Retro Journal #5: Alundra
Original Release: January 9th, 1998
PSN Release: October 12th, 2010
Publisher: Working Designs
Developer: Matrix Software
I’ve changed up the format of my Retro Journal series here a bit. Tell me what you think in the comments section!
What Is It? Alundra is a wonderful action/adventure title originally released for the PlayStation console back in 1998. Though not particularly popular, Alundra has a strong cult following because of its well-crafted story, excellent gameplay, vibrant 2D graphics, and superb quality. PlayStation fans no doubt were green with envy when Nintendo 64 owners were treated to the immaculate The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but Alundra is no slouch despite being a Zelda clone. The aerial view perspective and swordplay mechanics make this game “feel” quite similar to Nintendo’s flagship series, but it has a number of unique gimmicks. The most noteworthy is the ability to enter a character’s dreams and save him or her from vicious nightmares.
Why Is It Worth Playing? Alundra is a superb game. From beginning to end, it exudes an aura of quality and thoughtfulness. It received a number of positive review scores upon its original release and has become a sought-after gem for the PlayStation library. Unlike most of the games in the Zelda franchise, Alundra reveled in its difficulty. The puzzles are borderline masochistic and the enemies pose a serious threat. Not only that, but there are tons of boss enemies to face and secrets to uncover. To top it all off, Alundra has a rather somber, melancholy story that should be experienced by any adventure fan. With the ability to re-experience it on the PlayStation Network, you shouldn’t hold back.
My Take: I love this game. It’s amazing. I expected to “enjoy” Alundra, especially after getting my first glimpse of the cover art. The anime-style character artwork drew me in and the comments on the back of the box hooked me deeper. Going into dreams? Saving people from nightmares? Please, do continue game, I’d like to hear more about this. What I got was a cult classic and a true gem for the PlayStation, which has since become of my personal favorite games for the system. Lucky for me, this game has now been made available for the PlayStation Network—and you should be happy too.
Despite being a thoroughbred Nintendo junkie in my youth, I was more than willing to open up to other consoles and game developers. Being a Zelda fan didn’t stop me from enjoying other “clones” like Crystalis or Soul Blazer, both of which are great games. So I didn’t have much hesitation going into Alundra. There may be spoilers ahead, so read at your own discretion here. At the start of the adventure, I was already mesmerized because of the cool looking anime introduction scene. Seeing the hero slap enemies around, fight a giant fire-breathing dragon, escape a crumbling shrine…it all looked so cool. Granted, it seemed derivative, but cool nonetheless. But the developers had yet to show me all of the surprises in store.
After a rather slow beginning, control gradually shifted to me. Back then I wasn’t as accustomed to waiting so long to start an adventure, but I was interested in what would happen. Seeing the ghostly image of the demon Melzas so soon in the game and hearing (err…reading) his threat was interesting. It would be like if Ganon showed up at the beginning of Link’s adventure to taunt him. After a rather rocky boat landing, you wind up on the shores of Inoa, a quaint little village. I never expected though, that I’d grow so attached to the characters and world.
The graphics were very impressive back in the day. The clean, vibrant, colorful 2D visuals just leapt out of the screen. In an era when most developers tried to push 3D graphics, having a well-made 2D game just felt…comforting. When you look back, I think you’ll agree that many early 3D games simply did not age well—look at Final Fantasy VII. On other hand, games like Alundra still look pretty even today. The expressive character sprites helped me get to understand and recognize everyone in the village. The bumbling, lovable Jess is especially great, fulfilling the role of a father-like figure for the hero.
Adventuring feels a lot like Nintendo’s own classic game series. You swing a sword around and hit monsters, who may or may not drop treasure. You solve some puzzles, collect treasure, and move on to new areas after finding special items. However, the pacing isn’t quite the same. Alundra is far more focused on the narrative than you may originally assume. After a few introduction sequences, you are tasked with retrieving a book from a nearby manor on the outskirts of town. This seamlessly blends into the next sequence, where the knowledge in the book allows your newfound friend Septimus to coach you on how to “dreamwalk.” This is where the game’s coolest hook comes in. Many of the dungeons actually take place in dreams, so the developers got to be really creative with the level design of these dungeons. For example, the first dream dungeon takes place in the mind of an old man, who is being chased around by a monster. You have to go in and find him, and then defeat the monster for him. Another character is tempted by a monster who has taken the shape of a beautiful woman.
While unfortunately you cannot enter the dream of any NPC you wish at any moment, the sequences are well-crafted and give the developers a lot of room to be creative. They certainly didn’t skimp on the content though. There are several areas to explore in the real world, including a massive desert, a temple built into a cliff face, a treetop fortress, a lizard-infested swamp, and more. The dream areas are more varied and offer something far different. The somber story though, is what ties everything together and makes the adventure so compelling. The game frequently reminds you that death is a common visitor, and thanks to an excellently composed soundtrack, the developers manage to perfectly establish the right mood and get the player to feel what’s going on the story. When the gaming world was gushing over Aeris’ death, I was wiping tears away from an on-screen death I witnessed in Alundra. I won’t tell you what it is. You’ll just have to suffer through it just like I did.
Oh gosh, and the puzzles? Let me tell you, man, these puzzles are hard. They still are! Even after picking up the game years later, some of the puzzles are incredibly challenging. The Ice Temple is particularly rage inducing. Then suffering through Klein’s Dream or Melzas’ Palace? Oh man. This shouldn’t deter you from experiencing the game though. Despite the difficulty I had, I never lost that sense of fun. Beating up bad guys never gets old and the bits of platforming make traversing areas much more interesting. Many places require precision jumping skills to get by. Better yet, the wide array of weapons and tools all are expertly implemented in exploring the game world and dungeons. The steel ball and chain and break down some bricks, while the sand cape allows you to dig underground.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite moment from the game, but there are several parts that stick in my mind: first, was when one character turns into a werewolf. That was unexpected and cool. The second was when the sorcerer Lars beckons you to the graveyard and allows you to enter his tomb. When the music started to kick in, I got chills. If you have any fond memories of Alundra, post them below. If you haven’t experienced this game, buy it immediately. You won’t be disappointed.
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