Let’s take a look at Alundra, the most compellingly anarchist game on the Playstation
Alundra is a 1997/98 adventure jaunt originally released on the Playstation (1). It is a generally fondly remembered title, as it’s basically the 32-bit sequel to A Link to the Past that many fans wanted, but were so cruelly denied by a certain 3-D boy with a woodwind. This is a game featuring enigmatic dungeons and dangerous foes, but it also not so subtly evokes some fairly iconic moments and items from a game released years earlier. The line between “familiar”, “homage”, and “outright plagiarism” has never been as thin as when you grab an ice wand from a mini, hidden dungeon to storm a northern volcano to take down a gigantic dragon boss. But that’s not a bad thing! Whether you’re calling it the spiritual sequel to Zelda or Landstalker (reminder: 50% of Zelda games released before ’97 involved significant amounts of jumping), Alundra is still an excellent game in its own right. These dungeons really are innovative, and Alundra deliberately sticks to its guns without delving into half-baked minigames like a lot of other games from the era. This is pure adventure gameplay from start to finish, and, considering this is a robust Playstation title, this really could be the “traditional Zelda game” that could satisfy fans for a console generation.
But that’s only half of why Alundra is so fondly remembered. Alundra is a title with a unique twist: Alundra can enter people’s dreams, and apparently everyone is dreaming about complicated dungeons filled with monsters. Thus, Alundra’s mystical hook allows for a number of exceptional areas that wouldn’t otherwise appear in this world’s vaguely tropical setting. Yes, of course we’re dealing with a videogame where an ice dungeon can be next to a fire dungeon with little to no explanation, but it’s fun when the prerequisite “four elementals” dungeon is the result of a nightmare attempting to accommodate a victim with multiple personality disorder. We’re still a few years away from full-blown Psychonauts territory, but Alundra does know how to separate its set pieces from the established obstacles of the era.
And, while innovative excuses for excellent gameplay are what established Alundra as one of the best games for the Playstation, there’s one important part of Alundra that seems to be all but forgotten: Alundra is emotionally brutal.
No one is claiming Alundra is the first videogame to include death. Alundra came hot on the heels of the likes of Final Fantasy 4, one of many games where half the playable cast is heroically killed across the adventure (they get better). And Alundra technically competed on its own system against a title featuring one of the most well-known deaths in all of gaming (I am, of course, referring to the death of the Lost Vikings franchise). Alundra was released when gaming (or its audience) was starting to find its way to some kind of emotional maturity, and that inevitably meant that fewer heroes were being “sent to another dimension” and were actually starting to feel the cold embrace of death. Alundra sees his hometown (well, “hometown”) burn. Supporting, helpful townsfolk die. Alundra’s beloved old man mentor is killed. People die, you have to deal with it, and that’s all pretty par for the course. People die, but you’ll save the world in the end. Same as it ever was.
But Alundra finds new ways to pervert traditional expectations so these deaths have an impact. Early in the adventure, Alundra is tasked with entering the dream of one critically injured miner so he can then save another trio of miners trapped in a monkey-based avalanche. Of course the critically injured miner dies, but he died imparting important information to dear Alunda. He’s going to venture right into that mine, and find… oh, one of the miners died. Another one, too? And when you find the final miner, it turns out he’s likely been dead since before this adventure started. His corpse is bloated and waterlogged. It… ain’t pretty. So congratulations, Alundra, you ventured into the mines and saved exactly no one. Death and despair are your only reward. And it won’t be the last time that happens! Alundra will venture through two entire dungeons searching for the mystical macguffins of his chosen quest, and on two separate occasions he’ll be informed that the villains beat him to the punch, and, geez, why did you even try, dude?
It is, to say the least, a little demoralizing.
