With The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo accomplished a difficult task by making a worthy follow-up to A Link to the Past over twenty years after the fact. During this time, director Hiromasa Shikata expressed the desire to make a multiplayer Zelda title. However, he wished to stray from the competitive nature of Four Swords and its standalone sequel. Furthermore, he acknowledged the limitations players faced when attempting to play those games. Anyone who wished to play Four Swords with friends would need them to possess a copy of the game along with a Game Boy Advance and a specialized cable. Multiplayer sessions in Four Swords Adventures were even more demanding, requiring those interested to locate as many as five discontinued consoles. This is because any such venture would need as many Game Boy Advance consoles as there were total players plus a GameCube or Wii for the actual disc.
Because the Nintendo 3DS linked to other consoles wirelessly, it could easy avoid these problems; players didn’t even need to be in the same room to interact with each other. Therefore, Mr. Shikata along with series producer Eiji Aonuma and a majority of the team behind A Link Between Worlds reformed and started work on this new multiplayer title. Using the aesthetics of A Link Between Worlds as a primary inspiration, Mr. Shikata and his team dubbed this new game Tri Force Heroes – a pun referencing the mystical artifact that had played an integral role in the series from the very beginning. In something of a departure from how the series’ entries were usually handled, Tri Force Heroes ended up being released in 2015 to little buildup or fanfare. This relative lack of excitement seemed to reflect in what critics had to say about it. Compared to its predecessors, all of which had little trouble amassing acclaim, Tri Force Heroes received a lukewarm reception. Would it be accurate to describe Tri Force Heroes as the series’ first significant misstep?
Analyzing the Experience
The Kingdom of Hytopia is renowned the world over for being very fashion-forward, which is personified by its princess, Styla. She is adored by everyone with one exception – a witch hailing from the Drablands named Lady Maud. She despises, and is immensely jealous of, the princess’s cute fashion sense. One day, she sends Styla a gift. However, the beautifully wrapped box belies the witch’s evil intentions, for upon opening it, the princess is cursed to wear an irremovable, ugly jumpsuit. The princess isolates herself from the society as her subjects bemoan her fate. People begin to grow fearful of fashion, believing they would suffer the same fate.
The citizens want to lift the curse for their princess’s sake, but only chosen heroes can enter the Drablands. The princess’s father, King Tuft, sends out a notification to neighboring and distant countries asking for heroes to assemble, promising a handsome reward. There is a prophecy within the kingdom that tells of the Tri Force Heroes. These individuals are described as having pointy ears, sideburns, and side-parted hair. It is said that if they overcome the challenges of the Drablands, Hytopia shall be blessed with everlasting peace and style. The king believes in the legend and that the ones who meet his criteria must be the true Tri Force Heroes. Due to the sheer amount of notices King Tuft put up, countless people are claiming to be those heroes – one of whom happens to be Link, the hero of Hyrule.
When writing these reviews, I tend to maintain a fairly neutral tone until I lay out all of a game’s basic components. I do this so I can explain to readers what a given game entails so I can provide my subjective thoughts on them. I find it’s especially helpful when I’m about to propose an opinion that flies in the face of the general consensus. That way, even those who disagree can at least fathom my thought process. Tri Force Heroes is one of those rare instances in which I feel compelled to break my usual pattern.
Before the player is even granted control of Link, the game’s first main failing presents itself. The Legend of Zelda is a series known for its novel premises that are amazingly sincere despite their often humorous undertones. A newcomer wouldn’t pick up on that in the event Tri Force Heroes was their first exposure to the series because its own premise is rather insipid. The whole point of the game is to save a princess from being forced to wear an unfashionable outfit. To be fair, such a curse would have much worse ramifications than adversely affecting the bearer’s fashion sense, but because they’re understandably never brought up, we’re led to believe that reason and that reason only is the cause of Styla’s despair.
