For a while now, I’ve dreamed of exploring the realm of Hyrule, diving into dungeons, and taking on the hordes of darkness with a friend by my side. Cooperative play, when done right, takes a challenging game and lets you team up with a friend to make the going a little easier. For years now,
The Legend of Zelda series has been known for being way too easy, especially from a combat perspective – by letting players team up with their buddies, the team at EAD could use cooperative play as a way to make a truly challenging game while giving less experienced players a means of overcoming the rougher parts.

When Nintendo announced
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes during their E3 2015 Digital Event, I was actually a little excited. Finally, Nintendo was giving us a Zelda where we can team up with friends to take on tough challenges! After some hands-on time with the game on the show floor, though, I’m not convinced Tri Force Heroes is the sea change I was hoping for. Instead, it feels like more of the failed Four Swords direction all over again.

I’ve been very vocal about not caring for the heavier puzzle emphasis in recent
Zelda games. For one, puzzles break the tension that should be present in a game where you’re saving the world. How high can the stakes really be if the enemy’s throwing more brain teasers at you than actual opponents? Puzzles also have very little gameplay value. Once you’ve solved them once, you’ll be able to do them by rote – particularly when puzzle ideas are repeated multiple times over the course of a single game, even with a degree of added complexity each time. Not only that, but most of the puzzle ideas we’ve seen throughout the series’ history lost their novelty several installments ago. Puzzles should still exist as a way of breaking up the action and making the dungeons seem authentic as ancient temples and strongholds with traps to keep out the unworthy. But when they’re the lion’s share of the game, it can become a bit of a drag.

Combat, on the other hand, tends to be much less stale – but only when it’s sufficiently challenging. While puzzles give players pause, combat forces them to stay on their toes. Fighting enemies adds visceral tension to the player’s quest, forcing them to not only understand how to use the environment to their advantage but also how to push back against the enemies that stand in their way. And unless you’re stuck on a particular segment and have to keep repeating it, or you’re a pro who’s polishing your speedrun skills, you’re unlikely to have the exact same fight twice – while puzzles will always be the same, every single time.

At first glance,
Tri Force Heroes seems like it’s very action-oriented. The game allows you to select your equipment before heading into battle, including not only one of Link’s trademark items like a bow, boomerang, or bombs, but also your clothes. In addition to customizing your look, each outfit bestows particular abilities – one boosts your spin attack, another gives you more powerful bombs, another still gives you extra luck to help you dodge enemy blows. Seems like the groundwork for a swashbuckling adventure that pits you against the forces of darkness, right?

Wrong. This impression is a facade.
Tri Force Heroes revolves no more around combat than any of the past several Zelda games. In fact, it relies even more on puzzles than the Four Swords games did – the cooperative play is almost exclusively about solving puzzles, not getting the upper hand against enemies. They aren’t particularly novel puzzles, either: some have you using the same old items we’ve been playing with for decades now, often to perform similar tricks to the ones you’re used to from other top-down titles. Others require you to hop on a friend’s shoulders – a mechanic known as the “totem” – to hit things that would otherwise be out of reach.

Puzzles make for an exceptionally weak showing this time. Most of the ones we saw during our time with the game revolve around pushing blocks, hitting switches, or moving your fellow heroes to a faraway platform using your Gust Jar or boomerang. If a block is too heavy to push, have your friends push it alongside you! If an enemy tosses a bomb at you from a speeding minecart, throw it back! If a boss stretches itself so tall you can’t hit it, totem up and have the top player shoot its weak spot with your bow!

Yawn. Haven’t we done these sorts of things already in Four Swords? Cooperative puzzles aren’t new, they don’t add anything to the experience, and to be honest having to coordinate multi-step puzzles with friends is more an art of patience than of skill. Solving puzzles together is simply not fun. Inevitably one person will realize the solution, and the others will have to follow his or her lead. If the point of puzzles is to challenge the player to figure out what to do, that means most players who play cooperatively will lose out on the joy of solving many of the game’s traps. The only satisfaction they’ll get will come from the sense of relief that their teammates didn’t mess up when they tried to hit those three faraway switches simultaneously before getting dunked in the lava.

While I do appreciate the
Zelda team’s efforts to bring teamwork into the core Zelda series, I can’t help but feel they’re missing the point of cooperative play – which is not to add more layers of complexity and frustration to the process of progressing through a game, but to give players a way to offer and receive help. Opportunities for teamwork shouldn’t be forced on the player; they should come naturally as the player gets used to playing alongside others. In Tri Force Heroes, however, teamwork feels more like an intrusion into a heroic adventure and a hindrance to satisfying play.

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