The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes review
by on November 27, 2015

For the second time this year, we’ve received a new Legend of Zelda game. Unlike the first, this new game is not a remake of a fan favorite. Instead, The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes heralds the return of cooperative multiplayer gameplay; a feature last seen over ten years ago in Four Swords Adventures.

In the past, Legend of Zelda games have struggled to implement multiplayer in a way that was accessible to everyone. Tri Force Heroes has greatly improved the accessibility, but there is still room for improvement. In the same way, the level design and overall gameplay experience have been improved in some ways but fall short in others.

Are you beginning to see a pattern? Tri Force Heroes is both the best multiplayer Legend of Zelda game to date, and at the same time, falls short of what it could have been.

Multiplayer Legend of Zelda for everyone

tfh-onlineIn the past, multiplayer Legend of Zelda games had one very large problem: they were extremely difficult to play. The problem wasn’t that the games themselves were difficult, but simply that the hardware required to play the games was unreasonable, to say the least. Multiplayer Legend of Zelda games simply weren’t worth the time, money, or the hassle.

Over ten years later, Nintendo is ready to try again, and this time the situation is much different. Tri Force Heroes is significantly easier to play with friends. It’s so much easier that I’ve spent the vast majority of my time playing the game with other people.

The most important improvement is also the most obvious: online gameplay. Thanks to the Nintendo Network, it’s easy to play online with friends or strangers. Traditionally, Nintendo is much more focused on local multiplayer, and they took the time to make sure it was accessible as well. Unlike Four Swords, this handheld Legend of Zelda game only requires one copy of the game to play multiplayer thanks to the Download Play option of the Nintendo 3DS.

And, of course, for those players who cannot or simply don’t want to play with other people, a single-player option is available. I definitely prefer playing the game with other people, but I found that some parts of the game were easier to complete, or simply less stressful, when playing by myself. However, throughout most of the game you will find that single-player mode is also hard mode.

Unfortunately, despite so many improvements that make multiplayer easier, the game still suffers from a few problems that can sour the experience. Chief among them is a problem with the number “two”.

One friend is rarely enough, and strangers are unreliable

Tri Force Heroes is primarily a three-player game. If you don’t want to adventure with two other players, you can also adventure by yourself using two special scarecrow-like copies of yourself called “doppels”.

So, what if you want to play with just one friend? The answer is almost always “no”.

Tri Force Heroes makes almost no accommodations for two players. There are two scenarios where it is allowed — kinda. The first and only pure two-player mode is the Coliseum. You and one friend can battle against each other online or locally without the need for a third player. This mode is useful to obtain rare materials used for crafting, but does not directly help you progress through the game.

The only other available “two-player mode” is the ability to form a group with a friend — online only — and then look for a stranger to act as your third player. It’s impossible to play the main game with only two players, and it’s a significant setback for the multiplayer options of the game, especially local multiplayer.

Tri Force Heroes also suffers from some communication problems, both between players and systems.

You are likely to encounter lag at some point while playing online. I’ve rarely encountered game-breaking lag, but it does happen. The more frustrating part about lag is that when the buffering icon appears, you never know if the game will continue or if you’ll simply be disconnected.

If any player on the team disconnects for any reason, everyone is immediately kicked out of the stage. You generally receive Rupees as a consolation prize, but it’s still incredibly annoying to be progressing well through a level, just to be suddenly kicked out.

Trying to communicate with these icons isn't a "puzzle" it's annoying.

Trying to communicate with these icons isn’t a “puzzle” – it’s annoying.

The other problem is the lack of communication between players. Unfortunately, these problems contribute to players intentionally dropping out of the group (and as a result causing all three players to lose their progress on a level). The only direct form of communication is through the use of in-game emoticons. There is no voice chat available, even between friends. Often, the icons are all you need, but it becomes increasingly frustrating when one of your partners is obviously clueless and you are unable to effectively communicate the solution to a puzzle or strategy to defeat an enemy.

The developers seem to think that the emoticons are part of the gameplay experience; that is, that deciphering what your partners are trying to say is part of the puzzle. In reality, few players have the patience to sit around and rapidly tap “item, item, item, item, item” hoping that the correct player (all messages are sent to all three players) will understand exactly what item they should use and how they should use it.

Totems and outfits

An early boss fight requires the use of a totem to strike the enemy's weak point.

