Well, I suppose the streak had to end eventually, but I'm sad to see it peter out after more than 20 years: Nintendo's finally made a Zelda spinoff I don't love. Tri Force Heroes is the first Nintendo-developed side story to the franchise I actively don't want to play. This, from someone who enjoyed Link's Awakening more than A Link to the Past and who sincerely loves Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.
Unfortunately, Tri Force Heroes doesn't make the grade. I don't hate it, and I can sense some brilliant machinery attempting to wheeze its way to life, somewhere beneath the game's unsatisfying surface. The problem, really, is that Tri Force Heroes leaves me with the unmistakable impression that Nintendo didn't quite finish constructing the machine in question. Every aspect of Tri Force Heroes feels frustratingly incompletely, from the tedious single-player mode to the unbearably lag-prone multiplayer.
The latter issue annoys me most. I've played about half a dozen multiplayer sessions now, and every single one of them suffered from connectivity slowdown that rendered the game—literally—almost completely unplayable. When Tri Force Heroes suffers communication problems, every player's game slows down or pauses simultaneously to prevent the action from desyncing. It's not a bad idea, but in my experience Tri Force Heroes' multiplayer constantly suffers from communication problems. Whether playing online or locally, my sessions quickly became bogged down by pauses and slow-down, occasionally culminating in disconnection errors.
My inability to play Tri Force Heroes with others particularly frustrates given that Tri Force Heroes essentially demands to be approached via multiplayer sessions. It has a single-player component, yes, but that mode is literally the multiplayer version in which a single person has to juggle three different characters. In a sense, the single-player version is slightly easier than multiplayer: You can only control a single Link at a time, and the inactive heroes become inert dolls, immune to damage. In cooperative sessions, all three players remain active at all times, sharing a single life bar, and a single clumsy action can wipe a huge chunk of health away from the team in an instant. But this one boon doesn't make up for the fact that the single-player mode is cumbersome at the best of times, and completely frustrating at others.
Tri Force Heroes doesn't appear to tweak its mechanics to account for the fact that a single player has to swap rapidly between multiple Links in order to solve many of the game's puzzles; tasks that can easily be completed by two or three players working in unison become exercises in split-second perfection, repetition, and trial-and-error (all at once).
As a result of its multiplayer focus, the game also lacks a compelling progression hook. Link doesn't become stronger the longer you play; instead, you unlock new costumes that grant you specific (and usually singular) skill boosts. There are a few problems with this system, though. For one, your suits generally enhance a specific sub-weapon, yet you commit to a suit before picking a level and seeing which subweapons will be available in that stage. It's a trivial issue, but an annoying oversight of design. To create suits, you need to collect materials. Those materials are doled out as rewards, semi-randomly, at the end of each stage. The game encourages you to replay stages over and over again, not just with the loot drops but also by making certain materials available only by playing one of each level's four variants. It honestly feels like Nintendo took cues from Destiny while designing Tri Force Heroes, but they were all the wrong cues.
I find Tri Force Heroes' issues particularly vexing because the game almost works. It attempts to harness the concept of Four Sword Adventures while reshaping it into something less like pure action and more faithful to the Zelda series' puzzle-centric design. When it works, the game is an absolutely blast to play; teaming up with some friends at other sites via online play left had me cracking up the entire time (or at least the entire time our connection held up, anyway). Trying to coordinate three people together to solve combat puzzles entirely with the use of a palette of emote macros should be frustrating, but on the contrary, it's actually completely hilarious.
I just wish those moments of amusement didn't ultimately comprise so little of the time I spent with the game. Tri Force Heroes was, for me, a lot of waiting, a lot of annoyance, and a lot of grinding tedium. The idea behind the game is strong, and when it all comes together you can see flashes of greatness... but ultimately it feels like a product that was hustled out the door before it was properly completed. Between the underbaked singleplayer mode and the connection issues that dogged every multiplayer session I attempted, this feels like the alpha version of an amazing Zelda spinoff. But as it is, I find myself hard-pressed to muster up the enthusiasm to spend anymore time with it.
Check back on Monday to see our final thoughts and a proper score for Tri Force Heroes!