Blossom Tales is a cute little game (but this is a negative review)

Thanks to the generosity of viewers and well-wishers, I’ve recently come into possession of a Nintendo Switch. The thing came with some credit for the online shop, which I dropped on a few titles that were on sale and looked interesting, one of these being Blossom Tales.

(Which I think I’ve been calling “Blossom Kingdom” all week. Eck.)

Ever since playing Breath of the Wild I’ve been lamenting the loss of, for lack of a better term, “core Zelda”. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a real, meaty Zelda dungeon again, in this brave new world of HD remakes and Skyrim-alikes and dance party nonsense, but a starving man will greedily eat scraps. To that end I was eager to give Blossom Tales a try. It’s a 2D Zelda clone about exploring dungeons, blowing up rocks, and fighting monsters with a sword. What’s not to like?

In short, it’s a game about exploring bad dungeons, blowing up rocks, and fighting monsters with a sword.

To begin with, I will say the game is pretty adorable. I know there is a contingent of people out there for whom adorableness is the main or perhaps only factor in determining a game’s quality. If you are such a person, and you like top-down action-adventure titles, Blossom Tales is easy to recommend. The pixel graphics are charming, the soundtrack is lively and spunky, and the story has this very cute Princess Bride framing device. Fun!

Alas, I am a grumpy old man, and so cuteness alone cannot sustain me. Even so, I didn’t hate my time with Blossom Tales. It’s competently made, the buttons all do what they’re supposed to. The world behaves as you’d expect. You have a big bag of toys to play with. There are exploration challenges, and puzzle challenges, and combat challenges, and a few timing challenges. It’s a very comfy game, and no harm in that.

But it was very early on in my playthrough that I realized something was very, very wrong. The first thing that happens in the prologue is, the kids come into the cozy fireplace room, begging for a story, and Grandpa is like “how about the one where the green elf guy saves Hy–“, and the kids are like “BOOOORING WE HEARD THAT ALREADY.”

I mean, we certainly have. Between 22 and 25 times, by Wikipedia’s reckoning, depending on whether you count the CDi. And my first thought upon hearing that little gag was, gee, I wonder how long until I find the guy who yells at me for breaking all his pots.

Starting town, third house.

You play as Lily, and you hop out of bed and your uncle a neighborhood kid some fairy your grandma tells you to go to the castle. Once there you are given a sword and shield, told you can charge a spin attack by holding the button for a few secons, and then sent down into the basement to kill rats. Downstairs you find your first dungeon item, use it to blow up some walls, and fight your first boss. By the time you get back the reigning monarch has been put to sleep by the local bad guy, and only the power of the three multi-colored macguffins can save the day.

And from then on, well, it’s all here. You explore the Forest, Fire, and Ice Temples. You meet the NPC who lost 15 whatsits, just about one in every map location, and will reward you for bringing them back. You fight goblins and zombies and bees and bouncing mushrooms. You pay the NPC guy to play his archery minigame. You beat a boss by knocking his energy balls back at him with your sword. You carve your way through bushes and tall grass looking for coins.

Some of this could charitably fall under the pervue of homage, but other stuff is more blatant. The little flip Lily does when hopping down from a ledge is the same little flip from Link’s Awakening. The trees are big and bulbous, straight from Link to the Past. You open a secret tunnel in a graveyard by using a big fire spell to trip a ring of switches all at once, just like Ocarina of Time. You increase your life bar by finding quarter hearts. The edges on the overworld map screen are wreathed in clouds. After you complete three dungeons, you get an upgrade and now your sword fires lasers at full health. There’s an NPC witch you wants you to kill ghosts and then bring back their spirits in bottles.

The ghosts themselves aren’t ripped from any Zelda game, actually. Instead, they’re shy when you look at them, and chase you when you don’t.

And look — I do get it. Nintendo’s abandonment of the traditional “Zelda formula” leaves a big hole in the world for indie developers to fill. The genre has been so dominated by this one series for so long, that even a game developer making a top-down action adventure explore-y kind of game from a cave on the moon in the past is going to retread a lot of Zelda’s ideas, simply because Zelda has gotten it right so many times. I understand why developers heaving their shoulders against this rock want to acknowledge that the rock is there.

