Alundra is what could have happened with the Zelda series had Nintendo kept their balls. It understands perfectly what makes for entertaining combat, dungeons, puzzles, and even plot (though it is certainly rife with clichés). It requires heavy thought and physical dexterity to complete. In an alternate universe, Alundra is the sequel to the likes of A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, not the dreary trash that the Zelda series ended up becoming.
Alundra was published for the PlayStation in Japan and the United States in 1997 and Europe in 1998. Alundra is about a wandering elf named not-Link who has the power to enter people’s dreams. This serves not only as a plot point (he can figure out people’s motivations and literally kill their nightmares) but also gives the opportunity for a great deal of interesting dungeons in both “reality” and the dreamworld. It has a top-down perspective and huge amount of puzzles to solve.
Upon playing Alundra, the first thing you’ll probably notice (aside from the trite opening of a lone shipwreck survivor being nursed back to health) is the lush and captivating sprite work. There are no generic levels in this game; even played-out video game concepts like Cave Level, Desert Level, Ice Level, Tree Level, etc. all have character and beauty that make them memorable and less monotonous to navigate. Most of the characters you meet in the game have a unique face and personality. This doesn’t sound that important, but after you’ve jumped into the thousandth person’s dream, it helps that you care about the fictional character you’re helping. This is one aspect of the game that was quite well done.
Alundra has a strange way of getting you to care about its cast of characters. In most games, the people in a village are faceless objects that exist to sell you items and give you quests. They do do this in Alundra, but the translation provides and earnest and sometimes charming effort with the script. It’s certainly rife with clichés—ones about chosen ones and evil churches and fetch quests—and the text moves too slowly. And all the symptoms of a Working Designs translation are present; pointless pop culture references and a character given a surfer dude accent are a few minor irritations.
But the most fascinating part of the plot is when everyone starts dying. The great hero, strong and handsome and perfect, chosen by fate to save everybody… doesn’t save everybody. Sometimes evil triumphs. Sometimes good folks are manipulated into doing terrible things. Innocent people die, grand quests fail horribly, and your hard and selfless work can end up for naught.
Much like the last great Zelda game, A Link to the Past, combat involves properly positioning yourself around enemies, striking and retreating, and using items and spells in moderation. Many of the items you find (bombs, bows, various types of boots, life containers, a power glove) are obviously copied from Zelda games but their uses are not always identical. Early in the game you get the bombs, which you can use infinitely. They’re necessary for puzzles of course, but if you have the skill they can be also deadly weapons for the rest of the game, sometimes even more so than the various spell scrolls and upgraded weapons you can find. Alundra is a game that rewards clever thinking in both fighting and puzzles.
The controls could have been better; running requires pressing a button and standing in place for a second, plus it always ends in a slide. You can walk in eight directions but only attack in four (also like A Link to the Past). And (as with Crystalis), it’s often unclear about where you’re supposed to go next, and you talk to everyone in Inoa Village repeatedly until one of them mentions that something’s unusual at the old coal mine which in game-speak means that you need to go there to progress. Thanks to the success of Grand Theft Auto III, most 21st century games will bypass this and just give you a minimap with your next destination marked on it, but it’s still enjoyable to explore Alundra’s beautifully drawn wildernesses in between areas. There are occasional non-linear sections of the game, and exploration is its own virtue.
The game’s many (many, many) puzzles include lighting orbs according to a certain rhythm, pushing some sliding ice pillars to create a path to walk along, stacking boxes and other objects in the proper locations and orders, walking across floor tiles with arcane symbols you must decipher, and other such esoterica. Not to mention a great many jumping puzzles. This isn’t a “get the blue key to open the obvious blue door in the same room” kind of puzzle game. Make no mistake, this is a bastard of a hard game and you probably won’t beat it without a trip to GameFAQs. And unlike adventure games, you rarely have the option of simply using every item on every obstacle and hoping one of them works. This is a thinking man’s game and casuals will be destroyed. But it is never unfair or frustrating or illogical; you may be perplexed at times, but you will not be insulted. When you complete a particular challenge, you feel rewarded for your problem-solving skills, quite dissimilar from when you managed to cobble together the same fragmented shards of ideas that Roberta Williams mistakenly thought made sense at the time.
I spoke earlier of Alundra’s visual and textual aesthetics, but video game music is always important to me. The game’s music is smooth easy-listening stuff that might be played while you’re waiting on hold for tech support, but the compositions are good enough that it never grows boring despite its mellow sound. The town theme clearly gets its intended meaning of “this is a peaceful village of happy people” (until things get ruined, of course). The theme for Nirude’s Lair is as strange and catchy as the Adventure of Lolo theme. The boss theme is not pummeling and intense like you’d expect from most boss themes, but it carries with it a sense of urgency that more than serves its purpose as an indicator that things are escalating.
The Japanese original’s introduction was just a movie of some gameplay. The U.S. version wisely decided to cut up a few scenes from the ending and mix them with gameplay for a more interesting intro. There’s also a mediocre attempt at a sad-but-inspiring song sung in English during the end credits because every PlayStation anime game in the mid-1990s through early 2000s had to have one.
There is an Alundra sequel but it is quite poor despite coming from the same developer; it’s closer to The Granstream Saga or some similar humdrum PlayStation anime game than the exciting brain-wracking challenge of Alundra. Despite decent reviews from mainstream review sites and magazines (not that you should be taking mainstream gaming sites and magazines seriously), the series unfortunately died quietly after that.
Alundra is available on the PlayStation Network if you have a PS3, or on the Pirate Bay Entertainment System if you’ve used the internet for more than ten minutes. Either way, play it and be amazed. If only modern Zeldas were this good.