And that’s great! Well, it’s not great for Alundra or the player, but it is wonderful for setting the basic mood of desperation and sadness that permeates the events of Alundra. Alundra first encounters this dismal little hamlet when its citizenry is simply experiencing rotten dreams, but those issues seem to escalate rapidly to “deadly nightmares” and eventual “wholesale destruction”. Things are bad, and the player’s own inability to effectively curtail the horror reinforces the hopelessness of Alundra’s lot in life. By the end of the game, literally everyone you have ever saved from a bad dream is dead, save a pair of twin children who were used as a magical monkey massacre gate. And did we talk about those dreams? It’s not just a gameplay conceit: nearly everyone seems to be dreaming of “dungeons”, and when was the last time you encountered a pleasant dungeon? Want to know what I dreamed about last night? We were at my mother’s house, and for some reason one of her cats was able to talk, and the cat was really weirdly racist. It kept saying that Koreans could always be distracted by a game of chess. It was disconcerting, and I woke up troubled by whatever my subconscious is doing. But I didn’t dream about a gigantic eyeball monster surrounded by spikes and lava. That’s what everyone in Alundra is stuck with, and that is going to lead to a lot of restless nights.
But this all pales to the general perversion of prophecy in Alundra. Sybill is a character that imparts her visionary dreams to Alundra and the player. And we all know how this one goes, right? She predicts something is going to happen, and, because this is a videogame, that thing eventually happens, despite everything you do to prevent it. It is how videogame prophecies work. It is how prophecies work in all of fiction. So you’re shown a vision of a man sacrificing himself so your buddy will then create a powerful magical sword. It’s sad, someone is going to die, but at least you’ll get the Master Sword that can defeat Ganon. Guys, act surprised when it happens, that way we won’t have to scream “spoilers” at a little prophetess.
And then someone kills the prophetess, because of course that happens.
And then someone saves the guy that is supposed to die. Okay, that was unexpected, but…
Oh, and then someone kills the dude that was supposed to forge the evil-busting sword. And the pattern of him making useful items for you after every villager’s death is broken because he’s super dead. His funeral was really long, and he isn’t coming back.
Sorry, player, no awesome new sword for you, because everybody is dead. Nothing you could do. Nothing you can ever do. Loser.
So what do you do? As is often the answer, you beat the shit out of god.
Except, if you follow the details of this story, you realize god isn’t so much god in this story. He’s the ruling class.
Alundra has a fairly robust mythological backstory for a game featuring a gigantic gorilla that can only travel by twirling its fists. In short, Alundra’s world used to have a collection of colossi as its gods, but they wound up fighting over the honor of being the one god among gods, and, yada yada yada, they’re all dead. And, what’s more, by the time they had finished fighting, all of humanity had forgotten they were useful gods anyway, so their whole conflict was kind of a wash. Enter Melzas, the antagonist of this tale, a creature that came from beyond the stars and thought he could give this whole “become as gods” thing a shot. He granted wonderful dreams to the local royalty, and managed to get the population on board with building shrines and statues in his honor. This worked out really well until about five years ago, when Melzas slipped up and the king somehow found out he was worshipping a malevolent alien. All of the churches and alters dedicated to Melzas were smashed, and poor ol’ Melly had to manipulate his remaining followers from the shadows. He didn’t want to wind up like those poor giants that came before, so he hatched a plan to scare the locals into praying to him. This worked for a time, but then Alundra, a dude that could stomp out these scary dreams, showed up. This meant Melzas had to upgrade the horrors being visited upon the townsfolk, and that eventually led to a pretty healthy body count. By the time Alundra has to storm Melzas’s sunken castle, the whole of the world as Alundra knows it has turned against their god, and they have chosen Alundra as their new protector and “hero”.
And, while that seems to be a pretty typical JRPG finale (time to fight god again), something very important happens here: it’s not just the hero fighting, it’s the people rebelling. When this story begins, everyone is worshipping Melzas as a god, because that is what they have always done, and they believe Melzas has their best interest at heart. Over the course of the adventure, the people find that Melzas would gladly sacrifice as many people as it takes to maintain his power. Sorry, children, grandma has to die, because Melzas thinks it is in Melzas’s best interest. This happens over and over again: death and destruction, and their god does nothing. When it’s revealed that this “god” is responsible, it’s almost a relief for his pitiable “followers”. He wasn’t helping them because he was the cause of their woes. All the misery visited upon everyone (Alundra and the player included!) was thanks to one despot that keeps claiming he’s going to make Inoa great again, but never does. The only one that was actually helping was Alundra! Let’s help Alundra! Let’s give him all of our prayers! Because the guy we were following sucks.
