The Adventures of Alundra
All is not well in the village of Inoa. The villagers are dying, and no-one knows why. People are going to bed at night and not waking up come morning. Their nightmares are killing them. And these aren’t feeble nightmares like ‘oh shit, I’ve slept through the alarm and I’m late for work!’, but more the proper kind; like ‘oh shit, I’ve just been eaten by a werewolf!’. These are troubling times for the small close-knit community.
Enter Alundra; a young man with powers he doesn’t really understand, who has been drawn to Inoa through hazy visions and pieces of dreams from lands far overseas. He soon meets the village academic Septimus who recognises he has extraordinary abilities and quickly gets to work trying to understand these talents and his apparent link with the troubled village. Before long Alundra and the villagers discover this boy is the only hope for the doomed village; he must use his bizarre and unique powers to enter these dreams and rescue their consciouses from being eternally consumed by these dark nightmares.
Let’s just get something out the way early on – The Adventures of Alundra is very similar to the pre-Ocarina 2D iterations of The Legend of Zelda. These comparisons are absolutely just and it’s clear the game was built in many ways to emulate and improve on Nintendo’s classic series. It has the same near-perfect blend of combat and exploration, but comes replete with a surprisingly in-depth plot, controls which could hardly be bettered and enough tricky pixel-perfect platforming to put even Lara off, plus it loses much of Zelda’s extensive item juggling (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your personal opinion).
Where Alundra excels beyond its peers is in fluidity of character control, in-depth plot and characterisation. Our young hero runs, jumps and wields his small selection of weapons with impressive agility, and this feature alone differentiates it quite significantly from other similar 2D action-adventure-come-RPGs, as there is much more platforming – both mandatory and voluntary – to seek out those elusive, hard-to-reach secrets and items. The plot is gradually revealed, beginning with Alundra’s initial visions of a fading guardian named Lars, who tells the young man that he is the Releaser and he alone can stop an ancient demon lord named Melzas from breaking free from his weakening prison. It might sound a little hackneyed, but the plot is actually pretty mature, and explores themes such as religion and death with surprising sensitivity and tact.
Although Alundra himself is a mute protagonist, the other characters’ vibrant and (generally) cheerful personalities make up for this, and although at times it’d be nice if his personality was developed it never really seems like too much of an issue in the overall context of the story that the titular hero does not speak, much like Link in the recent Zelda: Twilight Princess. A nice touch is that Alundra’s quest is intrinsically tied to the fate of Inoa, and you’ll spend a lot of time there just talking with the villagers and unravelling the plot. Characters have clearly defined personalities (such as the cynical priest Ronan or optimistic father-figure blacksmith Jess), and you’ll come to care for these people, your friends and allies in Inoa’s darkest hours. The plot also proves many-a-time it’s not afraid to kill off important characters, so if you’re easily upset best bring along a box of tissues. Aside from this, the text houses a lot of unexpected wit (including one character’s remark along the lines of ‘why can’t we get cable?’), and overall it is an excellent script and a first-class translation from sadly defunct localisation studio Working Designs.
The game adopts a three-quarters top-down viewpoint, like most similar 2D action/adventure/RPG-lite hybrids. Through his adventure, Alundra will come across harsh deserts, submerged palaces, treacherous fire caverns and lonely mountains, amongst other locations. Almost all are inhabited by fierce and hostile creatures, such as acidic slime-monsters, sword-wielding lizard-men, mischievous monkeys and undead warriors. There is also a wide collection of bosses, including a water spirit, a huge guardian dragon, a powerful oversized monkey and Melzas’ right-hand demon, the quite insane Zorgia. It’s a bit of a shame that the bosses generally aren’t too cerebral, which means once you have worked out their attack patterns you can simply concentrate on taking them down.
Arguably the single strongest aspect is the wonderful soundtrack. There are about eight main tunes, and a really nice touch is that you can visit a composer’s house and listen to every track on gramophones arranged in his house – it’s almost like an unlockable special feature, and new record players are added as you hear new tunes, which rewards occasional trips back to the house as you progress. Sounds effects are all perfectly adequate, although not memorable or standout as the music is and there are no voiceovers (which is fairly typical of a plot-heavy game such as this from 1997, before anyone judges too harshly).
Much like Zelda, Alundra is not hesitant to throw devious puzzles at you, and you’ll likely come across at least a few occasions where you’re well and truly stumped for a little while. Answers are not always obvious, and sometimes solutions to the puzzles present themselves by accident when you’re trying anything out of frustration and desperation. This trial-and-error element can get a bit tiresome, but it’s not really anything new to Zelda veterans, and you wouldn’t want all puzzles to be plainly obvious now, would you?
Graphically, it’s a pretty little game with a lovely, vivacious, colourful art style. Detail levels are reasonably high and animations are smooth and attractive. Characters are distinctive which helps personify them, and overall everything is very neat, pleasing and full of charm. I’d probably go as far as to say I don’t think I’ve seen a more vibrant and attractive game of this ilk from the 2D era. The game is also preceded and concluded with a short but pretty anime sequence, which is dramatic and shows a very flame-haired Alundra battling some of the game’s villains.
The gameworld in Alundra is quite large – perhaps not quite as extensive as Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES, but pretty big all the same. It’s a little jarring how there’s no in-game map as you can lose your bearings easily if you’re still relatively inexperienced, although it’s simple enough to find your way back to Inoa (which is at the centre of the gameworld), and you can visit fortune teller Yustel who for a small sum hints at where you need to be next. The adventure is sizeable, with a good twenty hours’ playtime, plus more than that if you wish to seek out all the secrets and hidden items. It’s difficult, but not beyond the point of remaining enjoyable [generally], and has a real sense of reward and achievement when you finally complete parts which have had you stuck for ages.
Alundra is one of those tragic games which, despite being excellent, was commercially avoided like herpes. If you care about gameplay and plot over flashy presentation and graphics, and want an action-adventure-come-RPG on the PlayStation which rivals (or even betters, in many ways) the classic Legend of Zelda or Secret of Mana games, then you could do a lot worse than invest in this wonderful little gem. It’s quite rare and fairly hard to get hold of these days – particularly complete with the lovely manual, hints and tips booklet and map of Inoa – but well worth the time and effort, and sure to be a purchase you won’t regret.
A true underrated classic.