In Ittle Dew, you also increase your life bar by finding quarter hearts. But it’s cheeky about it. The helper buddy says, hey, let’s tape this piece of paper to the end of our health bar, and if we find four of them, it’ll be like having an extra heart! It takes the obvious game mechanic of incremental health powerups, which can’t really be improved upon by this point, and lampshades it with its own little quirk. The sequel uses crayons instead, so you can “draw your own hearts” as you go.

Oh, and Ittle Dew also has its own identity in the form of bitch-hard puzzle rooms that grow in complexity over the course of the game, plus the nice little innovation of most of them being optional. That’s the core the rest of the game is centered around, it’s the part of the Zelda formula the developers decided they were going to spotlight and expound on.

That’s exactly what Blossom Tales lacks, for all its cuteness. A major piece, perhaps the most essential piece, of the Zelda formula, is a sense of surprise. Something you haven’t seen before. Something that catches you off, wakes you up, dusts you off. Sometimes it’s a huge paradigm-altering gameplay mechanic, such as the layered worlds in Link to the Past. Sometimes it’s a shift in tech, like the use of 3D space in Ocarina. Sometimes it’s a bizarre new world interaction, like Twilight Princess‘s magnet boots, dominion rod, and spinner. Sometimes it’s just a little moment that grabs you, like the first time Tetra winks at the camera in Wind Waker.

Blossom Tales has nothing like that. The biggest surprise I got in this game was, after finding bombs and a bow and a boomerang, being wrong about the next dungeon item being a pair of pegasus boots. (Instead, I won the boots from a minigame, and the next dungeon item was the aforementioned Din’s Fire expy.) Instead of using the Zelda style to set expectations and then smashing them with something fresh and exciting, Blossom Tales just sets the expectations and then clocks out.

I mean, yeah, that’s fine though, I play a lot of games that are just some form of “look how much like this other game we are!” South Park is Paper Mario, Shovel Knight is Mega Man, Bloodstained is Castlevania, Etrian Odyssey is Bard’s Tale, Professor Layton is that stack of old puzzle books my uncle had in his attic. A game that takes an existing formula, and executes it well, can still be a fine game. Yeah?

In the sphere of Zelda-likes, this means designing excellent dungeons. And this, I believe, is why we see so few Zelda-likes out there: it turns out that designing an excellent dungeon is really, really hard. Constructing a fresh video game puzzle that challenges the player but still feels fair is difficult enough. Squeezing that completed puzzle seamlessly into a themed space in the game world is more difficult still. This type of game design is so difficult that even Zelda whiffed at it a few times in its best games. (Remember all those rooms in Ocarina that were just blatant box-pushing courses?)

If you try to make a good Zelda dungeon, and fail, you have a bad game. This is just a sad fact of the genre. If your puzzles are too easy or too obvious, the dungeons are boring. If the puzzles are too obtuse or too complicated, nobody will solve them without a walkthrough. This sort of thing is not for the faint of heart.

Blossom Tales‘s solution to this problem is to not even take a swing. The dungeons (and, by extension, secret overworld nooks that follow from Zelda dungeon philosophy) are utterly tepid. Each dungeon is a linear string of rooms, each with one thing to accomplish. Rarely — very rarely — there is a bonus side room with maybe some gold or a potion in it. Then you fight the boss and warp home.

Some of the “things to accomplish” are about what you’d expect: hit a switch to lower a gate, find a key to open a door, chuck a bomb at a cracked wall. All the classics. These aren’t really puzzles, though… they’re more like basic dungeon interactions. Connective tissue.

The actual puzzle-puzzles are all moldy oldies, lifted straight from the Lazy Game Designer’s Guide to Puzzles. You have sokoban, and pipe dream, and step-on-every-tile-once, and sokoban-but-with-ice-blocks, and… let’s see, there was one more I’m forgetting… oh, right, goddamn simon says. That’s an exhaustive list, by the way, not a sample. You will do all of these things, over and over and over again, as you work your way through the dungeons.

