Video game comedies that both tell a coherent story and are truly, genuinely funny are a rarity; even rarer are games that combine those aspects with engaging, challenging, and original gameplay. That is why it's amazing that Alundra 2 elegantly succeeds on both levels, blowing away any expectations or standards I could've possibly had. Alundra 2's tone, atmosphere, and even some elements of its gameplay are completely different from its predecessor (the title character "Alundra" doesn't even exist in it), but the game gave me little reason to care, as it is just as brilliant and cunning in its dungeon designs and boss battles.
The lead character Flint, whom you also play as, has a personal vendetta against pirates: His parents were killed by them long ago. But this isn't a tale of revenge. After sneaking onboard an airship and tangling with the pirate leader, Zeppo, and his two kids, Albert and Ruby, Flint finds himself involved in a much greater plot that threatens not only himself, but the entire world. He discovers that an evil baron has joined forces with the pirates to usurp the throne of Varuna Kingdom, and the baron also has the aid of the mysterious wizard, Mephisto. Mephisto is a creepy fellow (voiced wonderfully by Dee Bradley Baker) who is at the command of a strange technology that only he understands: a special "key" that can be placed on the back of a living organism to mutate it into a robot. Mephisto uses these devices to turn humans into slaves that do only his bidding, and also to create fantastic, yet highly destructive machines (like the airship and fearsome Ox Tank). We are given the true scope of what these keys are capable of doing when one is accidentally adhered to the back of a giant sperm whale in the game's opening sequence.
Princess Alexia (voice of BJ Ward) wants to stop the baron and Mephisto's plans, and she realizes that Flint is her only hope in achieving this goal (though she was expecting someone taller). Once she enlists his help, the true adventure begins. You'll start by learning the basics of swordplay, platform-jumping, and block pushing in a kind forest setting, and the challenge will steadily grow from there, so that by the time you've completed the last room of the Old Varuna Ruins, you'll feel like you've done everything that could possibly be done with this genre (except that the game isn't over yet).
Flint will get his baptismal vows fairly early in a manic boss battle against Mephisto's cat-turned-mechanized-terror, Pandora. This fight brutally lays down the law: Simply trying to outlast your foes in this game will not work. Every boss has several patterns that must be learned so that you can successfully attack and dodge. There is not a single boss in this game I beat on my first try. Several of them took as many as twenty tries and some even more. Most bosses are the standard attack-and-dodge variety, while others require more unusual tactics, such as a giant spider that you push off a moving elevator or a shark that must be tricked into clamping his enormous jaws down onto a bomb. One boss fight is so bizarre that it's mindblowing to think the designers would actually make you do this: grab a bomb dropped by a small enemy, light it by moving into the path of a bouncing fireball shot by a larger enemy, then throw it at the large enemy so that it connects right as it explodes. Alundra 2's boss fights truly rank with the most creative and challenging of any game I've played.
One factor that puts the Alundra games in a league above other adventure titles is the incorporation of platform jumping with the standard switch-hitting and block-pushing of the genre. Alundra 2 is as much an action-platformer as it is an adventure game, and its jumping sequences are among the most fiendish in existence. This is the only game I know of to take the appearing/disappearing blocks from the Mega Man series and stick in in 3D. Now, it's not just a matter of looking at the screen and memorizing a pattern, but also tweaking the angle of your jumps in mid-air. Alundra 2 puts even more twists on this idea by adding moving blocks, "see-saw" blocks (jump on one block to make it go down while another goes up), and blocks that will only move when shot with a magic ring. In one particularly harrowing sequence, Flint must travel across a lake of lava on a moving platform while arrows shoot at him the entire time. Standing still allows Flint to block the arrows with his shield, but he can't stay motionless for very long, since he must grab blocks from ledges on both sides of the room and throw them to the platform. Missing a block or getting knocked off the platform means you must start all over again. This is one of, if not the most difficult tasks to accomplish in this game. Alundra 2's creators certainly weren't afraid of challenging gamers.
Another part that totally stumped me is a ladder sequence involving use of a special ring that allows you to hover infinitely in mid-air. Here you must climb up a very long ladder as spiked balls fall at timed intervals. The key to climbing without getting knocked down is to leap off the ladder, hover in mid-air, wait for the spike to fall, then drop back onto the ladder. Repeat until you (hopefully) reach the top. Level design like this shows off the creativity of the developers and their ability to take 3D space and use it for something good.
There is also a bevy of optional sidequests and mini-games, most of which are used to gain extra HP and MP containers, puzzle pieces, and rings that increase attack and defense power. Giving enough puzzle pieces to the wise master Jeehan will reward you with extra sword combos that make fighting enemies and bosses go much more smoothly. Mini-games are something I normally frown on, and while Alundra 2 has some useless and annoying ones, the Deadeye Zach's dart game is actually quite amusing, and The Shooter (a Robotron 2084 clone) is almost good enough to be its own game.