An early boss fight requires the use of a totem to strike the enemy’s weak point.

Tri Force Heroes has two signature gameplay features. The first is a required part of each level: the totem. The totem (often referred to as “Totem Time”) allows two or three heroes to create a tower to reach new areas or defeat enemies. Every level uses the totem for battles and puzzles, and learning when and how to use it is essential to completing the game. In particular, the boss battles make great use of totems and are very memorable.

The second signature gameplay feature is also mostly optional: outfits. As you complete levels, you will receive rewards simply called “materials”. These materials allow you to create new outfits that grant you different abilities. At the beginning of each level, you are asked to select an outfit. You can play the entire game using the standard outfit and never bother to create the others, but using the outfits adds a great amount of variety to the gameplay. You can use specific outfits to challenge yourself, or, more commonly, to make a level easier.

All of the outfits are useful in different situations, but you are likely to find a couple of favorites and use them repeatedly. The abilities granted by the outfits vary greatly: one makes Recovery Hearts appear more frequently, another prevents you from falling, and yet another makes Link’s body turn to stone.

The levels themselves are well designed and well suited for a handheld device. Tri Force Heroes is designed to be played for a few minutes or a few hours. Each level will take around 15 minutes to complete with a decent group of players, and there are 32 levels.

After you have completed a set of levels, you unlock the challenge modes for those levels. I did not originally plan to spend much time with the challenge modes, but after playing a few, I found that they add a great amount of depth and replay value to the game. Completing all of them, especially with random groups of players, is certainly a challenge even for an experienced Legend of Zelda fan.

Simple, repetitive design

Unfortunately, designing the game to be well suited to a handheld and short bursts of gameplay has a downside: the level design is fairly simplistic. I am very pleased with the boss design, and there are certainly some outstanding levels, but I found the majority of the levels to be lacking in difficulty or any kind of originality.

Stepping on 3 switches at once is not exactly innovative...or interesting.

Stepping on three switches at once is not exactly innovative — or interesting.

A new Legend of Zelda fan will find plenty of new and interesting ideas in the level design, but any experienced Legend of Zelda fan has seen most of this before. The totem mechanic helps alleviate this problem to some extent, but needing to stand on top of an object before you can activate a switch or defeat an enemy is not a new idea. In previous Zelda games, the object would be a box or perhaps a frozen enemy. In Tri Force Heroes, those objects are your two partners. It’s different, but it’s not exactly new or particularly interesting. In some situations, the totem mechanic only serves to make a simple fight more difficult because you must now rely on two other players to do their part.

The simplicity in level design is the result of needing to cater to the unreliability of online connections, player patience (as one player disconnecting results in everyone losing their progress), and the assumption that players on handhelds have only a short amount of time to play. Together, they lead to simple, repetitive puzzles and an over-reliance on one mechanic that is not particularly interesting.

Improvements are on the way

Not long ago, we learned that there are already improvements to the game on the way. The first free update adds new levels that may be longer and more challenging. This could help alleviate some of the difficulty issues.

There is also a high probability of more downloadable content, paid or free, in the future.

Nintendo’s growing interest in post-release content leaves me with hope that they may yet fix some of the other problems with the game. My biggest disappointment is the complete lack of a two-player mode.

A fun adventure that is worth playing

tfh-linksTri Force Heroes is a very different kind of Legend of Zelda game. There is no Hyrule, no Ganon, no Triforce, and not even a Princess Zelda, but Tri Force Heroes is still the Legend of Zelda you know and love. There is certainly room for improvement, but Tri Force Heroes is easily the best multiplayer Legend of Zelda game to date.

The stages may be simple and the mechanics may be “old hat” to experienced fans, but the game is fun. It’s fun with strangers, and it’s fun with friends. It’s fun to replay stages with new outfits that change the experience, and it’s fun to play through the various challenge modes.

Tri Force Heroes is not a ground-breaking, genre-revolutionizing video game, but it is a fun video game that I have enjoyed playing over the last few weeks. There are some parts of the game that don’t hold up to scrutiny, but there are zero parts of the game I have not enjoyed. Find some friends or find some strangers, and be a part of Link’s new adventure.

Joshua Lindquist
Joshua is the content director of Zelda Universe and long-time executive of Zelda Wiki who previously founded Zelda Relic. Wielding an undying passion for Zelda, he works behind-the-scenes to build collaboration in the Zelda community.