And then Alundra wins! Good times forever! And maybe… anarchy?
The ending seems to imply that Alundra defeated Melzas, returned to the village for a little wine, women, and song, and then headed out to do the typical hero adventurer thing. Other dungeons to conquer, other villages to save, talk to you guys later. Is there a replacement god for Melzas? Nope. Every remotely divine being in the area has already been slain. The demons are dead, but the gods are, too. And good riddance! Melzas and every other wannabe god in this story caused nothing but unhappiness or relied entirely on Alundra. God is dead, Alundra killed him, and we’re all going to be better off without him.
What did this ruler ever do for his people? Nothing. And no one is anxious to hire another god to see the same thing happen again. Alundra is the last man standing that received any prayers, and he’s blown this popsicle stand. What does this village have left? Who is in control of their lives now?
No gods, no masters, only Alundra.
FGC #501 Alundra
- System: Playstation and Playstation 3 (through PSN). I’m not sure what it would require, but somebody please go ahead and get this on the Switch.
- Number of players: Alundra is number one!
- Say something mean: Alundra’s overworld is expansive and just plain fun to explore, but it reminds me a bit too much of Link’s Awakening… and not in a good way. It is a royal pain to have to switch your weapons and items every three seconds because you encounter four different, continually respawning obstacles on your way to the west, and I would be much happier with something approaching a “ring menu” or L/R weapon switching or… something. Exploring the world is fun! But could we maybe not have to juggle between fire rod and mace every seven seconds?
- Magic Hour: Alunda can use magic! … But you only ever attain a maximum of four charges, so it’s kind of useless. And your magic points are displayed as a collection of miniature, rotating crystals, which I can assure you distract my wandering eyes at all times. I keep expecting a quartet of tiny Light Warriors to invade my HUD!
- Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: First of all, you can’t tell me Meia, the only other dreamwalker in this world, wasn’t designed as Alundra’s player two. Those two have sprites that are way too similar for a pair of wannabe lovers. Beyond that, Meia is done dirty by the plot, as exactly when you discover that she has a tragic backstory involving religious persecution and more than a little stake-burning, she becomes super-duper useless, and never does anything ever again save offer advice like “fight bad dreams” or whatever. She was just getting interesting! And now she’s forced to stand around in town with all the other doomed villagers and pray to Alundra? Lame! Give her the leading role in Alundra 2! She’s so much more interesting than the main elf.
- For the sequel: Which reminds me, there is no Alundra 2. Never been such an animal on this earth. More of a cryptid, really.
- Back to Work: This is another Working Designs localization, so expect enemies to take way too much damage, and more than a few “translations” that maybe weren’t there in the original text. A few highlights include…
The occasional hurtful insult…
Hurtful insults toward extremely specific individuals…
And opinions on whether or not Alundra should, as the kids say, blaze it. Thanks, Vic!
- Goggle Bob Fact: My raw, unbridled hatred for ice-block pushing in puzzle-esque games stems from this very title. I want to say the Ice Manor is the first area that all but required a teenage Goggle Bob to hang out on Gamefaqs begging for tips straight from the non-pros. The age of strategy guides was over… Or at least online resources were a lot cheaper.
- Did you know? The best weapon in Alundra is the Legend Sword, which technically has a little over triple the attack power of the next best weapon. The catch? You can only obtain it through dying and “quick restarting” sixteen times. It’s the “you suck, here’s the assist block” of 1997. But when you consider how much HP some of these bosses have, well…
- Would I play again: This is a great game that is long and strong and down to get the gameplay on. I will play it again within my lifetime… it just might not be immediately. The last dungeon is a bit too time consuming for me to jump right back in again.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Day Dreamin’ Davey for the NES! Wow, ROB, that’s some surprisingly effective dream synergy between titles. You get an extra pork roll as a treat, and we get a NES game that has been all but forgotten. Please look forward to it!