Developer: Matrix Software
Publisher: Working Designs
Completed: 22 March 2015
Oh how I miss Working Designs, the company that localized so many classic Japanese games. Just about any time you see their logo on a game, you know you're getting quality - and not just in the game itself. Working Designs was also renowned for their premium packaging, which usually included things like foil embossed artwork, full-color manuals, and extras ranging from world maps to various trinkets. This has made their releases highly collectible, but it's the quality of the games they chose that always struck me. Few publishers ever had such a stellar track record.
I remember stumbling across Alundra in a now-defunct local game shop in the early 2000s. I bought it solely because of the packaging and that little pink logo I'd come to know and love, and like most games I bought, I played it for a few hours then moved onto something else. It's probably a good thing it worked out that way, because if I had tried to beat this game on my own, without the use of a walkthrough, I'd have gone mad.
Alundra looks and plays very similar to Nintendo's Legend of Zelda franchise. It's played from a (more or less) top-down viewpoint where you fight enemies in real time, traverse trap-laden dungeons, solve maddening puzzles, and collect equipment that will open up new dungeons and paths. Hell, you can even slash away at grass to find money and life drops. You have a charged sword attack, and you collect diamond-shaped life vessels, which act exactly the same as Zelda's heart containers. It all seems a bit like a knockoff to read it, but there are a few key differences.
What separates Alundra from Nintendo's storied franchise is several things - first: the story. Let's be honest, no Zelda game is ever going to win an award for amazing storytelling. They all pretty much boil down to "Link good, Ganon(dorf) bad, save Princess/Hyrule." Alundra, on the other hand, contains a deeply emotional, mature story with themes of religious faith, life, and death. So much death.
Alundra is far from a light-hearted romp, despite the anime-inspired graphics. In truth, it's often a soul-crushing, depressing game. Unlike most games of its kind, the hero doesn't save the day without consequences.
After washing up on the shore of Inoa village the victim of a shipwreck, Alundra is nursed back to health by the local blacksmith. Everything in town seems peachy at first, but soon the villagers' dreams turn into deadly nightmares and they fall victim one by one. As it happens, Alundra possesses the rare power to enter these dreams, which sparks a quest to discover the truth about the Gods of the world, and the people who worship them. Despite his best efforts, Alundra cannot save everyone, and each hard-fought victory has a bittersweet ending as another villager succumbs to the evil that has plagued their dreams.
As with most of their games, Working Designs' translation is extremely well done. There are some dated pop culture references, which was customary and a little out of tone for such a serious story, but by and large the text is surprisingly thought-provoking for a late 90's adventure game. Even today, few games dare to touch sensitive topics like faith and death with such care and maturity.
The other way Alundra separates itself from The Legend of Zelda is in its jumping puzzles. Yes, jumping. In a top-down adventure game. In case you don't understand why that's a problem, let me break it down for you.
You're in a room with a large pit. Several pillars rise out of this pit, and there are moving platforms to help you get from one side of the room to the other. You line up your jump, wait for a platform to near, take a deep breath...and jump straight into the abyss because the platform that looks like it's on the same plane as you is actually too high for you to reach. Too bad you couldn't tell because the game's sense of depth is thrown off by its camera angle. So you fall into another room and work your way back to the pit again...only to have the same thing happen a few dozen times before you FINALLY line up the jumps just right.
It doesn't help that the jumping mechanics are wonky either. Sometimes you need to be right on the edge of a platform to make a jump, so you'll inch forward, then press the X button and a direction, but the game only registers the d-pad and you fall, forcing you to try, try again. God help you if you need to make diagonal jumps.
The trial and error frustration of the jumping puzzles caused more headaches than I would have liked, and bogged the game down. Most games have a section I refer to as the "fun sink," where all the enjoyment you've had for the past however many hours is quickly forgotten as you struggle to pass one uncharacteristically hard area, but in Alundra it seemed to happen in nearly every dungeon from the midway point of the game until the end.
I stuck with it though, and with the help of a walkthrough, I was treated to a fantastic story and an exceptionally cool ending, told via a long hand-drawn anime cutscene. No simple "congratulations - you win!" message here - Alundra's ending is truly superb and a well-deserved reward if you have the patience to follow through to the end.
I must emphasize the use of a walkthrough is strongly encouraged. Alundra should take around 30 hours to complete if you know what you're doing. If you don't, it could easily be double that. There's a lot of backtracking in this game, and complex dungeons that require you to go into Room A, hit a switch, go to Room B, figure out how to reach a chest on a high ledge, get the key inside the chest, then return to Room A, unlock a door, kill all the monsters inside Room C to cause another switch to drop out of thin air, activate that one, then three rooms later, you'll see that the switches in rooms A and C affected something in room E. If it all sounds confusing, that's because it is. Throw in teleporters, and those infuriating jumping puzzles, and some of the dungeons can be absolute nightmares where you'll wander around for hours, possibly days, trying to figure out where to go and what to do next.
Bearing all that in mind, Alundra is still a pretty fantastic game. It will challenge your reflexes and jumping skills more than your combat prowess, and you'll rarely (if ever) see a Game Over screen. It has a few kinks I wish had been ironed out, but if you love The Legend of Zelda (specifically, A Link To The Past - and if you don't, we can't be friends), you owe it to yourself to check out Alundra. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and while it imitates much of Zelda's gameplay, Nintendo could certainly stand to imitate Alundra's incredible story. I just curse the sadistic bastard who made all those jumping puzzles.
Alundra was completed on a real PlayStation with no cheats.