Ah, Zelda. Nintendo's staple adventure game has graced many a console, and exploring the huge sprawling worlds, taking down enemies, solving puzzles, and of course, rescuing the titular Princess Zelda along the way is a formula that's been repeated oodles of times since the series began. Bar a single multiplayer spin-off on the GameBoy Advance, and its GameCube sequel, though, the adventures have always been a traditionally single player affair, as young Link explores the vast land of Hyrule on his lonesome, with nary a soul for company. But what if Link wasn't such a larry? What if you could team up to take on top-down, puzzle themed dungeons as a trio of friends? A Tri Force, if you will. That's essentially the story behind Nintendo's latest 3DS release, The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes.
Tri Force Heroes' basic premise is simple and suitably silly - in a kingdom that prides itself on it's fashion sense, a grumpy witch has cursed the princess with a permanent wardrobe malfunction, kitting her out in an un-removable drab brown onesie instead. As such, the inhabitants are afraid to be stylish, and the king - understandably - worries for his kingdom's waning fashion flair. So, he does what any ruler worth his salt would do, and sends out a call for someone else to solve his problems for him, advertising for heroes with pointed ears, thick side burns and a side parting to head to the Drablands, break the witch's curse and save the realm. And as one such hero, it appears your time has come.
But the Drablands is a dangerous place, rife with enemies and perils galore. By royal decree, no-one is allowed to head out in anything other than a trio of friends (although it doesn't matter if they're human friends, or computer controlled ones) - but an even bigger reason to travel in threes is that the land's forests, volcanoes and ice caves are littered with puzzles and challenges that require three people to complete. Whether it's pressing down three buttons to open a door, or making use of Tri Force Heroes biggest feature - the ability to stack your little elven guys into a three-person-high totem pole - you'll need to make use of your party if you plan on venturing forth.
Stacking plays a big part in the puzzles, whether it's piling up to reach a switch, forming a tower to hit an enemy's high up weak point, or hurling each other on to higher places. Various power ups and items, from bows and arrows to bombs and jars that send out a forceful puff of air, can be found in levels, and work into the puzzles too, letting you shoot high up switches, blow up broken blocks or puff companions over gaps and onto nearby paths - mixing and matching power ups, and working out which one best fits the situation at hand is all part and parcel of being a hero.
Teamwork really is the name of the game here too, with the game constantly presenting you with puzzles that may seem impossible at first glance. Some sections require you to form towers, and throw each other up and across, then figure out how to bring your poor stranded team mate up to the same level. Then there's working out how to get all three of you to the portal to the next area, or how to press down all three buttons at once, despite them being scattered all over the place, and perhaps even at different heights too. Bosses are a similar matter - some ask you to stack yourselves in increasingly high piles to shoot their weak spot, while others need you to hurl a bomb into their centre to stun them, and then throw your companion up on top to deliver the finishing blows. With a bit of thinking, experimentation and a heavy dose of working together, you'll soon find the answers.
With such an emphasis on three characters then, it comes as no surprise that Tri Force Heroes is built around multiplayer, whether local, everyone on the same sofa (either with their own copy of the game, or via Download Play, letting those who don't own the game play along for free) or over the internet. But, unlike Nintendo's last foray into multiplayer Zelda adventures, Four Swords, there are hard and fast rules here for how many can play. The kingdom needs three, and only three heroes - if you're wanting to play in a pair, you may as well head home now and forget about saving the land, as Tri Force Heroes simply doesn't let you play with just two people. There's no way of playing as a pair with an AI companion, or any other work around - you either have three human players, or you play on your own.
And it's that's Tri Force Heroes' Achilles heel - a huge limitation that means the game can only appeal to a much smaller market than it otherwise would. Obviously playing with three friends would be the ideal, but not everyone can manage to rope in that many friends all the time - the average family has around two kids and heck, most couples tend to be a pair too. So where's the harm in letting people travel as a two with a third dummy character to make up the numbers? This is actually how the single player already works - instead of giving you computer controlled buddies, you get two dummy "statue" characters you can switch to at any time (but more on this later). It might make things a bit more chaotic if both try to switch to the third character at once, but a few words between the players would fix that in an instant. If we could have played as a pair, we would have played Tri Force Heroes to death, and we doubt we're alone in feeling that way. Yet by forcing us to play as a three or nothing, it's the sort of game that'll likely only come out on special occasions. Which is sad.