But Alundra 2 isn't all jumps, bosses, and mini-games. It is replete with puzzles of every kind imaginable, each one so cleverly constructed that I'm inclined to believe a month was spent on every room. These aren't the kind of puzzles where you walk in, see a block, and think, "Ah, I push it!" These are the kind of puzzles that will leave you staring at the objects on the screen for a few moments before you start concocting the solution. In one Rube Goldberg-ish sequence, bombs must be carefully placed about the room so that hitting a switch sets off an explosive chain reaction that clears the way forward. In another, you carefully lure fireballs into unlit torches through a maze-like gauntlet. The game is even good at misdirection: Sometimes you'll think what you're doing is the right answer, but in reality, the solution is a bit more simple. There are even (unbelievably) sidescrolling areas, one of which was obviously inspired by the original Donkey Kong arcade game, and another that has you swimming through a maze of bombs and walls. Alundra 2 also contains rooms with large spiked pits, conveyer belts, timed mazes, mashing walls, stacking block puzzles, and multiple enemies that must be defeated. If you name it, it's probably in here, and it might be more challenging than any time you've come across it before.
Perhaps what's even more amazing about Alundra 2's dungeons is how they are entwined in its storyline and help build upon its greater mysteries. This isn't just a retread of Dungeon 1, Dungeon 2, Dungeon 3, a la, the Zelda series and some of its clones. The eerie Dunn Webb, for example, is not only the house where humans are turned into Mephisto's robot slaves, but it also has a strange mining facility underneath of it. This isn't just there to provide the obligatory mine cart ride (though it does that, too). The villains are mining vast amounts of ore and using the pirates' ships to transport it, but to where and why? Another series of dungeons consists of four pyramid-like structures scattered around the world map. They're all different, yet connected, and for a purpose, but what is it? The farther you progress, the more the pieces of this puzzle will fit together, until you reach the villains' secret base at a remote dam. There, in one of the game's most breathtaking scenes, Flint runs across the dam's catwalk, only to stop short and look over his shoulder at something that, literally, is the key to everything.
Alundra 2, is lacking a bit in its visual department. The world is viewed with a 3/4 overhead perspective, a la Equinox and Dark Savior, but can be fully rotated in 3D. The graphics do retain that "fishbowl" or "paper-thin" look common to 3D Playstation games, but the colors are vibrant and the environs (particularly the towns) are bursting with details. Flint's animations are so well-done that I wasn't bothered by the fact that he's a "mute" hero (something that normally doesn't sit well with me in adventure games). His gestures are so expressive that you know what he's thinking. The story segments are told with real-time cutscenes (a la Ocarina of Time) instead of FMV, and the quality isn't the greatest. Jagged polygonal characters and lip movement that doesn't quite sync with the voices are par for the course, but what goes on in these scenes is far too entertaining for me to care much about that. There is a certain event near the end involving a stubborn computer and an out-of-control airlock that is one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a game. It genuinely made me laugh out loud.
And that's another thing that's great about Alundra 2: it's legitimately funny! Many other attempts at videogame comedy, such as Conker's Bad Fur Day or Magi-Nation garnered little more than a sympathy laugh from me, but Alundra 2 has dialogue on par with the best animated cartoons and movies. The real show-stealers are the pirate Zeppo and his two kids, Albert and Ruby. Zeppo is voiced convincingly by Earl Boen (who you may know as Dr. Silberman in the movie, Terminator 2: Judgment Day). He is easily the most likable character in the game, as he argues constantly with his prissy daughter Ruby (voice of Jennifer Hale) and even gets lectured on the meaning of the word "fatso" by his geeky son Albert (voice of Scott Menville).
Despite all the slapstick and comedy, there is a legitimate storyline here, and even more importantly, serious gameplay. Both a "Normal" and an "Easy" difficulty setting are included. "Normal" is exceptionally challenging, though I have completed it. "Easy" is for those who may find "Normal" a bit too much to handle at first, but I also prefer replaying the game on "Easy", since not being so worried about survival frees me up to concentrate on other aspects of the game. And with a game as wondrous and so full of ideas as Alundra 2, there is much worth seeing and doing.
If I had any complaints, one might be that the final area of the game isn't as challenging as some that came before it. The Old Varuna Ruins, which immediately precedes the final area, is the Dungeon to End All Videogame Dungeons, with its size and ingenuity of traps. But even so, the last level culminates so dramatically storywise and visually, and signs off with one of the most difficult multi-part final boss fights in history. Alundra 2 left me reeling on a high note, one that future adventure game designers will be hard-pressed to top.
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