I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night
After leaving Climax to form a new company, the founding members of Matrix Software had a lot of options for what to make as a first game. Alundra shows that doing something in a familiar style was the preferred choice, as the game is reminiscent of LandStalker in many ways. That game was undeniably attempting to be a The Legend of Zelda variant for the Sega Genesis, and Alundra does the same for the PlayStation. Alundra‘s main innovation in the action RPG realm is to have a fascinating tale that drives the proceedings, with which it does a good job. Most of its gameplay could easily have been accomplished on a 16-bit machine — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The plot of Alundra begins stereotypically, with an evil demon named Melzas appearing to proclaim that he hates humanity and wants to destroy it. The eponymous Alundra is the protagonist, and he sees this vision of Melzas after a shipwreck strands him in the village of Inoa. Said vision also features a wise spirit proclaiming that Alundra is the Releaser, the only one with the power to stop Melzas because of his ability to enter the dreams of others.
With a setup like that, Alundra‘s plot would seem to be a product of the cliché factory, but appearances in this case are most definitely deceiving. Alundra is indeed welcomed with unstinting praise by most of Inoa’s residents, but some regard his ability to walk through dreams with suspicion. Other villagers actively seek to stop Alundra, since his arrival coincides with the death of some of their neighbors. This is a consequence of Melzas endeavoring to kill his adversary with indiscriminate tactics, but the people are in no position to know this. As the game progresses, the NPC cast is whittled down steadily, and some of their deaths are genuinely surprising.
The character arcs of Alundra could sometimes have benefited with a little more time to develop, but it is still a tribute to the game that its supporting cast is so interesting. Working Designs did a fine job in crafting a script that is engaging and entertaining to follow, especially compared to certain other localizations of the era. It may not necessarily be a great plot when compared to the results of fourteen further years of development in the RPG arena, but it remains fascinating and a fine means of compelling the player to progress.
Alundra’s exploration of his world is accomplished via an action RPG interface that is very much like that in The Legend of Zelda. Alundra ventures forth to enter dungeons and contend with their dangerous denizens, all while solving frequent puzzles that demand the use of whatever abilities he currently possesses. Combat is simple enough, with Alundra fighting foes in real time and trying to aim his strikes correctly, which requires nothing more than good reflexes. Statistic extensions are found in treasure chests, and the only thing killing lots of enemies will do is gain a money stockpile.
Alundra is capable of jumping, however, and thus the platforming element of the game is quite prominent. Thankfully Matrix has abandoned the isometric perspective its members used when part of Climax, but even a simple overhead view presents plentiful problems. One of these comes when trying to gauge depth accurately, which can be hard to do when jumping between platforms that may not be at the proper height to make this possible. The method of dealing with this problem is usually to try the jump repeatedly until it finally works, which becomes frustratingly monotonous.
The platforming itself is often the most frustrating component of Alundra, because it demands extreme accuracy on a constant basis when jumping between spots. Pixel-perfect accuracy on a frequent basis becomes quite wearisome even in rooms with no real penalty for a wrong step, but many of Alundra‘s rooms feature something that will inflict pain when a jump goes wrong, along with timed spots where one misstep means leaving the room for a cumpolsory retry. In particular, a few obnoxious spots require that something be carried, while one hit from any obstacle will make Alundra drop the item. Since there are usually no spare parts in the room, the need to retry the process can easily induce rage. Alundra’s unwanted tendency to become stuck on the edges of things in the room when trying to make tight maneuvers is also bothersome, as having a jump onto a platform ruined because the corner of something else slowed down movement is far from ideal.
The puzzles that must be completed in order to progress with Alundra are actually well done, and intriguing to solve. A good variety of them are present, with each new dungeon adding something different. Though the touchiness of the platforming can make solving certain puzzles whose solutions are already known rather unpleasant, the construction of these predicaments is otherwise sound and entertaining, never falling into rote block-pushing or other braindead behavior.
Aside from the platforming and its various permutations, Alundra is not particularly difficult, since the game is fairly generous in granting access to fresh healing supplies inside of chests. The exception to this comes when fighting bosses, since most of them require a lot of hits to kill. The worst examples occur in the final portion of the game, where even the strongest weapon does pitiful damage against the last bosses. Alundra’s access to magic alleviates this problem with some foes, but others move around constantly and must be ever-so-slowly beaten down with physical weaponry.
On the occasion that the enemies do slay Alundra, players will probably find that the game’s save opportunities are a trifle too sparse to be satisfactory. Most dungeons make do with a single save opportunity, and some lack any at all. Since the game restarts Alundra at his last save once he dies, it is very easy to lose a lot of progress if the last save point occurred awhile back. The game can probably be completed in twenty hours by someone well-versed in its particular platforming methodology, but redoing certain actions because of a sudden death will definitely add a bit to that time.
Visually, Alundra resembles something from the 16-bit era far more than the usual PlayStation graphics. There are some instances that use the PlayStation’s capabilities a bit more, but most of the game could have been done on the Super Nintendo with only a few graphical downgrades. The result is a game that, while not a technical marvel to behold, has aged far better than most of the 3D titles on the system have. Alundra‘s 2D sprites look rather appealing without wowing the audience with dated graphical wizardry, and are thus quite pleasant to behold.
Alundra‘s score is not one of Kouhei Tanaka’s greatest works, but his enormous oeuvre makes that distinction less meaningful than it would be for a composer with only a few credits. Alundra has a great variety of music that sounds good while playing the game, and some of the pieces are memorable enough to stick in the mind afterward. Unusually for a game localized by Working Designs, there is no voice acting, but it isn’t missed.
Working Designs chose to localize Alundra as its first title on the PlayStation, and it was a good choice. The game is easily compared to The Legend of Zelda in many aspects, but the comparison is not a slight against Alundra. Working Designs had a far more elaborate plot to content with than action RPGs usually offered at the time, and the events of the game remain gripping today. Alundra has flaws that keep it from becoming the all-time classic as which it is regarded in some quarters, but the game is most definitely worth experiencing even when those are taken into account.
Varied and interesting locations to explore
Surprisingly involving plot
Plenty of puzzles to solve
Platforming can be infuriating
Most bosses take a long time to kill
Sparse save opportunities