Forced to abandon our plans of playing as a dynamic duo, we decided to take on Tri Force Heroes in single player instead, where the game has a workaround in place for your lack of numbers. In place of real life human companions, it gives you a pair of 'doppels' to help you in your quest. Essentially nothing more than statues you can swap into, these doppels have no AI to speak of, with each needing to be controlled separately by switching between the three link characters via the Touch Screen. Initially it seemed quite fun, giving it a slower-paced, more puzzle-orientated feel - but the longer you play, and the further you get through the game, the harder and more infuriating things start to feel. Because the characters don't move on their own, you have to switch between them all every few steps, just to keep your party together - and once you start having to do more complex things, it starts to fall apart. Obviously made with three real people in mind, latter levels require more speed than the general clumsiness of having to switch between three characters all the time allows for.
The first level of the second world proved especially problematic in single player - called Secret Fortress, this stage introduces you to the Water Rod item, which lets you summon a water pillar just in front of your character, perfect for lifting you to higher areas and crossing over gaps. Except for one puzzle in the third area of the level, where you're presented with a small expanse of water, and a doorway, blocked by a number of rather large, breakable blocks. The puzzle? You need to get a bomb across the water and blast your way through, creating a makeshift bridge over the water with the water pillars. It's the sort of thing that would be stupidly simple with the help of a friend or two, but on your own it's borderline impossible. You need to first lay down three water pillars in a line as one character, then speedily switch to the next, pick up the bomb and leg it across - but no sooner have you made your pillars and switched, than your water walkway will start rapidly disappearing. You're lucky if you can make your way across once, let alone the requisite twice (or more) needed to completely blast your way through the blocks - the margin of error here is so infuriatingly small, it verges on impossible. And, it's not the only instance of it either.
It's a shame really, because in three player, Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is a blast, showing off that when it comes to local multiplayer, Nintendo really do have the right idea. Assuming you can work together in some kind of coherent team, taking down enemies, figuring out puzzles and exploring the game's varied dungeons is a great way to spend an afternoon, and having real people to bounce ideas off comes in handy with some of the more complex brain teasers. There's also more people for you to bounce your bombs off, accidentally throw off cliffs and blast into traps, making for some more chaotic moments if you're not careful - but that can be part of it's charm too. Being able to shout out instructions to each other, punch the 'friend' who puffed you off a ledge with a gust jar and having folks to celebrate with when you finally pull off that boss fight is the ideal way to play, and, assuming your teamwork is up to scratch, is possibly one of the better co-op experiences on the 3DS. Especially with the built in "chat" system, that lets you send little pictures of happy/sad/angry Links to each other.
Given the fashion-forward kingdom our hero has found himself in, it comes as no surprise that he wants to get in on the dressing up game too. As you play through the game, you can unlock and purchase outfits, each of which has it's own unique abilities, advantages and features, from increasing the number of arrows you can shoot, making health pick ups more likely to appear to helping you walk on ice with minimal slipping. Each outfit has a time and a place where it's most useful, and kitting out your team with the best selection for the stage can give you a definite advantage during levels - pair a suit which increases the blast radius of your bombs with a bomb power up, or put your platformingly-challenged partner in the Tingle Tights which come equipped with balloons to save you from a few falls and you can make things a touch easier for yourselves. Somewhat disappointingly, though, people playing on their own can only dress up one of their team, making an already more challenging set up even harder.
All in all, The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is a bit of a mixed bag, and how you feel about it will largely depend on how you plan on playing it. As a threesome, it's pretty darn fun, but not supporting two players seems like a huge, huge oversight - and single player quickly becomes a bit of a clumsy, complicated nightmare. But if you can find the full complement, and can manage to work together well enough, you'll find Tri Force Heroes is a surprisingly solid, and silly, adventure.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS