Here’s an odd thought: why aren’t there more 3D Zelda clones? The 2D games had their share of copycats back in the day (and during the modern indie boom), but the number of titles built off the template of Ocarina of Time and its successors can almost be counted on one hand. It could simply be publishers and developers realizing what a massive undertaking a decent-quality Zelda clone would be, but that seems unlikely; MMO development is probably the most massive undertaking in the industry, yet World of Warcraft clones are in no short supply. Regardless of the reason for this open niche, Cornerstone: The Song of Tyrim has stepped in to fill it…only to run straight into the obvious budget issues expected of such a project being shouldered by a small team.
Now, to be clear, Cornerstone was not doomed from the start. Yes, its cel-shaded presentation and seafaring sandbox are carbon copies of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but it tries very hard to inject that formula with something the Zelda series has never had: a sense of organic interaction. Its puzzles are grounded in realistic physics, which is a nice alternative to the static problems offered by its mentor series, and a crafting system substitutes for the traditional Zelda progression pattern. I’ll admit I rolled my eyes harder than anyone upon learning that fact, but it actually turns out to be an engaging mechanic when the developers remember to design the rest of the game with it in mind.
At its best, the crafting makes for a wonderfully open-ended experience. Dungeons can mostly be completed in any order and often feature multiple paths requiring different tools. Crafting also gives the combat more depth than its individual pieces would suggest. Because new weapons, armor, and equipment must be constantly reassembled, players will rarely have enough resources to fully outfit themselves with the best items, promoting on-the-fly tactical decisions – something unseen in the rigid gameplay of The Legend of Zelda. Additionally, the limited materials available prevent the more useful items from being spammed. The combat itself is a thoughtless exchange of blocks and slashes, but since it’s augmented with basic stealth mechanics and the ability to construct mines and cannons, crafty players will get some decent entertainment out of it.
Unfortunately, it seems play testing was one of the things that was sacrificed in order to squeeze a Zelda-scale adventure out of an indie studio. Sometimes, the game just forgets to provide enough adequate materials, resulting in long periods of scavenging for scraps just to pass a single obstacle. This isn’t helped by the enormous dungeons that often loop back into themselves, and the poorly designed checkpoint system that seemingly respawns players at the most recent “new” marker with no equipment, regardless of how close it is to their point of death. You’d think these things would make the game overly difficult, but similar to the original BioShock, nothing else respawns when the player does, so reaching the end is merely dependent on persistence, rather than skill or knowledge.
This hopeless lack of polish is equally present from a technical perspective. There’s a slight platforming focus to Cornerstone, but it’s nearly ruined by stiff and buggy jumping controls. Similarly, while having your weapon and shield knocked out of your hands after receiving a strong blow makes for an interesting mechanic, being reduced to a motionless ragdoll for several seconds at the same time makes combat frustratingly choppy. This is further exacerbated when trying to pick up dropped items, as doing so requires both the character and the cursor to be pointed at the target. Lastly, the combat suffers from weightless controls, poor hit detection, and at least one enemy type that’s able to fire off an attack while executing its death animation.
Artistically, the game is solid, although how much of that is based on its own merits and how much is based on its ability to imitate its favorite series is up for debate. The visuals, for example, are pretty, but only because Wind Waker’s were beautiful, and Cornerstone is basically the poor man’s Wind Waker. The music also suffers from this problem. It sounds great, but more than once, I began humming along, only to end up humming a piece of Wind Waker’s soundtrack without even realizing where I transitioned. The one creative asset that this title can claim as its own is its unexpectedly amusing script, which gives the otherwise lifeless story an enjoyable spark.
There’s a reason scope management is taught in game design schools. Overflow Games’ underestimation of its own limitations is the source of almost all of the faults in Cornerstone: The Song of Tyrim. I’d love to see a larger team (or even just Overflow Games again, but with more than a few thousand dollars of Kickstarter money) tackle this project. There was enough novelty and passion here to transcend the “Zelda clone” label, if only those traits could have been honed into something more approachable.