|Platform:||PlayStation Network (PSone Classics)|
Understood by gamers from the time of its release to now as a refreshingly dark and more challenging alternative to Zelda, Alundra remains one of the most pure and most patience-derailing Action/Adventure/Role-Playing games in history. It was one of Working Designs' first localized titles on the Sony PlayStation, and it remains one of their best choices for localization ever.
More than one reader has accused me of soaking myself in a bathtub of liquid nostalgia from time to time; a drooling fanboy of the past whose memory distorts the true value of any one game. I hadn't played Alundra since I was in middle school, but my mind told me it was one of the best experiences I had in gaming. Like, top-10%-of-games-I've-played good. Had my mind distorted the experience? When it was announced that the game was coming to the PlayStation Network's "PSone Classics" store, I decided I'd play the game again, asserting a challenge to myself: is this game really as good as I thought it was?
And now that I've conquered the evil dream-demon Melzas a second time, I now have the answer. And that answer is: mostly, yes.
Dreamwalkers > Landstalkers
Who is Matrix Software? Today, you know them as the team that developed new games and remakes for all manner of Square Enix (Final Fantasy) properties: FFIII DS, FFIV DS, FFIV: The After Years, as well as The 4 Heroes of Light. But they were actually founded when some members of "Climax Entertainment" decided to go rogue and start making their own games. Alundra was one of their earliest titles.
Before the Climax/Matrix split, Sega Genesis fans will remember Landstalker, an absolute classic Sega Genesis game with infuriating dungeon puzzles and platform-jumping sequences. So of course, we should expect nothing less in Alundra.
Alundra, the title character of the game, is a creepy little elf kid with a peculiar power. He can enter other peoples' dreams. Yeah, you thought that "Inception" movie was clever, but Alundra was 13 years ahead of the game. It is unclear whether Alundra knows this about himself before the events of the game take place or not. As a silent protagonist (much like Adol in the Ys series), we really don't know much about Alundra's personality. One thing we do know, even at the start of the game, is that he is a man who heeds the call for adventure and investigation. The game starts with Alundra on a boat heading toward the village Inoa on the continent of Torla because a ghostly figure named Lars called out to Alundra in dreams, begging for his help. When he gets there, a scholar named Septimus quickly deduces Alundra's dream-entering ability based on Alundra's elf nature and the experiences he has had. He even has a title among the people of the village: the Releaser.
As a result the game's various dungeons come in two flavors: 1) actual dungeons located within Torla; 2) "dream" dungeons, where a person's psyche has created its own landscape. Alundra must navigate both kinds of dungeons and defeat the malevolent creatures within both to move forward, solve the mysteries plaguing the people of Inoa, and ultimately end a millennium-long conflict in a single confrontation. You know how JRPG heroes roll!
Please die and join my inventory
You need a little exposition to fully appreciate the premise of this game. On the continent of Torla, the "king" (who is never introduced or named) forbids the worship of any gods or idols, and then orders the destruction of all idols, statues, etc. Iconoclasm sets in hardcore. This was about five years ago.
With that, the people of the land (including the village of Inoa) lose their ability to create. They are no longer inventive. They just live simple agrarian lives. Oh, and they're also haunted by creepy nightmares. In an attempt to mitigate these nightmares, they begin to pray secretly to one well-known God of the land. Yet the nightmares continue. They get much worse when Alundra shows up, in fact; except Alundra is able to enter the dreams and combat the evil head-on.
Unfortunately, Alundra can't save everyone. Some die in their sleep. Others transform into werewolves and other demons as a result of these crazy nightmares and have to be "put down." Still others are murdered in cold blood for reasons revealed later in the game. As the villagers are killed off, though, one village member finds himself "inspired" by their memories. The blacksmith, Jess, who also takes Alundra in when he shows up, finds himself almost uncontrollably creating new tools and weapons that Alundra can use with the passing of each villager. Jess says he hears them calling to him to create. Okay, so that might be a convenient plot point to add progression to the game, but it lends itself to "immersion" better than many fantasy RPG titles.
Some of the tools Alundra gets hold similarities to the things Link has in those lovable Zelda games: bombs, bow and arrow, fire wand, gloves that allow you to pick up heavy objects. Other tools are more unique in scope: the sand cape, for example, allows you to dive into the sand to go under obstacles in deserts.
Not all of the tools come from villager death and subsequent creation by Jess. Those who played the game may well remember why this is. But Alundra does come upon many an interesting item to help him navigate the overworld and reach new areas within Torla.
What's a "high jump?"
Many people who have played this game come away with a sour taste due to frustration over the platforming elements. Many puzzles involve time-limit platform-jumping across large distances. And Alundra's "jump" only comes in one size: small. He can't get a speed boost from dashing, and his physics are less like Mario and more like Mega Man in terms of momentum. Also, while fans of adventure titles look to games like Super Metroid or Castlevania: SotN assuming that eventually Alundra's jump will be improved with a high jump, long jump, double jump, or something of this nature, they will find themselves sorely disappointed. The closest thing you ever get to that are in specific instances where Alundra can throw a magic seed into a stationary potted plant and spring up from that plant. Outside of those locations, and one optional underwater dungeon (where jumping height is increased and fall time is slowed), learn to work with a tiny little jump, and get used to standing on the absolute edge of a platform before jumping.