This premise likely wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, but even if that were true, it fails for a different reason. A lot of fledging comedy writers craft their stories under the impression that telling jokes gives them carte blanche to pen whatever springs to mind. If something doesn’t make any sense, they can take refuge in the fact that their work isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Though I wouldn’t describe Tri Force Heroes as an outright comedy game, a variant of this rookie mistake nonetheless manifests. As a counterexample to illustrate my point, one need not look further than Spirit Tracks. That entry could be read as an unabashed parody of the Zelda franchise as a whole akin to the Paper Mario series. What made Spirit Tracks work is that the jokes are used as a means for the writers to poke fun at themselves. At the same time, the narrative knew when it was time to set aside the humor and get serious – and it did this without ever coming across as tonally discordant. Tri Force Heroes doesn’t have this going for it. The jokes are off-the-wall and random as though to distract from the lack of thought or care that went into the narrative. Not only does this render the jokes hollow, it also makes the quest as a whole difficult to take seriously. This is especially jarring considering its direct predecessor had a surprising amount of nuance in its terse narrative.
Not helping its case is the English localization making a few references to popular internet memes at the time, thus permanently tying it to the period that spawned it. Such references could be seen in other titles, and Nintendo of America faced a fair bit of criticism for them. It was easier to forgive in the case of games such as Fire Emblem: Awakening because they had more than enough redeeming qualities to make up for any joke that may not have landed. If you found these references insufferable, you could take solace in the fact that you wouldn’t have to put up with them for long in the grand scheme of things. In Tri Force Heroes, they accentuate the shallowness of the narrative.
I appreciate the oddity of commenting on the narrative of a game that clearly wasn’t sold on its storytelling merits. This would be especially so given Tri Force Heroes was heavily advertised as being a multiplayer experience. Generally speaking, the medium’s most affecting narratives tend to be provided in single-player affairs. Even in light of these facts, I had a reason to write the review in such a fashion. It was to establish that, before you’re even given control of Link, Tri Force Heroes will need to rely solely on its gameplay to have any chance of providing a quality experience. Because of that, I think it’s only fair I finally begin discussing it.
To begin the game in earnest, Link must travel to the Drablands. He is soon warned that going alone is dangerous, necessitating him to take companions. Similar to Four Swords, you can opt to play Tri Force Heroes with two other players controlling an alternate version of Link. However, there is something of a catch; while Four Swords could be played with two, three, or four players with the level design subtly changing for each combination, multiplayer sessions in Tri Force Heroes are limited to exactly three participants – no more and no less. Alternatively, you can choose to ignore the warnings and tough out the Drablands alone. Should you do so, you will accompanied by two animate dolls known as Doppels. When you need to switch control of a Doppel, you must tap the corresponding icon on the touch screen.
Regardless of how you choose to challenge the Drablands, you’ll soon discover that, having been built on the same engine as A Link Between Worlds, Tri Force Heroes boasts similar gameplay. The graphics are in 3D, but they are presented from a top-down perspective not unlike the pioneering 2D installments. Link’s movements are controlled with the 3DS’s circle pad. Usage of the sword is permanently assigned to the “B” button. Holding down the “B” button until will cause Link to hold his sword forward. When it begins glowing, releasing the button will have him perform a spin attack, which deals more damage. The function carried out with the “A” button once again varies based on context. The action it performs, if any, will appear on the onscreen graphic representing the “A” button. Link is given the ability to dash forward from the onset. This is done by holding down either shoulder button. He can only dash in a straight line, so it pays to make sure his path is clear before doing so.
The back of the box proudly proclaims that there are thirty-two dungeons to be found in the game. I, on the other hand, feel the level design of Tri Force Heroes could be seen as the result of having adopted sensibilities from the Mario franchise and transplanting them into The Legend of Zelda. The Drablands are composed of eight different regions. Each has four levels apiece, which are in turn divided into four sections. In every stage, players are given three fairies. As is series tradition, they revive Link if his life meter is completely depleted. While they functioned as a type of healing item in previous entries, in the context of Tri Force Heroes, it would be more accurate to describe them as a life system. If Link is revived by a fairy, he is sent back to the entrance to the section in which he collapsed. If he runs out of fairies, must restart the entire stage from the beginning.
