The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is now less than a month away, but there's certainly a perception that it's struggling to generate the usual Zelda hype levels. It's the nature of spin-offs, with similar vibes about Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer - it's not that Nintendo fans have no interest, but there's a lack of the giddy excitement that comes with a mainline franchise entry.
It's interesting timing that we can share a full preview of Tri Force Heroes just as The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is confirmed for a discount in the upcoming 3DS Nintendo Selects range coming to Europe, a game that we awarded a perfect 10 that we'll happily defend until the end times. Tri Force Heroes uses the same graphical engine and many of its mechanics, yet it's on another level from Link Between Worlds; unfortunately that's a level below the brilliant 2013 release.
We've been working through the final build of Tri Force Heroes for a decent amount of time so far, with much time spent online or in local multiplayer and the majority of gameplay in the single player mode, so let's tackle them separately.
To begin with online multiplayer our exposure to it has been limited so far, something we plan to remedy prior to the final review. In our brief online session we were playing with 'randoms' in the first area, 'Woodlands'. Each area has four stages and then unlockable challenges that encourage multiple run-throughs of those stages, and in the case of Woodlands each level is designed to introduce basic mechanics through simple puzzles.
With just eight cute but limited automated messages - activated on the touch screen - available we managed these stages just fine, though there's no getting around the fact that later levels - which ramp up the complexity and timing aspects behind some puzzles and enemy encounters - will be potential sources of frustration without the ability to communicate properly through voice chat. There's no quirky placard for "totem up, middle character throw and then time the item throws together", for example, and we're curious - and rather concerned - to see how tougher stages work in online sessions.
Beyond the issue of limited communication, the lobby system is also overly primitive. At the outset each player votes for an area, one is picked in a random draw and then you vote for one of the four stages, with the option to include or exclude the extra challenge versions of the levels. Progress counts towards your campaign progression, but once you've all cleared levels and want to move on you need to leave the lobby, as there's no way to agree on a re-vote for a new area. If you find a group you like that aren't on your friend list, you can't move together onto another area - you have to start again. It all contributes to a sense that the online play is functional but unremarkable - on the plus side performance was relatively lag free in our session.
It's clear that local multiplayer is how Nintendo wants you to play this game. The first time you play with a new colleague this way you get a token to celebrate the occasion that unlocks special outfits, so you're effectively encouraged to find lots of different people to play with. That's a nice concept for StreetPass groups and fits well with portable gaming culture in Japan, though may be less useful for many gamers in the West.
This title does, to its immense credit, have impressive and generous Download Play support. You only need one copy of the game for two others to join - you need three players, though, as there's no option to play with two and have AI fill the gap. In a bizarre quirk with technical execution we can't quite figure out, in Download Play you can jump straight into the fourth stage of Woodlands, and clearing it then unlocks the next three areas for everyone - if the host has unlocked them - to allow you to tackle later stages. Those using DL play can't save their progress and it understandably feels like a demo - with prompts to visit the eShop and details of features in the full version coming up on screen - yet the host can make progress in their campaign with buddies. If you have friends that don't plan to buy the game but are willing to help this is a lovely feature.
Lag can be an issue though, and this applies to Download Play and when we tested local play with all three players owning the game. While online play was smooth on our connection, it's clear from this case and in the example of previous local multiplayer games that the 3DS' internal 'local wi-fi' signal can be temperamental, occasionally dipping and dragging; this was in a quiet room with limited external signals too, not in a 'busy' expo hall. It doesn't make the game unplayable by a long stretch, nor is it constant, but it can be problematic occasionally.
As we've highlighted in our E3 Hands On article and elsewhere, local multiplayer is hugely fun in the right company, but this is more down to the jokes and humour when playing with friends. The Link Between Worlds aesthetic and play style, along with some cool items including Fire Gloves with a Mario sound effect and the Gust Jar, make for clever puzzles and chaotic moments. With that said, though, at times stage design isn't quite on point, with sections that are frustrating rather than challenging, and a lingering feeling that this is the work of a B-team, with dungeons lacking the flow and slick design associated with primary entries.
The negative feelings are amplified once you tackle the game solo, however. Nintendo actually does its best to discourage you from playing single player, despite some aforementioned issues with its multiplayer options, even relegating solo play to having a smaller entry area. In this case you tackle levels with two 'doppels' that only come alive when you select them with a tap on the touch screen, otherwise standing static in the level.
This is a baffling design choice, which is even more peculiar given the far superior implementation of solo play in Four Swords, in which you could place doppelgangers, they would follow you or you could whistle them so they're next to you in an instant. There's no such option to summon the doppels, making stages a slow - at times ponderous - routine of either walking around as a totem (which isn't always practical) or manually selecting each character to move them on. In some puzzles this works well for relatively slow-paced and thoughtful play, but at other times it's either frustrating or downright prohibitive. For puzzles that require quick timing it can be fiddly, and some boss battles are an exercise in frustration as they've evidently not been designed to accommodate solo play.
All of this is a pity, as Tri Force Heroes has struck us - as often happens - with its 'Nintendo-like' charm. The Hytopia setting is cute and there are some likeable characters to be found. The fashion aspect is also wonderful in its silliness, combining bizarre cosplay with useful ability buffs to help with trickier levels or their unlockable challenges. You can swim in lava, shoot triple arrows, find more hearts, have greater Water Rod powers and more depending on the outfit. Outfits require a combination of rupees and collectible resources - found in chests at the end of completed stages - which give ample encouragement to take on stages multiple times, and offer tangible rewards for the inevitable repeated plays while playing online or with friends.
The use of items within stages, and the potential to beef them up in the game, stand out as some of the strongest points of the game. The outfits are sure to raise a smile with any player, and when you throw in a soundtrack that's an absolute delight you do have a game that has that well-known touch of Nintendo zaniness that's so distinct in its games.
We still have further to go with Tri Force Heroes, though at present we're torn between enjoying the best aspects of the Link Between Worlds engine combined with silly charm, and being particularly frustrated by some sloppy design and a lingering sense that this is 'B-list' in every sense. It is a spin-off, after all, yet that doesn't make it exempt from criticism; as Zelda fans we're pleased to have a new game, yet we can't shake the feeling that it's a second-tier experience.
Maybe this should stay out of the official Legend of Zelda timeline, Nintendo.