There are cues to help, though. Alundra's ever-present, never-changing elliptical shadow is always under him, giving you the player a good feel for how far he can walk to an edge, and how close he's getting to the next platform (or, in rare cases, if you're over-jumping you can see how far you really have to go).
Jumping is only one portion of the game's frustration, however. Fortunately, combat isn't one of them. Actually, combat is generally straightforward, not a lot of "puzzle-solving" during a boss fight (this is one area where Zelda has a clear leg up on Alundra). But Alundra has amazing dungeon layouts with switch puzzles galore. Will they frustrate the average player? Yes. But not to the detriment of the game. The final dungeon, a shrine that rises out of a lake, is a masterpiece in dungeon design. It remains one of my favorite dungeons of all time. Some other dungeons, including the dream sequences for Kline, Meia, and the twin boys all come close, but are smaller in scope.
He doesn't play an Ocarina; the BGM requires no help
Alongside challenging myself to find out the truth of this game's value (and, yes, it is still a great game), I have wanted to write a review specifically for this game on RPGFan for ages, to right a wrong of a past reviewer who talked about this game in our site's infancy (perhaps when it was still LunarNET). Said reviewer gave the "sound" sub-score a meager 65%, saying that the sound needed improvement. POPPYCOCK!
Composed by Kouhei Tanaka (see: Sakura Taisen series), the soundtrack for Alundra remains one of the most interesting, unique, and memorable soundtracks of the 32-bit era. I won't budge on this opinion. The soundtrack is awesome. It fits the context of the game well, it made bold strides in the use of emulated voice samples (see how many other soundtracks in or before 1997 did this, not to mention well), and it also has one of the best final dungeon themes ever. The piano solo, followed by piano/strings combo, in a constant crescendo ... absolutely amazing. The theme music in Meia's dream, the overworld theme, Inoa village theme – these are all great tunes. The only song that doesn't really fit the game is that excessively cheesy guitar-rock track with the opening FMV, which was added by Working Designs. No surprises there, right?
Against today's standards, I concede that the quality of the sequenced synthesizers may seem too artificial. And the sound effects a little domineering. But when you hear those melodies and those layers of music, how could you care? I just don't get that. This is an awesome soundtrack. End of discussion.
Sprites, Portraits, and Jay Leno
If there's one area Alundra could use some improvement, it's in the graphics department. Things are functional, and animation is acceptable, but the color scheme is largely drab. Earth tones everywhere. It could use a touch of vibrant, bright colors, at least in some dungeons. And while things look fine on a PSP screen, put this on an HDTV with your PS3, and you might be turned off by the low-res quality of a PS1 title. That's always the case with PSone classics, of course.
I do like the character portraits in the game. Alundra himself looks pretty cool, as does his female counterpart Meia. I like the more "Western" design of certain characters, such as the priest Ronan or the blacksmith Jess. One minor character, a miner dubbed by Working Designs as "Jaylen," has a pretty big chin and slightly resembles Jay Leno. Indeed, even in a darker game like Alundra, WD was able to make pop-culture references and silly jokes, though they are far more subtle here than in Lunar: SSSC or Magic Knight Rayearth. As an aside, I will say I hold this localization in very high regard. In many ways, this localization from WD was ahead of the curve when you look at its peers.
I should also note the ending anime FMV. Those who manage to clear the whole game are treated to a lovely anime FMV. This is something I miss: not many JRPGs have long-form anime cut scenes anymore. In this ending scene, it cuts back and forth between the "happy ending" events and Alundra remembering the sad/scary events that took place throughout the game. It's a great recap scene. For those who want to earn it, I'd guess most people will need 20 to 30 hours to complete the game; a "speed run" could probably be done in 10 hours or less.
Conclusion, and a note on linearity
While Alundra offers you an "open" overworld, most dungeons you visit are closed off to you after completing them. In the case of dream dungeons, obviously those are "one and done" events. But even the main dungeons (a volcano, a graveyard, an undersea whirpool) are closed off after completing the main objective. The game's 50 "gilded falcons" (which you collect to receive extra max health and special accessories), as well as life vessels and temporary curative items, are no longer obtainable after passing certain points. The old adage applies: save often, and hold multiple save files just in case. Completionists have been warned!
Everyone looking for a solid, puzzle-ridden challenge and a surprisingly deep plot, as well as a game with a great semi-retro soundtrack, needs to download this game. It's six dollars (USD). That's a steal. To me, this game goes toe-to-toe with Action RPGs in 2010, only it's much cheaper. Give it a shot. It's simple in the places it wants to be, and challenging in ways that many gamers have missed. If you've played the game before, I'd urge you to try it again and compare it to both your memories of the past, and of games you're currently playing. You might be surprised and satisfied with the results.