Much like Four Swords, Tri Force Heroes notably eschews any advanced inventory management system in favor of having each Link carry one item at a time. All items are used with a simple press of the “Y” button. The use of items is restricted with a purple energy gauge. How much energy a given item requires varies for each one. The meter fills up on its own when depleted, though if Link picks up a purple energy vial, it is fully restored. In a notable departure from Four Swords, each Link is given an item shortly after entering a stage and they retain them until the end of one. Earlier stages in a region usually exist so players can become acquainted with a certain item. It is, in turn, common for later stages to have each Link bear a different item.
Whether you’re playing alone or with friends, coordination is vital to have any kind of success. Much like in Four Swords, the Link you control can carry one of his comrades. However, while the ability saw limited use in that game and its sequel, it is upgraded to a central mechanic in Tri Force Heroes. Specifically, the three Links can form a human totem pole. To those confused about why Tri Force Heroes is a bit more limited when it comes to multiplayer options, this is the reason. In multiplayer, the person controlling the bottom Link can move around as normal and toss and companion he holds. Whoever controls the topmost Link can, in turn, use an item from that vantage point or take advantage of their newfound height and strike enemies they couldn’t reach on the ground. If you’re playing alone, you can control the bottom Link while using the sword button to execute an attack with the topmost Doppel.
In Link’s travels through the Drablands, he will inevitably stumble upon large caches of Rupees. Though he can’t exactly buy potions and the energy gauge makes acquiring ammunition unnecessary, he can still use them in Hytopia’s castle town. A woman named Madame Couture runs a clothing store. By supplying her with the correct amount of rupees as well as the required materials, she can fashion Link a new outfit.
Many of these outfits confer a passive bonus onto Link such as doubling his life meter, increasing the amount of damage he does with certain weapons, or protecting him from natural hazards. Each stage has one of three materials to be obtained from completing it, and more can be purchased from the vendor across from Madame Couture’s store. Fairies can be used to skip entire sections of a stage, but doing so will replace the contents of one of the three treasure chests with a mere twenty rupees.
In light of Tri Force Heroes needing to rely solely on its gameplay to have any hope of redeeming itself, it is my unfortunate duty to say it falls woefully short of that goal. One of the first problems with the game stares at you in the face as soon as it begins. For those who think it’s curiously generous for the game to start the player with nine hearts on the health meter, I can say your suspicions are well-founded. Every single source from which Link takes damage takes off exactly one heart from the meter. Simply put, Link can take nine hits without dying.
Though this may seem reasonable, there are a few factors that make it far more annoying than it needs to be. While you could purchase medicine in previous games, no such option exists here. The only way to restore your Link’s health is to hope the game spawns a heart upon defeating an enemy or break a jar containing one. If you cause a heart to spawn, it disappears after a set amount of time, so you will have wasted it if your health is full. This aspect isn’t anything new, but in light of the new system, it’s borderline untenable – especially because the Links now share the same health meter. In the event an enemy strikes every player and knocks them off a ledge, they will take six hearts’ worth of damage in total – three for the collision damage and an additional three due to falling in a bottomless pit. You are so dependent on your teammates to accomplish anything that your success is mutually dependent on theirs. This was true to a lesser extent in Four Swords wherein one player running out of health ended the game for the entire team. However, because everyone had their own health meter, the other players could easily protect their wounded companions.
Moreover, the totem mechanic is incredibly cumbersome to execute. Four Swords was a novel game for its time in that it encouraged players to cooperate while also lending a competitive edge to the proceedings. What Tri Force Heroes does is take the cooperative element and takes it to rather irritating extremes. To wit, the amount of coordination required to properly use the totem mechanic makes playing the game online a nightmare without a way to directly communicate complex ideas to the other players. Each player has access to an array of communication icons, but rarely are they sufficient when it comes to getting points across. To wit, you often have to make sure the Link with the correct item is in the topmost spot. This means one player has to hold that Link and a second player must pick up the other two. If my explanation of this mechanic doesn’t make any sense, I can assure you it’s only slightly more comprehensible in context.
