary Dress) – give him special powers like making one of the items more effective or allowing him to avoid certain obstacles. A feature that, in turn, can be rather helpful in the clearing of the regular dungeons or their challenge-infused versions, creating a cycle that can extend a twenty-hour adventure into a far lengthier journey.
In the end, Tri Force Heroes is a game bound to split the Zelda fanbase into two portions. Those that find, in its clear flaws and limitations or in the absence of voice chat, a source of pure frustration, will certainly look at it in a very negative way. Alternatively, people that are charmed by its focused gameplay, great controls, and cooperative quirks will see it as one of the most downright amusing Zelda games out there; a party version, yet one that retains flooring level design, of a usually epic franchise. To those that end up loving it, the fun is almost endless.