Friday, January 24, 2014

Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is a Zelda game. I could end the review there. If you’ve played a Zelda game, then you’ll know what to expect from A Link Between Worlds. It follows series conventions like a duckling follows its mother. Still, it does so with such competence and style that it winds up being a great game, like the rest of its series.

If you’re new to the series, here’s a primer: You play as Link, a young man/boy in a green tunic and a ridiculous hat. You travel the land of Hyrule, fighting monsters and exploring dungeons for the magical macguffins needed to defeat the villain (usually series mainstay Ganon) and save Hyrule, which usually also involves rescuing the eponymous Princess Zelda from imprisonment. As you travel, you acquire new tools and items which allow you to solve new puzzles and reach new areas.

The game that A Link Between Worlds is most harkening back to is the SNES classic A Link to the Past. The events of that game are referred back to in A Link Between Worlds (though no prior knowledge of that game is necessary) and the world map and art style are very similar, as is the story structure. You collect one set of macguffins, then plot twist, then a new parallel world opens up with a new set of macguffins to collect.

Usually, the 3D environments work well.
A Link Between Worlds is played in a classic style top-down perspective like A Link to the Past and previous portable Zelda titles, but blending 3D elements. It feels like a natural bridging of the gap between 2D and 3D Zelda experiences, with the 3D largely making for more natural camera transitions and allowing flying enemies to move through vertical space. It also means that multilevel dungeon rooms can genuinely have multiple layers instead of the simulated layers of the true 2D games. There are a few occasions where the game takes this too far however, requiring Link to make large but accurate falls with moving platforms or obstacles. It's rare, but frustrating, because it's the one place where the 3D environments feel like they are working against you instead of being a natural outgrowth of the game's 2D roots.

Sometimes they don't
A Link Between Worlds does do some things different than is traditional for the series, and most changes elevate the formula. For starters, the whole of Hyrule is available to explore from the get-go, though barriers will prevent you from reaching a few small-but-important areas early. Later on, once you unlock the other world, it’s the same thing, with the entire map open to exploration. The maps hit a good balance of being big enough to make exploring feel worthwhile without feeling overwhelming.

Along with this more open world is a more open item system. Rather than finding items in dungeons, you can rent or buy them from the merchant Ravio, who takes up residence in Link’s house early in the game. This also helps keep the absurd sums of money Link inevitably collects relevant, as purchasing items is expensive, and rented items cannot be upgraded and are lost on death. Most dungeons are based around the use of one item, which will be required to enter the dungeon. This also means that, with a few story-based exceptions, the dungeons can be completed in any order. The lack of linearity really makes the game world feel open. It’s always frustrating to see games focused around exploration - like the Zelda games - that are nevertheless filled with “you’re not supposed to be here yet” barriers. A Link Between Worlds neatly solves this problem, and as a result, the game achieves a sense of exploration and discovery that few games manage.

One other small change that fans of the series will likely enjoy is the elimination of consumable ammunition like bombs and arrows. Instead, all items draw from the same energy pool that rapidly refills when not in use. The system keeps you from spamming powerful items in combat while removing the need to ration consumable resources, which was never a particularly interesting gameplay element. It’s intuitive and streamlined, and I like it a lot.
A Link Between Worlds has one more gimmick up its sleeve to differentiate it from its peers in the series. Early in the game, Link gains the ability to enter walls as a two-dimensional painting. While in painting form, Link can move along walls left and right, but not up or down. It’s a great mechanic, and it allows for some interesting puzzles. Like any great puzzle-solving mechanic, it’s simple and intuitive but has a lot of room for depth. You’ll quickly start to see walls as alternate paths. Rough walls and torch sconces become barriers, and awareness of your vertical position becomes essential.

The story, however, may be the most fascinating part of A Link Between Worlds. What at first appears to be a simple cookie-cutter Zelda story (evil sorcerer seeks ultimate power) turns out to have a surprising amount of complexity and emotional depth. Link and Zelda are completely one-dimensional as the shining hero and benevolent princess, but the story manages to make them interesting by setting up alongside more complex characters who see and recognize them as the archetypal heroes that they are. It is these characters that make the story of A Link Between Worlds interesting, with Link and Zelda largely there to give them something to act off of.

It’s not without its flaws, of course. The vast majority of what makes the story interesting happens right at the very end and hinges on a fairly predictable twist. Still, the ending scenes of the game stuck with me in a way that few game endings do. The puzzles also feel too easy, especially early on - likely a result of the game’s non-linear structure - though they get a bit better near the end.

At the end of the day, A Link Between Worlds gets a hearty recommendation. Series fans will feel right at home, but small changes to series formula feel well-implemented and in many ways make for a more open and explorative experience than most Zelda games. With its memorable story and well-polished gameplay, A Link Between Worlds is familiar, but brings enough of its own ideas to the table to stand out, and everything is so well executed that it’s hard to find much complaint with A Link Between Worlds.

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Released: 2013-11-22
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo 


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