Given how a majority of the flaws I’ve highlighted stem from attempting to play this game with others, I feel it’s worth mentioning that, if anything, they’re only exacerbated in single-player sessions. To begin with, though Doppels cannot take damage from enemy attacks, they can still be pushed into bottomless pits almost as easily as the player-controlled characters. Even if a Doppel falls into a pit, Link still takes damage. More to the point, having control of only one Link at a time means navigating these levels is beyond tedious. Not only do you have to remember what each Link is carrying at a given time, you must tap the touch screen to switch Links. It would have been far more convenient to allow players to switch Links with a simple tap of the shoulder buttons. Both of those buttons merely cause him to dash, and the “X” button is instead used to take snapshots – a wholly unnecessary feature.
In a way, dealing with the Doppels reminds me of Sonic Heroes in that a majority of its problems stem from attempting to control multiple characters in what is an action-oriented title. Then again, Four Swords Adventures allowed players to control all four Links at once without any difficulties whatsoever. If there was an option to have the Doppels follow Link in preset formations, utilizing them wouldn’t be such a hassle. As it stands, you either have to effectively go through a stage three times to reach the end or make the game one prolonged escort mission by carrying the Doppels to the goal.
One of the worst parts of using the Doppels is that they make certain parts of the game unnecessarily difficult. Certain puzzles require players to hit two or more switches in unison, but this problem is at its worst during certain enemy encounters. For example, one boss fight occurs against a giant wormlike creature called Moldorm. Longtime fans will recognize this monster, for it notably appeared in A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, and A Link Between Worlds. It’s a generally unpopular boss because Link is often at risk of being falling to the floor below. Whenever that happened, Moldorm’s health would be restored upon reaching its lair a second time.
This incarnation of Moldorm is much faster and smarter than its predecessors, being able to pursue Link with pinpoint accuracy. The idea is that one Link distracts it while his comrades to sneak up on the monster and strike its weak point. When playing alone, this involves nearly perfect timing on your part. You have to lead Moldorm away from the Doppels, switch to one of them, and strike the creature before it can lock onto the Link you’re controlling instead. Tapping the touch screen to switch Links is bad enough but trying to do that while trying not to get flattened by a giant worm is next to impossible. Don’t be surprised if you end up switching to the wrong Doppel by accident due to having no time to concentrate. In other words, the team behind this game took one of the series’ weaker bosses and found a way to make it worse.
Other encounters don’t fare much better. When they’re not outright forgettable, they too tend to stand out for the wrong reasons. One such instance involves catching bombs thrown by cyclops-like monsters and throwing them back – all while riding a mine cart. In multiplayer, it’s easy enough because what you need to do is self-explanatory and your teammates can easily keep the bombs from damaging you. Alone, you’ll quickly find your cart filled to the brim with bombs and no time to get rid of them before they explode. Being a mine cart, there’s barely any room to escape an errant explosion, and the Doppels will impede your progress with their mere presence. After all, the same button used for picking up the bombs also happens to be the means for which you form totems. You’ll find yourself picking up a Doppel by accident all the time. In the heat of the moment, you could very well end up tossing it into the lava pit, costing you a heart.
More than anything, the fatal flaw of Tri Force Heroes lies in its setting, and I am sorry to say that Drablands is an apt name for it. From a visual standpoint, they run the gamut of stock video game stages with little in the way of character or depth. The first region is a standard forested area. From there, things don’t get terribly more interesting with Link later going through a riverside, a snowy mountain, a desert, and of course, the obligatory lava zone every other classic game has. Even the final area, the Sky Realm, comes across as a rehashed version of the Palace of Winds from Four Swords.
Actually playing the game reveals the level design is as bland as it is frustrating to navigate. There is a creative puzzle every now and again, but most of the time, you’ll be mindlessly going through the motions until you’ve reached the end of a given stage. When I reviewed A Link Between Worlds, I commented that, because of its non-linear design, the game had trouble building on itself. That problem is present and far more apparent in Tri Force Heroes. The levels introduce the items you are to use for the duration of your time in them within the first few minutes. These items are then exploited, exhausted, and abandoned in the span of one stage. Whether or not the experience you gained using these items will in any way, shape, or form apply to later stages depends entirely on where the developers placed them. In broad strokes, this design choice works in the Mario franchise wherein you have the same basic controls to deal with anything the games throw at you. It doesn’t work as well in The Legend of Zelda or any other title in which players are made to utilize inventory items extensively.
