Have you ever wondered what would happen if Link from Zelda, Locke from Final Fantasy VI, and Indiana Jones let their powers combine into one, ultimate being? No? Well, in case you WERE wondering, that would undoubtedly result in Nigel from Landstalker. The SEGA Genesis may not be the first console that comes to mind when you think of RPGs, but it was home to quite a few outside of just the Phantasy Star Series, with Landstalker being just one example. An isometric action adventure RPG platformer *takes a deep breath* is certainly not something you see every day, especially back in those days. But simply being unique will only carry a game so far, so let’s see how it holds up to some scrutiny, shall we?
Nigel is a seasoned thief, but perhaps he prefers the term “treasure hunter”, that has just finished his most recent endeavor to amass riches. But before he can even take a break, a fairy by the name of Friday bumps into him and desperately requests help in escaping some thieves that are hot on her trail. These thieves are chasing her because they believe that she knows the whereabouts of King Nole’s treasure, a trove of legendary proportions. Of course, being the thief-um, treasure hunter he is, Nigel doesn’t hesitate in helping her make an escape so that he just might find the treasure himself. And thus, the adventure begins…
Seeing as Nigel could pass as Link’s SEGA counterpart and the prominence of treasure hunting thus far, it is reasonable to assume that Landstalker would have its fair share of puzzles, and it certainly does. You’ll be diving into lots of dungeons filled with equal parts treasure and traps, but the latter is not the only thing that might serve as a gateway to your demise.
Landstalker requires you to utilize a diagonally-exclusive movement system, and this might be the most difficult part for some players. I remember this being the hardest part of the game as a child simply because it was so different than anything I had really played before it. Upon revisiting the game for this review, however, I’ve found the movement scheme to be much less frustrating than my recollections might have suggested before. I had no real issues with movement and positioning with a Pro Controller, but that is NOT to say that frustration doesn’t occasionally flare up when precise platforming is required. Also, it could very well be a nightmare to play with standard joycons, but I cannot say for sure either way.
Due to the isometric nature of the game, platforming can also be particularly deadly or, at the very least, downright frustrating at times. It is not uncommon to misjudge jumps which end up costing you health and/or time, and there are many cases where a moving platform may look like it is oriented one way when it actually isn’t (after finding out the hard way, of course). This is primarily due to a lack of shadows, making the movement in a pseudo-3D plane quite difficult at times.
The bane of my platforming existence has to be the timed puzzles though. Many times you will flip a switch and only have a limited amount of time to outmaneuver a puzzle and reach another switch (or open door) before having to start over. A lot of these timed events leave no room whatsoever for mistakes, so expect to have to try them over and over again. If you want to take the easy way out though, SEGA Genesis Classics does offer save states and a handy rewind feature, which will most definitely save you from sprouting a few less gray hairs from the frustration. I do have to give Landstalker credit for easing you into the more difficult pieces of content naturally though, as things start out pretty mild but gradually build up in complexity and difficulty as you go.
Surprisingly, the combat in Landstalker is probably the easiest part of the game. Most enemies only have basic attack patterns, and almost all of them can be exploited with relative ease. The biggest mistake you can make is rushing in and try to eliminate things with aggressive force. I’ve found it easier to wait for the enemy to make their move, and often you don’t have to move or jump around at all. The more calm and calculated approach is especially crucial when facing multiple enemies, as they can easily flank and overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, being patient will reward you by wasting less resources in the long run. All of these tips apply to everything but those blasted skeletons – those guys can die in a fire for all I care.
No game touting the RPG label would be without some form of character progression, and Landstalker does that primarily through equipment upgrades and an item called life stock. Nigel can equip various swords, breastplates, boots, and rings, most of which have unique properties attached to them beyond the obvious upgrade in stat effectiveness. Although some can be purchased in shops, almost all equipment is found out in the world. Life stock is a rare item that grants you additional health, and occasionally boosts your attack power along with it. Purchasing and/or finding life stock when coming to a new area should be your main priority seeing as their benefits help you twofold.
I was fortunate enough to rock a Crystal Castles arcade cabinet as a kid, and ever since then I have had a soft spot for any game sporting a similar 2.5-dimensional look. There’s just something about that step in between real 3D graphics and the more vintage 2D approach that is just magical to me. Its design limitations can also spawn some unique and interesting landscapes, structures, and character sprites. In Landstalker, NPCs have seen less love and care in their overall design but Nigel’s excellent animations alone more than make up for it.
Landstalker is much more approachable than I remember it being as a child, but is still full of dangers and frustration to those who are up for the challenge. These challenges are primarily due to technical limitations and a lack of hand-holding on the game’s part. Of course, having a guide ready at your fingertips and using the previously mentioned rewind feature and save states can make your life a lot easier (if you aren’t personally affected by their use). Admittedly, the light use of RPG mechanics and emphasis on Zelda-like gameplay have never been my most favorite kind of game to play, but I will always appreciate Landstalker for its unique take on the genre.