Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why I won't finish Secret of the Nameless Kingdom.

Adventure Time: Secret of the Nameless Kingdom is a game built purely on the template of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  It is guilelessly based on that particular masterpiece of days gone by, and no others, to the point that direct homages to the classic regularly crop up in the game.  It makes fun of the trope of blowing open sealed cave entrances with your bombs, you can earn an upgrade for your sword that provides a ranged attack at full health a'la the Master Sword, and you can throw your items into a pond to have them returned by Marceline the Vampire Queen - when she offers you back Jake, your trusty right-hand dog or a fox, she chastises you for lying.

It's so purely intentional, they don't bother trying to hide it - in fact, they celebrate it - which is what makes the Nameless Kingdom's inability to be as well-designed as a twenty three year old Nintendo game so disappointing.

Its lip-service is almost impressive, at first, as you walk up to a bush and find that yes, you can lift it up before throwing it, just like Link did in 1991. Strike an enemy and it freezes for a moment, just like in LTTP.  The combat feels very similar.  Enemies pause as Finn walks down stairs, just like Link, and your first combat item is the Bananarang, which picks up objects from afar and stuns enemies when it strikes them.

All those things are great, because the act of playing Nameless Kingdom - the small things - is very similar to the pleasurable act of playing that ancient gem.  Where it falters is the broader strokes - its ability to offer genuine mystery and fantasy, and design dungeons that aren't just... kinda' tedious.

Each room, alone, often provides an acceptable diversion for the few seconds they require to clear, but taken together, no single dungeon forms a cohesive, navigable environment, and no puzzles offer the clever-feeling moments of clarity of its betters.  The world-map itself is similarly samey, and only with hours and hours of experience blindly wandering its corridors and meadows will you find you know where you're going.

Even then, tracking down that cave you found the Ice King in can be pretty frustrating - but if you take up Nameless Kingdom's gauntlet, you'll almost-definitely get the experience you need to learn the ins and outs of its map.  Once I defeated its third dungeon, I spent the next four days blindly wandering its world, trying to suss out what it wanted from me next, to gain access to the fourth and final dungeon.

(It's worth noting, at this point, that once you defeated the first four dungeons in Link to the Past, the game would turn around, say "haha!  That was just Act I!" and throw you into a much more ambitious adventure.  When you beat the fourth dungeon in Nameless Kingdom, the game ends.)

Cutting down bushes for fun and profit.  Classic.

Finally, some nice folks on some nice forums told me about a single bush I hadn't cut down near the center of the map.  I cut it down, and met an NPC who gave me an item which I then had to take to another NPC, who gave me an item I had to take to another NPC, who gave me an item I had to take to another NPC, who gave me an item I had to take to another NPC.  Once I'd reached the end of that chain, I gained a book that let me access the final dungeon.

Finally, after nearly a week of banging my head against this obtuse little game, I walked into its final dungeon and the game crashed.  I had last saved it before the NPC chain.

Then, I deleted Adventure Time: Secret of the Nameless Kingdom.  I didn't care, any more, what waited in that final dungeon or what the ending of the story was.  This thing had burned up too much of my already-rare free time, and I wasn't prepared to offer it any further credit.

It hadn't earned it.  It squandered the depth, detail and romance of its inspiration, and WayForward have offered yet another licensed game that manages to be indifferent and soulless, despite being written and voiced by Pendleton Ward and the vocal talent of Adventure Time.

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