The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is a remarkably segmented and potentially divisive game from Nintendo. It attempts a similar trick to Four Swords Adventures but, with its totem mechanic and implementation, doesn't accommodate both solo and group players in canny ways; as a result this is a multiplayer game with single player tacked on, which may feel largely alien to many Zelda fans. Nintendo's keen to emphasize that this is a different experience from the norm, but switching up from a proven formula isn't always wise.
What is immediately clear is that, in terms of presentation, Tri Force Heroes oozes quality. This is partly as a result of utilising the lovely engine from The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds which is bright, attractive and rocks along at 60fps with the 3D effect enabled. It remains one of Nintendo's finest technical accomplishments on 3DS, and this new entry also benefits from a standout soundtrack that mixes orchestral and retro sounds. We encourage all to discover for themselves the means to have all music play in an 8-bit style, as that's a delightful extra treat.
The visuals and audio combined are terrific and ensure that this spin-off isn't short of A-list appeal on a superficial level. The plot itself is also fun in a very camp, silly way, as apocalyptic world-ending villains make way for a mischievous witch that delights in depriving a Princess of her fashionable outfits. It's the daftest plot we've seen in a Zelda game and, actually, that's fine - it's not meant to be taken at all seriously. Likewise the hub setting of Hytopia is small but harmless, with a handful of goofy characters around to give it some life.
This extends to one of the core mechanics - outfits. They not only look fabulous but also bring key abilities into the game; some are invaluable in terms of making you more immune to damage or falling down pits, while others have benefits in terms of weapon types or traversing environments. We breathed a sigh of relief when we acquired a cute parka coat that stopped us slipping on ice, for example, while an early outfit gives the ever-useful option of triple shots with a bow. It's also nice to see Nintendo ignoring potential dissenters to cross-dressing, too, with Link having options such as the much-shown Legendary Dress - the light tone of the game fits this approach, but it's worth acknowledging that not all companies have the confidence to use an outfit system in this way.
So, what about the actual meat of the game?
The campaign is slightly strange, as it adopts the same informal 'zone' approach of Four Swords. That in itself is fine and there are unlocks in place, with the first area unlocking three more, and so on until all eight areas are unlocked. Each of these sections comprises of four levels, and new areas can seemingly be unlocked by simply clearing a zone's 'guardian' fourth level, which is handy for those trying to skip ahead. It's worth being methodical, though, as levels gradually introduce new items - such as the Water Rod and Fire Glove - that become vital in solving puzzles or targeting enemy weaknesses later in the game.
Stages all have four rooms to tackle, and also end - assuming you haven't used one of your lives / fairies to skip a room - with three chests full of crafting materials. One is rare and two are more common, and you get one guess to secure a resource; this becomes a key mechanic and part of the in-game economy (in addition to Rupees, naturally) as you use these materials to create outfits. It's clear that the intention is for you to replay levels, while defeating an area's Guardian also then allows you to take on three Challenges per stage, which can include beating a level within a certain time, without losing hearts, without using your sword and so on. In some respects this inflation of 32 levels to 128 is artificial padding, but will likely be embraced by completionists.
Moving onto gameplay, let's get the negative out of the way first - single player is poorly implemented. Our opinion hasn't changed since our preview, with this title failing to adapt to solo adventurers as effectively as Four Swords. In that previous title you could have colleagues follow you, stand still when told or arrive instantly by your side with a simple whistle. For reasons we can't fathom Nintendo has failed to find inputs or a way of implementing a similar approach here, though we do have a face button (X) to take in-game photos for Miiverse. That seems like the wrong priority to us.
Your two companions in single player are doppels and have no artificial intelligence. When you're not using them they simply stay in place, lifeless, and the only way to move your team around as one is to form a full totem of three. There are no button shortcuts or methods to get these doppels to follow you, but you use the touch screen to switch between them manually. There'll be occasions when you have two stacked for a puzzle and have to leave one behind temporarily, and other moments where you're fiddling around selecting the middle member of the totem to get a higher throw for the top Link. It's functional but is also the least efficient way to work.
Having the option to toggle with a shoulder button or have any of the Four Swords features would have helped here, but ultimately we're left with a fiddly, frustrating process. On occasions it's cumbersome yet works, such as when solving environmental puzzles, while in other moments - particularly boss fights - it's a hindrance. Trying to totem up quickly while dodging attacks isn't fun, and it's challenging in the wrong ways; it's not only the game that's being difficult, but the actual mechanics behind it. It's telling, frankly, that Nintendo has advertised this mode as little as possible, while the game also discourages solo play - it does its best to warn you that playing with friends is better, but that doesn't make it entirely acceptable.