And these puzzles are boring! I mean, they’re conceptually boring, because they’re puzzles that everyone uses constantly. They’re genre staples. But while a typical Zelda game might have one dungeon with slidy block puzzles, or one minigame where you say whatever goddamn simon does, those areas are just a bite. They’re tiny parts, sectioned off, and usually themed well. In Blossom Tales every block puzzle is the same grey blocks on the same grid. Multiple times per dungeon.

There was one block puzzle that used the world’s theming in an interesting way, which I had to fail at once to gain enough knowledge to solve it properly. I’ll remember that puzzle fondly when I think about Blossom Tales in the future, even though it was still just pushing blocks. And even though it cracked on the second thing I tried. And even though it really was just the one puzzle.

These types of puzzles are boring for another reason, though: they’re solved not by intuition and experimentation, but by methodology. Solving sokoban is a thing you learn how to do, because it’s always some sequence of the same moves. Ditto for pipe dream and tile-stepping. These are puzzles which, if you’re familiar with them, you can look at any variant for maybe a minute and see the one way the solution can go.

(I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a challenging sokoban puzzle. I have a phone app with hundreds of such puzzles, which I enjoy muchly. But the levels of sokoban you need to aspire to in order to get an old hat like me out of bed is far, far beyond what you’re going to see in the cute little pixel game’s forest dungeon.)

(And, yes, Blossom Tales is going to statistically be some player’s first exposure to these puzzles. Someone out there has never played pipe dream before. It’s still not an excuse.)

You can make these types of stock puzzles interesting. NetHack spices up sokoban by forcing you to play NetHack at the same time, spawning in monsters that block some moves and provide a second failure state. Ocarina‘s sliding ice block rooms use the game’s inventory to give the player multiple ways of interacting with the blocks.

Blossom Tales just plops them in and washes its hands. It’s the dungeon design equivalent of a Steam asset flip. I guess I’m thankful it stopped shy of the 15-slider or the Towers of Hanoi.

One last gameplay gripe I had: fighting monsters was rarely interesting. The sword isn’t actually that good in combat, so I used my toolkit instead: my bombs and bow and what-not. This is fine and well, and maybe even a nice deviation from Zelda, where the sword is so clearly your primary. Unfortunately all your items work from an energy meter (a la Link Between Worlds), and the meter takes forever to fill up. So combat for me involved a lot of kiting monsters around while waiting for my bombs to grow back. I’m not going to harp on this issue, since combat is so little of what makes a good Zelda-like in my book, but it’s worth mentioning.

All this taken together forms my grungy read of Blossom Tales. There’s clearly talent on display here. The presentation is wonderful, the controls are fine, the world map has a nice pleasing flow to it. This game wasn’t pooped out by amateurs. It’s so frustrating that all this talent and hard work was squandered on something that doesn’t reach higher than “Look how Zelda we can be!”

I want someone out there to be Zelda. I mean, ideally, I want Zelda to be Zelda, but I guess that ship has sailed. (Or maybe it hang-glided?) Part of what that means, though, is engaging my brain in creative ways. The best Zelda titles are about inhabiting a physical space, and understanding why that space is built the way it was, and what that means for you as the adventurer climbing all over it. Sometimes a part of that thesis involves throwing a boomerang at a switch, yes. But a sandwich needs more than condiments.

Thank you for reading this long post about a cute game with bad dungeons!

1 comment to Blossom Tales is a cute little game (but this is a negative review)

  • Anonymous

    It seems a little too soon to me to say that Nintendo has “abandoned” the Zelda formula. They only made one game that deviated from it. And as far as I can tell, Nintendo aren’t the type to just let go of stuff like that forever. They didn’t completely abandon 2D Mario once they went 3D. They went back to open world 3D Mario gameplay after a long while of not having it.

    I mean, maybe there’s examples I’m forgetting where they have abandoned stuff but I really doubt Nintendo’s gonna stop making classic Zelda dungeons just cause they made one game that deviated from the formula. Not trying to be rude or anything but I think maybe you should have a little more faith in them. And this is coming from a BOTW fan too.
    Sorry if this did come off as rude, I didn’t intend that. Solid review.

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