Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Genesis/VC look: Landstalker

Now I understand that any game with a remotely overhead view and features aspects like collecting hearts to increase the health meter and dungeons filled with puzzles and traps is inevitably compared to The Legend of Zelda series but hear me out. Landstalker is not a Zelda game. Landstalker is an Action-Adventure game sure but it simply doesn't have enough in common with that series to make a sensible comparison. Sorry but I had to get this out of the way early on.

Landstalker tells the tale of an elf by the name of Nigel. Though he's over 200 years old his boyish appearance still keeps him from getting a drink at the local bar. Due to a run-in with a sprite by the name of Friday he learns of the legendary treasure of King Nole. Nigel who cares more for the adventure than the valuables sets off on quite a journey, saving a handful of towns along the way, rescuing a couple damsels in distress, and getting through some of the roughest dungeons in Genesis history.

From the opening this is a frightening game. Mainly because of the perspective. Unlike most action-adventure titles this one uses a 3/4s isometric perspective. Not only does this make a simple thing such as moving a bit tricky but platforming as well as combat take on new levels of challenge(not to mention this game loves to take advantage of your lack of perspective to hide things). The opening adds to this by showing off some absolutely ridiculous jumps(thankfully nothing of this sort appears in the actual game) as well as a couple tools that the player should pay attention to because they make up a large chunk of the game.

These tools in question are quite limited. Nigel has a sword with exceptional range thus making it always to his advantage to attack everything indirectly. His jump is extremely important as while it isn't very high(it's the equivalent of one "block") he has great control of it and can change directions in mid-air(essential for progress). Like any other action-adventure hero Nigel can also pick up, put down, and throw objects. As you can imagine this can have any number of uses. That's pretty much it though. Nigel can get better armor, magical swords, a collection of items for healing his HP and various ailments, plus even different rings and boots for additional effects. That is it however as there are no tools for jumping higher, running faster, a hookshot to grab onto faraway objects, or any other tools that might make his journey easier and/or allow him to access new areas. Your progress is tied entirely to your dexterity and intelligence.

The controls take some getting used to has this game was designed with the Mega-drive's control pad in mind(since it has diagonals). Virtual Console gamers will have a little bit of trouble with this one and at times it's recommended to use the analog sticks to move around. Combat is fairly easy throughout and it's extremely rare that you'll actually die(you can get knocked out if you run out of life but as long as you have an easily replenished Eke-Eke you'll survive). It never hurts to actually be good at combat though and since it's basic all you have to worry about is outmaneuvering your foes and pounding their face in(they're very susceptible to corners and other traps). 

Platforming on the other hand is a trial and a half. I've been playing this game on and off for almost fifteen years and platforming sections are still the parts of the game I least look forward to. This game has no qualms about making small moving platforms over large pits. This isn't like some other games that only cost you a bit of life if you fall. This one will drop you in a pit of spikes or worse, then make you climb out with a ladder and/or go around a few hallways to get back to where you started from. These are mercifully short at least.

Most of your puzzles are of the block manipulating variety. This game does enjoy mixing it up often though. You'll enter a crypt where you have to solve a series of riddles, a giant forest maze, an optional area where you play as a dog, and so on. This kind of variety is welcome in that you're still playing the game the same way but the means of progress has changed up a bit.

Essentially you're looking at three themes of this game: Combat, Puzzle-solving, and Platforming. While some of the dungeons mix all three up in equal amounts you'll discover that a number of them focus on one of these themes and it actually becomes a welcome break when you enter an area with one of the other two. This game does an excellent job in establishing this. You'll start off with some easy fights and just when you think you can't take it anymore you'll enter some rooms with a puzzles, once you start to get tired of that it's going to be time for some platforming. There's no immediate jumps either, the game is good at easing you into each new section of the game no matter how far along you are. Couple this with all of the additional(& optional) health-extensions you can pick and you have no shortage of challenges to take on. Despite everything that gets thrown at you there's always enough motivation to go on and the pay-off is always worth it.

Landstalker also excels at constant reinforcement of your abilities. While you only have a few tools to play with they are in almost constant use. Enemies wander the areas between dungeons, there's almost always a cliff that needs jumped onto, and a handful of minigames help you keep up your box-handling skills. To add to this the mechanics of this game are explored a bit to prepare you for further challenges. This is one of those rare games where you can actually jump on top of people and ride on them as if they were randomly moving platforms. This is actually put to good use early on as the player can get a life-stock from doing so. Sometimes if a player to close when an enemy jumps they'll land on his head for a brief moment. The player thus gains an understanding of their place in the game-world and thus should have little trouble figuring out some of the final puzzles. Thanks to the lack of tools in this game you're never thrown into an area wondering if you're missing an item and the solution is not too hard to figure out. It will take quite a bit of understanding of the perspective however as this game really doesn't make any allowances for people having trouble moving around in the 3/4 world.

Admittedly the combat is pretty lacking. Most of the bosses in this game are actually stronger regular enemies you'll see more of later in the game. By the time the game starts throwing some serious encounters at you you'll have a sword that damages everything on-screen so all you have to do is keep your distance and everything will go down with little trouble. Otherwise it is decent and getting through rooms filled with enemies without taking damage is attainable and quite entertaining. 

Without a doubt this is one of my favorite games, it's also better than follow-ups like Dark Savior and Alundra. While it isn't a hard game it's still challenging to complete, there's quite a bit of content to be had but it never feels bloated or tacked-on, and it's a reasonable enough length that multiple playthroughs are sensible and allow veterans to attempt new challenges like collecting less health items or finishing in a faster amount of time. Landstalker is in my opinion a classic and deserves to be experienced, understood, and enjoyed by everyone who likes action-adventure. 

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