Petals to the Nettle.
It’s always a happy day to see a game like Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King arise. Everyone adores a love letter to classics, and from the very moment the game first set foot on Steam Greenlight, it was pretty obvious that it was made in homage to Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, with some visual sensibilities to its younger cousin The Minish Cap. Blossom Tales makes the inspirations of its creators no secret, while turning up the difficulty and painting a beautiful landscape all at once. Its mechanical ambitions don’t all pan out, but its loving style certainly does.
The insta-charming setup of Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King begins with a kindly old grandfather sitting down to tell a story to his two grandchildren, Chrys and Lily. The story he tells is of a beautiful kingdom called Blossom, where a young girl also named Lily, after his eager and attentive granddaughter, has just become knighted. During the knighting ceremony, things take a turn for the worse, as the evil wizard Crocus curses the king, his brother, into an eternal sleep. After the wizard has declared his plans for domination and vanished off into a world now newly terrified of him, the knights of Blossom spread out across the kingdom in search of the three ingredients needed to brew up a potion that can awaken the titular sleepy monarch. New as she is, Lily takes blade in hand and sets off in search of evil to thwart, adventure to be had, and plants to bring back.
There’s no way around it, really: Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is a classic 2D Zelda-like, through and through. Your basic sword swing is modified into a three-hit combo, and the spin attack can be chained with a handy-dandy jump-slash move, but otherwise the trimmings are all the same. Lily starts out with three hearts, and can collect more heart containers and pieces as she adventures and encounters the world and its citizens. She also has a rechargeable magic power bar, which actually takes a cue from the much later A Link Between Worlds. It even ties itself to arrow and bomb quantity, instead of giving those consumable units of their own. Having to keep track of those extra numbers most likely wouldn’t have killed any part of the experience, but not having to deal with them is nice.
As Lily, Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King sends you off in pursuit of the three ingredients needed to give his royal highness the strongest cup of coffee ever brewed. The kingdom is large, well laid-out, and fun to explore. It’s also beautiful. Did I mention that it’s beautiful? The pixel art job paints the kingdom of Blossom in vibrant, detailed hues, with really cool moments that stick in my head even now. The first dungeon has a beautifully-unified sense of design, as a forest shrine of ancient stone with equally-ancient stone golems waiting to smash your brains inside. The entrance to the second one is a gigantic metal dragons head. Blossom Tales has moments of solid imagination. These moments are fueled by Lily and Chrys, who pop in with commentary as their grandfather tells the story, even going so far as to argue over a couple distinct points that will change what enemies Lily fights, depending on the players (and narrators) preference.
For all that imagination, though, there are also a lot of places where the game’s visual design feels a bit too derivative for its own good. There are a couple enemy types that are almost pixel-to-pixel copies of classics from A Link to the Past or other classics. There are enemies I had to remind myself repeatedly were not just River Zoras, and a first boss that copies one of the most oft-repeated boss designs across the whole Zelda series. By that same token, all in all, I was disappointed by how little Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King actually does to differentiate itself from the worlds on which it draws inspiration.
Maybe I’m spoiled. In the last few years we’ve seen an amazing crop of games emulate classics while wearing distinct visual styles and packages; Shovel Knight and Hyper Light Drifter come to mind. For all the gorgeous visual polish, and even a lot of gameplay, that Blossom Tales brings to the table, it doesn’t actually give the player much that makes it feel distinct from the things it pays homage to. Even the story beats are hugely similar, with the dark wizard Crocus taking on the Agahnim role in his evil deeds. It just feels like the team stuck a bit too close to home. The one exception point is the music, which is a beautiful neo-chiptune soundtrack that I found myself humming along with more times than I could count.
The actual gameplay of Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is mostly really fun; slashing and hacking in a Zelda-like manner, augmented by physics and movement more similar to Stardew Valley, is great, and for all the gripes above, the game sports plenty of original enemies that require some thinking in order to take down. Lily gets bombs, arrows, and some other genre regulars by missions end, and can duke it out with the best of them. Some enemies are really well-designed around the order in which the game hands you different tools of the trade, rendering previously-lethal threats a bit less challenging. Fighting a forest wizard who hurls leaf storms at you, making it hard to get close? Just wait until you get the almost too-useful bow and arrows. Some puzzles are just as well-designed, especially with the bow and arrow’s role as a creative variant on the classic torch-lighting puzzles most Zelda entries seem plagued by.
For every moment of truly clever dungeon design and layout, though, it seems there are two examples of frustration and death-spawned backtracking, all too often in places that ultimately aren’t really the players fault. Sure, there are places where some clever item usage is required to progress, but in dungeons, it’s more often the case that Lily needs to survive obnoxious traps that require little more than ones own ability to think on ones feet. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it gets dull after a point.
Perhaps the more important flaw in dungeoneering is how much the potential for death conflicts with how few checkpoints exist in any given dungeon (pretty much one at the entrance, one at the boss). This would be fine if dungeon layout didn’t create so much margin for error. Too many times, I died halfway through a horribly long series of lava-flooded hallways because I had been pushed off a moving platform while trying to wrestle with tragically stiff joypad controls. Sometimes I would be faced with too many enemies to block with my meter-controlled shield, or was shown an asset in the environment that I can’t use as intended. Four enemies spawn around an exploding barrel I can hit with an arrow, but there’s no way to get around the barrel without taking down the enemies first, so why bother with it? Upon death, the backtrack slog is just as likely to kill me as not, so frustrations come by the dozen. Again, it’s not a constant problem, and the game’s better points sport some really nice dungeon design with a very real sense of exploration. But when the quality of fun drops, it plummets.
I really, really wanted to love Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King. And hey, I liked it, which is a nice place to start. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous storybook of a tale, honors the mechanics and worldbuilding on whic it tills its soil, and at its best deserves to be checked out by any fan of classic 2D Zelda games. The countermelody to that sweet song is one of derivative ideas and a tenuous relationship between Lily’s assets and the world around her, but despite my own frustrations with them, they’re tolerable at days end, for the sake of what is, ultimately, a garden of pleasant times and high adventure waiting to be had.
Final verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: FDG Entertainment ; Developer: Castle Pixel ; Players: 1 ; Released: March 28th, 2017 ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Steam code for Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King provided by the publisher.