Airoheart and Legend of Zelda, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
It’s been a while since we’ve reviewed a game that was so flagrantly, over-the-top in love with another game. Airoheart adores the Legend of Zelda series so deeply, so lustily, that you can even see it in the pixel-shading of individual pots and bushes. It’s there in the wasps that fly out and attack you; the hearts (green, rather than red) that represent the hero’s life; the guards that look identical to the Hyrule guards; and the master keys and maps that litter its dungeons.
Airoheart is nudging the slider past ‘homage’ to see what comes after. It is Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, just without the Past bit.
We should be damning Airoheart for all the above reasons. But Airoheart’s mimicry is backed up with some solid design. Its designers know that the secret sauce of the Zelda series isn’t just in its iconic elements and its character design, it’s in the game’s structure and world. Those aren’t easy to get right, and you can’t just Xerox them from an existing title. You have to generate that from scratch, and Airoheart’s designers are more than capable of doing just that.
Plus it all looks so beautifully crafted, with some elements feeling directly ported, others completely new, but all of it coming together to create a dense, colourful world. It might not quite have the immediate charm of that series that we will attempt to stop referencing now, but it’s far, far more stylish than most copycats.
Airoheart does aim for loftier, slightly more adult themes than you might expect. You play Airoheart, whose wantaway brother seems to be embroiled in a plan to wake an ancient evil by collecting Draoidh Stones (absolutely not Triforce). You are both Bretons, a breed of humans that are considered second-class, and the injustice of that has nibbled away at your brother, forcing him to act. It creates neat themes of sibling rivalry, and saving a world that would rather you didn’t exist.
This leads you on a quest for said Draoidh Stones, gathering them before your brother does. Each stone is locked in a dungeon, guarded by a boss and surrounded by mazes of locked doors, master keys and pushable blocks. Also in these dungeons – and across the game’s equally maze-like world – are items that furnish you with abilities, like rolling faster, jumping over chasms or picking up increasingly sizable rocks. By doing so, you can reach more dungeons and better unlocks.
Atypically for this kind of game (aside from the game that shall not be named), the world is absolutely teeming with collectibles and secrets. Graves are there to be pushed, cracked walls are there to be obliterated, and houses have hidden back doors that lead you to the odd chest. Airoheart has a neat line in runes as a collectible, which can offer you varied effects from a waft of your magic rod.
Airoheart is a portly adventure, absolutely stuffed with things to do. There’s the main campaign, but there are also mini-quests, heart fragments to find and hidden areas, off the beaten track, that could house many different secrets. As is expected, you will be mentally logging the areas that you can’t reach now, but you will once the matching ability has been unlocked.
So why, with all these positives constantly glittering on the screen, do we feel so reluctant to boot up and play Airoheart? Why do we feel a grudging sigh bubble up as we wander the world?
It’s a feeling that we had with Baldo: The Guardian Owls, which had similar reference points. Baldo felt like it had been designed by people who loved its forebears, but felt they were too easy: that they needed less, not more handholding. Almost no handholding, as it turned out. And the result was a game that was a convoluted mess, as aimless as it was sprawling. Finding the ‘golden path’ through the game was a constant struggle and hardly ever worth it.
Airoheart doesn’t quite plumb the depths of Baldo, but it has a similar philosophy. It re-tunes a formula that we have come to love, so that it can be a touch more impenetrable. And in our view, every single change is for the worse, not the better.
For example, take the game’s journal. Rather than point you to the next dungeon or the next quest, it merely directs you to ‘look around’. You almost wonder why there’s a journal there at all. But Airoheart’s world is huge, and it’s complicated further by the Metroidvania-ness: you can push into a direction, travelling for ten minutes to get there, only to find that you weren’t meant to be there yet. It can be an infuriating game of trial and error. Even a vague wafting in one direction would have been helpful, but Airoheart denied us even that.
Then there’s the failure states. Airoheart doesn’t have any i-frames, the moments of invulnerability after you have been hit. That means you can quickly go from full hearts to zero hearts in a matter of seconds, particularly if you’re ganked by a multitude of enemies. Airoheart then exacerbates the issue by dumping in enemies and traps that fire in volleys. They’re entirely capable of downing you in one go.
Die, and you will be returned to the last dungeon, house or screen you exited. Which, of course, can be aeons ago. You are unceremoniously dumped there with partial health (something that hurts more in the early game than it does in the latter game), which just leaves you more likely to die again, and again, and again. Combat in Airoheart isn’t particularly difficult, and some bosses are numbingly easy, but the combat is splashy and random enough that you will get caught in these situations. And they never feel good when they happen.
Die in a dungeon and the levels reset, putting the puzzles and enemies back where they were, so there’s punishment here too. You can feel bullied playing Airoheart. The bullying diminishes over time, but it hurts most when you’re finding your feet, giving Airoheart an odd backwards difficulty curve.
So we recommend Airoheart with some fierce caveats. It is Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past fan fiction, but it’s really good fan fiction, created by someone who doesn’t just love the series, but understands what makes it work. But that person comes with an agenda: that a game of this type should be as unhelpful as possible, leaving it to the player to find a path, chucking unfriendly combat situations as they went. If that sounds like a thrown gauntlet to you then, please, pick it up. But we found ourselves increasingly regretting that we had.
You can buy Airoheart from the Xbox Store
- Beautifully detailed world
- Stacked with collectibles and hidden stuff
- Keeps all the good stuff from Zelda
- Unfriendly in-game prompts
- Harsh failure states
- Doesn’t have much new to say
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - SOEDESCO
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 30 September 2022
- Launch price from - £35.99