Multiplayer is the way forward, then, and it is a vastly different experience in this mode. It's evident that the best option, from Nintendo's perspective, is to play locally. There's fantastic Download Play support that allows one copy to provide data to two others and access, it seems, any content the game owner has unlocked - at least that was the case for the first half of the game when tested. That's a lot of content, and means that friends can help you out with progress even if they have no intention of buying the game. The key point to make, though, is that you can't get by with two players - it's three or nothing.
As we mentioned in our preview we did experience some lag while using local multiplayer, even when trying to minimise potential signal interference. Results are a little stronger when all players have copies of their own, but even in that case the dreaded stutter or spinning 'buffering' circle can occasionally pop up. It's not game breaking by any stretch of the imagination, but is worth acknowledging.
In online multiplayer a solid connection has meant mostly lag-free play in our testing, with occasional disconnects naturally possible. The emphasis here shifts to communication - solving puzzles and sharing bafflement is easy when playing in the same room, but when heading online the focus is on the communication panels on the touch screen, with the eight available being your only means of 'talking'. On the one hand these are a lovely touch, and even after plenty of hours we found it hard not to laugh at their silly charm. The animated pom-pom Link and the goofy designs are wonderful, and tapping them repeatedly for simple animations is childish yet oddly addictive.
There's a but, however, as the panels don't provide enough communication when levels and puzzles ramp up in difficulty. Not all online co-op and multiplayer games need voice chat - Splatoon, for one, is arguably fine without - but it's sorely missed here. Rather than simply say "use your gust jar to hit that switch and then propel me", you have to jiggle around, hit the 'Item!' panel over and over again and spend a minute or two engaged in a bizarre exchange of placard waving. We'd often find ourselves laughing when long-running confusion was finally resolved with a thumbs up or pom-pom dance; yet our laughter was at the absurdity of the situation, rather than actual delight at the communication system working.
This was largely our experience with people we knew, so issues can be accentuated when playing with strangers, especially if one or both teammates are weaker players. It's possible to reach extended dead ends when trying to co-ordinate trickier puzzles requiring multiple items, timed switches or fiddly totem manipulation - these can be frustrating periods. While it's understandable that Nintendo is afraid of issues with voice chat, it's own blacklist feature in online play gives players the ability to kick out and avoid potentially offensive team-mates; with that in place voice support could have made a difference here. Communication is important in team games with a focus on puzzles, and eight cute placards don't always get the job done.
All of this contributes to an uneven experience overall. We've encountered moments of brilliance, when our team all instinctively knew what to do, or when a tricky encounter was logically mastered over a few attempts. Some of the later stages, in particular, are fantastic visually and cleverly designed, and there were occasions where we couldn't help but smile as our team advanced into a dramatic setting and the music rose to the occasion.
For each wonderful moment there's an equivalent frustration, however, with difficulty spikes that deplete a team's shared life bar before you know what's happening, or dungeon designs that are simply B-list in execution. There are even poor calls made in implementing lobbies online, with groups of friends able to switch around between areas at will, while playing with strangers locks you into one area and, as a result, the same four levels over and over again. When playing with 'randoms', therefore, you'll need to leave the lobby and start again if you want to move onto a new area. Another point to highlight is that this game only has one save slot per copy, so those sharing a system will need to make that work.
Finally, we should also highlight the competitive 'Coliseum' mode which can be found - quite literally - in the basement of the castle. This riffs on the StreetPass shadow showdowns in Link Between Worlds, in this case with two to three players facing off in local or online multiplayer - this mode does allow matches to start with just two players, unlike the campaign. With arenas based on each area of the game players can grab items and duke it out, with materials up for grabs for the winners. It's a fun extra, though won't necessarily hold interest for long.
To conclude it's worthwhile being fair to the developers - when assessing the core campaign as a whole - and acknowledge that it can't be easy producing 32 mini-dungeons (each with four rooms to clear) when the main series games can draw gamers in with a large world of adventure and a small number of carefully crafted dungeons. Nevertheless, it's tough to shake the feeling that this isn't The Legend of Zelda at its best - this structure doesn't show the IP in its brightest light.
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is a mixed bag, though still exudes the charm of the franchise while throwing in some delightful features all of its own. Outfits are a high point, as are the presentation and soundtrack, and there are moments of wonder when level design and teamwork come together in harmony. There are weak points, however, with uneven stage design, poor communication options in multiplayer and a single player experience that's a mere afterthought. Tri Force Heroes isn't a bad game, but it's not on the same level as its illustrious predecessors.