Frequently becomes more frustrating than fun to play
On the surface Alundra looks like a garden-variety Zelda clone, but at heart it shares more in common with Landstalker (SEGA Genesis), featuring challenging jumping puzzles not found in the Zelda franchise. That’s no surprise as many of Alundra’s development team came from Climax Entertainment, the company behind Landstalker and several other classic 16-bit RPGs. It’s known for its above-average difficulty and its beautiful 2D graphics.
Alundra, an adventurer with the ability to enter people’s dreams, washes up on shore near a small town. It turns out the townspeople are afflicted with strange nightmares that can kill them, so Alundra enters their dreams to fend off a mysterious evil power. As an outsider the townspeople don’t always trust him, but later he is joined by a fellow Dreamwalker named Meia who helps him fight off the demon.
While it may not have the most sophisticated characters or storyline, the narrative thread it weaves is commendable given typical genre fare. As usual the localization by Working Designs attempts to throw some humor in here and there, but thankfully doesn’t go too far.
Alundra is fairly typical of the genre: he can move in eight directions, and fights primarily with a sword (and several other weapons, items, and magic spells). Genre staples such as bombs and health upgrades are also present and accounted for, but bombs and arrows are unlimited and aren’t terribly useful outside of a few specific situations. Instead the game play focuses primarily on tricky jumping and switch puzzles. While you’ll explore several nightmares (which function like dungeons), the rest of the game takes place within the typical overworld / dungeon layout.
Standard enemies are a bit tougher than in most other games, often defending themselves using shells or shields and taking multiple hits to die. On the other hand the bosses tend to be fairly easy, usually relying on simple and repetitive patterns and large area-of-effect attacks, and can be killed with a few well-timed spells. Some of the bosses are even recycled multiple times, which feels a bit cheap, but at least they look fairly impressive for the most part.
This is probably one of the best looking 2D games of the 32-bit generation, with lots of gorgeous detail in the environments and characters. However, the game does fall a bit short in the animation department, especially when compared to the likes of The Legend of Oasis on the Sega Saturn. There isn’t much in the way of 32-bit flair other than the animated videos which bookend the game, but what’s here has aged gracefully over the last 17 years. The game’s soundtrack is about average.
Challenge & Replay Value
Jumping is often the most challenging part of Alundra’s puzzles, and the root cause of much frustration. Unlike Landstalker, which had an isometric perspective, Alundra has a more traditional top-down view that makes judging your footing a bit easier, but you still have to be extremely precise.
The game also gives you the feeling of being too strict with regards to its collision detection and timing, and it can feel outright unfair in some situations – such as puzzles that rely on random chance or that have ridiculously opaque solutions. There’s a room in the game, for example, where you have to dislodge swinging wrecking balls from their supports to be used as platforms. Unfortunately for the player, this requires extremely precise timing and a lot of luck, as the wrecking balls roll in wildly different directions and cannot be pushed or moved after they have come loose.
In another room the game literally throws chance at the player to catch a barrel dropped randomly from one of four hatches, three of which are traps that will hurt you. You need to catch three barrels to complete the puzzle, but after a certain number of tries the trap stops dropping them (forcing you to leave the room to reset the puzzle). Since you’ll be taking damage from failed attempts, it feels like a war of attrition.
In these situations the game simply isn’t much fun to play, and the traps feel like a cheap way to force the player into using up their healing items. If this was limited to just one or two areas in the game it would be excusable, but this sadistic design sensibility rears its ugly head on a regular basis. Unfortunately many players won’t have the patience to see the game through to the end, and it does little to entice a second play through. This is a shame, as there are some very cleverly designed areas and puzzles sprinkled here and there that help to balance out the experience, if you can suffer through it.
If Alundra’s difficulty and general design was a bit more fair and balanced, it would qualify as a genuine classic. Sadly, this is simply not the case: where it ought to be challenging and fun, it is borderline unfair and frustrating. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a bad game, it just has its priorities mixed up. The fun part of solving a puzzle is figuring out what needs to be done, but Alundra’s designers preferred making it as hard as possible to execute what are often immediately obvious solutions. You’ll catch glimpses of brilliance here and there throughout its 30 hour quest, but doing so will require an awful lot of patience.
You may be surprised to learn I would still recommend it. For one thing, it’ll give you an even better appreciation for just how incredibly balanced the Zelda games are, and it’s a good back-up if you’re running out of the better traditional 2D action RPGs.
(this review is a repost from my website, www.plasticpals.com)