To be blunt, last year’s Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON’T KNOW (hence forth referred to as ETDBIDK) was a poor game. With bland and repetitive dungeon crawling that desperately needed another dose of Adventure Time’s wacky flavor, as well as more overall purpose, it was a game that disappointed many fans that were brave enough to get their hands on it. Thankfully, developer WayForward has done a much better job with Finn and Jake’s latest adventure, The Secret of the Nameless Kingdom, even if it’s a flawed and by-the-numbers Zelda clone.
When the Nameless Kingdom’s three princesses mysteriously go missing, Finn the Human and Jake the Dog must put their adventuring skills to the test to rescue them from their unfortunate circumstances. Much like the Zelda series, there’s an overworld, a handful of dungeons, and even various fetch quests to complete. There are fairy fountains, walls that need to be bombed, and bushes and pots to be slashed that will uncover health and currency (referred to as Rubles). The developer has openly compared TSOTNK to Zelda: A Link to the Past, and right from the introductory sequence it’s clear that the game isn’t just inspired by it as much as it’s directly modeled after it. This is both a good and bad thing, but we’ll get into more of that in a bit.
Even though the events don't take place in a familiar part of the The Land of Ooo, which is Finn and Jake's usual stomping ground, that doesn't mean you won't come face-to-face with the television show's outlandish cast of characters. Tree Trunks, Marceline, Cinnamon Bun, Ice King and plenty of other familiar faces can be found throughout the Nameless Kingdom, typically awaiting some sort of assistance. Whether it be delivering a beverage to Party Pat — who's parched from throwing a rave in a cave — or returning Manticore to Magic Man so he can apologize for his past behaviors, there's enough fan service spread throughout the world to amuse longtime fans of the series. Don't expect much gameplay diversity surrounding these interactions, but they do serve to beef up completion time and they provide players with other activities to partake in outside of saving princesses.
Initially, Finn will be armed with nothing more than a standard sword and a shield made of his adaptable canine buddy, Jake. As you venture further into the game, Jake will even receive new abilities – like a grab function that lets him snag up dynamite or slap switches and the ability to move around separately from Finn to solve dungeon puzzles. These powers definitely come in handy in the overworld, but they’re especially significant when navigating the game’s four dungeons, which are, for the most part, pretty satisfying. What can make the dungeons troubling, however, is that the layouts are sometimes incredibly confusing. Where many Zelda dungeons certainly require the utilization of brainpower to conquer, it’s typically intuition and strong design that subliminally push the player on the right path. But in the castles of the Nameless Kingdom, things can be a bit too all-over-the-place. We never ended up so exasperated that we considered giving up, but there were more than a couple occasions where we were left flustered and scratching our heads.
Many games like this can seem to be non-linear because of their sense of exploration, but the fact is, it’s a pretty linear experience as far as progress is concerned. After venturing around the overworld for a bit, you’ll learn that special abilities are needed to access new areas, so you’ll have to locate whatever’s necessary to move forward. Problem is the game doesn’t do a good job at communicating what needs to be accomplished next or where you need to go. The location of the next castle will be flashing on the overworld map, but there are usually things that need to be done before access is granted, and knowing who, what, why, and where can take a lot of time.
Even we got stuck on numerous occasions and we’re practically Zelda pros around here, so we can’t help but be bothered by how much this lack of guidance will affect the younger Adventure Time fans, the ones with much less life and game experience. Whether it’s in the form of a hint guide located in the menus or a purchasable power-up that marks the next waypoint on the map, the option to be provided with clues should’ve been incorporated considering the age of a mass portion of the audience that’s attracted to the brand. There were multiple instances where we lost over an hour to searching for the location of our next ability, and in the end we had to resort to YouTube walkthroughs to figure it out. This oversight is a primary reason why TSOTNK isn’t easier to recommend, which is a shame seeing as it's largely a decent game.
The fact of the matter is that pairing Adventure Time with the gameplay stylings of Zelda just feels right. Tearing through dungeons with a sword in hand, putting the hurt on dangerous creatures, and solving environmental puzzles is the makeup that defines both of these fantastical franchises, so you can see why they fuse together so well. Unfortunately, emulating what is considered to be one of the greatest games of all time means that the things that don't work well or aren't as masterfully handled are all the more evident. Almost all of what TSOTNK does is, at the very least, competent, but it's often hard to shake the suspicion that this is a game that wasn't given quite as much attention as it should've been given. Between clumsy hit detection, confusing dungeon designs and a general lack of refinement, even when we were content and enjoying ourselves, we were constantly reminded of how some minor tweaks could've greatly improved the big picture.
Luckily, with a little patience, it's entirely possible to come to terms with most of the rough edges and have fun with what is done well. Combat can be swift and satisfying, dungeons offer some genuinely interesting puzzles to solve, and, even if the execution isn't perfect, the boss battles are varied and rewarding to overcome. Clocking in at around a 7-10 hour completion time, the quest might not be the lengthiest out there, but it should be said that the somewhat concise duration felt fitting. If you're looking for a weekend rental or bargain bin buy down the line, this is a game you may want to keep in mind.
While The Secret of the Nameless Kingdom is undeniably a big step up from Explore the Dungeon Because I Don't Know, it's not exactly the type of game that you should rush out and buy without reading up on first. There's definitely something here for fans of both Adventure Time and Zelda, but because of its familiar design, and because there are consistent imperfections to put up with, the adventure isn't as mathematical as it clearly could've been. We suggest waiting for a price cut or sticking to a rental if you're on the fence. The Nameless Kingdom has secrets worth uncovering, they're just not of the "oh my glob, I must know right now" nature.