The other strike against this game’s level design concerns the gimmicks the stages employ. The sands of the desert region will swallow your character if he stays in it for too long, there are floors that can only be stepped on safely with a certain Link, and the Sky Realm has strong gusts of wind you must take into account. I could write in detail how annoying these gimmicks are, but by far the worst one involves navigating a seesaw-like mechanism. You have to make sure the Links distribute their weight evenly, lest you risk them tumbling into the abyss. Once again, this task is frustrating playing alone, though it doesn’t fare any better in multiplayer. This was probably an attempt on the developers’ part to incorporate the series’ trademark puzzle-centric gameplay into a multiplayer experience, but it misses the mark.
The biggest testament to the game’s subpar design can be seen in the final stage. Here, you and your teammates can choose from any of the eight items featured in the rest of the game. Considering you had no choice in the matter up until this point, suddenly having been granted any amount of freedom is paradoxically stifling. You have no idea what awaits you, yet you must pick three random items and hope they prove useful. In reality, this is because the final stage is a gauntlet of enemy and boss encounters. The fight against Lady Maud isn’t terrible, but she is a textbook entry-level final boss. If anything, she manages to be even more banal than her predecessors because she takes your items away before the fight begins. An ideal endboss should serve as a final exam to test what players have learned playing the rest of the game. By drastically limiting your methods of causing damage, fighting her actually requires simpler tactics than the ones you used against every other boss in the game – even having multiple phases does little to assuage this glaring problem. It’s fitting given the standards the game itself established, but when you remember that the series historically excelled in the art of providing climactic final boss fights, it’s completely inexcusable.
Drawing a Conclusion
A Link Between Worlds received nearly unanimous praise when it was released in 2013. Despite this, a few vocal holdouts lambasted it, though not necessarily on its merits as a game. Instead, these critics insinuated the only possible reason it could have garnered its overwhelmingly positive reception was by reminding fans that A Link to the Past existed. Even if such an assertion had a ring of truth to it, I ultimately felt it wasn’t a valid criticism of A Link Between Worlds. There are two main reasons why I can say this. The first is that anyone who actually plays A Link Between Worlds and gives what it has to offer the time of day knows it easily stands on its own in addition to being a worthy follow-up to A Link to the Past. Secondly, attempting to play Tri Force Heroes afterwards reveals it is far more deserving of that criticism than its predecessor.
Indeed, as I played Tri Force Heroes, I remember hearing the sound effects lifted from A Link to the Past whenever Link executed a spin attack, collected rupees, or collapsed after running out of health. Every single time they rang out, one prevailing thought coursed through my mind: “Why am I not playing A Link to the Past right now?” Not once did I ever think that playing A Link Between Worlds because it built on its distant predecessor and created something new – a remarkable feat given the two games’ obvious similarities. In an ironic twist, Tri Force Heroes, with its original setting, premise, and gameplay, comes across as more of a nostalgia cash-in than the installment actively modelling itself after a beloved classic. No amount of cues taken from A Link to the Past could make up for the fact that Tri Force Heroes was the single weakest canonical entry the series had known when it debuted in 2015.
Even after all of its flaws have been laid bare, I can imagine some readers wondering if it still might be worth checking out – if for no other reason than for sake of completionism. That depends on two factors. The first is your own stance on the franchise. It would take a large amount of dedication to the series to overlook the myriad flaws present in Tri Force Heroes. If you feel this series can do you no wrong, it may be worth checking out. However, this leads into the second condition – if you are at all interested in this game, realize that you will not get anything out of it in single-player sessions. Though I give Tri Force Heroes some credit in that setting it up is far easier than Four Swords Adventures, the latter is unquestionably the superior experience. I can say this because it’s a serviceable single-player game and adding friends makes it that much more enjoyable. Meanwhile, the only possible enjoyment you can get out of Tri Force Heroes is by playing with two friends. If you can’t play Tri Force Heroes with friends or are unwilling to try it with random people online, you won’t get anything meaningful out of the experience. In such an event, feel free to skip this one.
Final Score: 3/10