Whether or not it’s apocryphal, we tend to accept as a piece of history that the original Legend of Zelda was inspired by Shigeru Miyamoto exploring the Japanese countryside as a boy. He extracted the feeling of adventure and inflated grandeur and built a game to mirror that. Reverie is very much inspired by that brand of 2D Zelda titles, with a map broken up into discrete tiles, items collected from dungeons that help you further explore the map, and, importantly, a young boy saving a place from an ancient evil. What is most appealing about the setting of Reverie is that it doesn’t attempt to build a completely fantastical new world; rather you are a kid visiting his grandpa on a fictional island off of New Zealand. The real-world setting adds some charm and whimsy to make a cute and inoffensive Zelda facsimile.
There is some trouble on the island of Toromi in New Zealand, where mythical brothers are stirring up trouble because of a centuries-old feud. The setup is interesting, but the situation never feels so dire that you must go out and save the day. Instead, it evokes the simple nostalgic feeling of childhood exploration in a fun and dangerous new place. Adding to that is the fact that all of the items you find are more childlike toys than the versatile weapons of Zelda. You won’t find a bow or sword; you find a dart gun and cricket bat.
The items go a long way in making Reverie feel grounded in a real place. You aren’t fighting octoroks and chuchus but rats and bees. That all goes out the window once you step into one of the game’s dungeons, though. You’ll start to fight much stranger creatures that stand out from a game otherwise littered with references to the real nation of New Zealand. It doesn’t ruin the lighthearted adventure, but it does unfortunately detract from what could have been a more interesting exploration of a time and place. The game gleefully relishes in the specificity of New Zealand culture. There are several explicit references (that each have a trophy tied to them) to rugby, you’ll find plenty of New Zealand flags around, and there are kiwis (the bird and the fruit) aplenty. These features lend the game a unique flavor that is slightly diminished when they veer towards the more fantastic. That is admittedly a small gripe in a game that looks to only take a bite size chunk of that Link to the Past framework with the developer’s own spin on it.
The island is fairly small with lots of areas and secrets to discover that shows the developers at Rainbite have a firm grasp on more than the look of a Zelda game. There were a handful of completely bespoke mechanics in Reverie from an arcade with a fully playable Galaga-type game, to a strange game of life-size air hockey against a microwave. I had a lot of fun just poking around every corner of the island and seeing what neat new area I could find. It was a good size, so I felt like I was able to see everything the game had to offer in just five or six hours.
The game has a nice, chunky, sprite-based art style that lends itself well to the Vita version as that was the lead platform. On Playstation 4, where I finished it and spent most of my time, it’s bright and vibrant and pops well off a TV, but the UI is clearly meant for the smaller screen of the Vita. The edges of the screen were slightly cropped on the PS4 version and the large interface is more appropriate at the lower resolution of the handheld. You never need the second analogue stick or all four shoulder buttons, though, so both versions are completely worthwhile ways to play it.
What can make or break a game of this type are the dungeons. Fortunately, the game does a decent job of creating neat dungeons to explore. Some are more standard fare like a cave or volcano, but you’ll also explore your grandfather’s basement full of extra furniture and a possessed washing machine. The dungeons are broken up into the standard set of combat rooms, unlocking doors with small keys, finding the dungeon’s specific item to find the boss key, and ultimately taking on the boss. There were some genuinely great puzzle rooms that made inventive use of your different items, but there were also a lot of rooms that were simple combat arenas in which the door would unlock only once you had defeated all of the enemies. These were generally fine but were slightly too frequent.
The game is actually at its best when they break from their Zelda template the few times they do. The one item that was truly new was the pet rock. You would set it down to press switches for you, but you could also hit it to slide it along the ground which they used to great effect in puzzle solving and in combat. It was one of the more interesting parts of the game, and it consistently made me wish they had done more to differentiate from the source they are emulating.
Reverie works because they don’t spread themselves too thin, and the relatively short length is just long enough to have fun without getting bogged down in well-worn adventure game mechanics that Zelda has already beaten into the ground. As much as the game plays off the feeling of exploring New Zealand in the early 2000s as a child, it also play of the nostalgia of a genre that can be underrepresented on modern consoles. Rainbite does an admirable job bringing that feeling to a unique place while relying on familiar ideas to carry it forward.
While not as deep and rewarding as the material it’s riffing on, Reverie’s ode to Zelda presents a charming trip through New Zealand folklore that’s worth checking out.