Zelda games have been at a bit of a weird place for me. I came off Skyward Sword on an absolute high. I was impressed by the way the game managed to tie itself into the existing story but also the way it managed to serve as a kind of origin story for the main events of the series we’ve been enjoying for twenty plus years now. But the gameplay was more of a discordant affair and I only thought about this until a year after I played it and why the game wasn’t the reinvention that the team at Nintendo claimed it to be. A Link Between Worlds, a sequel to A Link To The Past, is the latest Zelda game and I’ve given it some time to marinate to ensure I don’t make the same mistake I did with Skyward Sword and instead consider how everything in the game came together. I’m happy to say that upon reflection, my thoughts are much more positive than they were upon critiquing Skyward Sword.
A Link Between Worlds takes place chronologically in between Link’s Awakening and the first Legend of Zelda game – which in the confusing timeline puts it about six generations after the events of Link To The Past. Link embarks on an adventure to save Hyrule from a mysterious sorcerer known only as Yuga, but is cursed in the process with the ability to turn into a painting and blend into walls. With the help of a mysterious figure named Ravio, Link must explore both Hyrule and its darker counterpart, Lorule, to help defeat a common enemy while meeting some familiar faces along the way.
It’s a rather typical story but it does thankfully have some genuine surprises along the way that many Zelda fans will appreciate. The characters themselves are all written rather well and the dialogue has a good balance of quirky humour and serious undertones at the appropriate moments throughout the story. In short – it’s very engaging to the player despite the game’s open world nature where most games of this genre sacrifice narrative direction for freedom in choice making.
With the game being marketed as a sequel and featuring very familiar locations and enemies, it begs the question – just how much is new? Almost everything is the most accurate answer to this question. Link Between Worlds shares an over world with Link To The Past, but that’s about where the similarities end – and even then there are enough differences to make the over world seem new enough to seasoned players. At certain points throughout the game, Link can find portals to Lorule which leads to a whole new area to explore. The way this is handled is very similar to Subrosia in Oracle of Seasons – in that certain portals in Hyrule will lead to certain areas of Lorule.
The most drastic change in the Zelda formula is the addition of Ravio and his rental store. Link doesn’t find items in dungeons anymore (at least, not all of them) and instead can rent them from Ravio for a price. While rented, Link can carry around the items for as long as the player wants, but with one caveat – if Link dies, the items are returned to Ravio and must be rented again. This does mean that a large majority of the items themselves are available from the get go in Link Between Worlds, but also that players can explore whichever areas they want first and not let the game push them around to pre-determined events. It’s a bizarre way to shake up the franchise, and it largely works, but it doesn’t come without its downfalls either.
The benefits of the rental system are that it gives the player more opportunity to explore from the opening cutscene. It also provides a meaningful use back to rupees, which many “core” players might’ve seen as pointless in earlier games. The idea that Link loses these items upon death also adds a great amount of tension to the game and ensures most players won’t rush through the game as there is a risk of wasting time losing items and re-hiring them. Which is also one of the biggest problems with the new rental system – it’s not particularly friendly to newcomers.
There would be unnecessary backtracking involved if players get to a dungeon and don’t have the required item. This is mitigated by a fast travel option (the witch named Irene) but still can be bothersome and entirely unnecessary. It also removes a lot of the “puzzle” surrounding which item is necessary in each dungeon as each dungeon telegraphs to the player what is required upon entry. These are incredibly minor nit-picks about the new game mechanics – but it would be irresponsible to neglect to mention them here. I’m not hyperbolic enough to say it feels like a waste of time – but it does pad the game unnecessarily.
Regardless of what was just mentioned – the entire world of both Hyrule and Lorule are brought to life with some fantastic designs. Even more evidence for this fact is the dungeons themselves – which are all fantastic. None of them feel like filler and all of them employ meaningful (if slightly obvious) puzzles. Of particular noteworthy mention is the ability for Link to change into a painting and move across walls. At first this seems like a pointless addition – but it should be instead praised for opening the game up to all kinds of new ways to traverse the environment. It’s not entirely ground breaking, I’ll admit, but it does provide a new degree of freedom previously unexplored in other Zelda games and makes the player rethink their approach to the most simplistic of puzzles.
Beyond the main game (which will take about fifteen hours to complete), there are quite a few collectibles to find throughout the worlds. Finding these rewards players with improved weapons and upgraded items, which isn’t entirely necessary but does provide players with motivation to find everything that the game has to offer. The ubiquitous heart pieces also make a return too. StreetPass works quite well here too – players can create a Dark Link and then send him over to another game via StreetPass. Any Dark Links that are received can then be battled for rupee rewards and achievements (ie. Defeat a Dark Link without pressing A or B, for example). Considering how much this game places an emphasis on rupee collection with the rental system, it’s a welcome addition and possibly the closest we’ll get to a PvP Zelda game. There’s also a Hero Mode which features an uneventful secret ending upon completion, and rather disappointingly is only available after finishing the game once.
The most polarising aspect of A Link Between Worlds has probably been the artistic direction. It looks hideous in screenshots and actually hampered my own personal excitement for the game. But in person, it looks absolutely beautiful. The game runs at a smooth 60fps but it’s so damn smooth that it feels like it might be running higher (it’s not, but I needed to make a point). Any apprehension you might have with the artistic direction will just melt once you see the game in motion – it really is that fantastic. Link and all the characters have great looks, and the environments do come off as “lived in” enough to feel alive. The 3D is used to fantastic effect here too – possibly some of the best the console has seen and it is definitely recommended to play with it turned on. This charming art style is complemented with a fantastic score that manages to incorporate old sounds with new arrangements to sound like completely modernised pieces – but a lot were repeated throughout the campaign which is a little bit disappointing.
Overall, A Link Between Worlds is a true return to form for a Zelda game. It shakes up the formula (this time, properly) enough to create a new experience that hasn’t really been since before (or at least, since the franchise’s debut twenty years ago). There are a few niggles here and there, but the game is still excellent. The dungeons are fantastically designed, the game is absolutely gorgeous and the story really engages the player and encourages them to keep on playing. It’s everything a Zelda game should be, with some modifications made to keep things fresh. I’ll be the first to admit that upon reflection, Zelda was getting stale upon Skyward Sword’s release. But now, with A Link Between Worlds and upon some heavy reflection, it’s safe to say Zelda is back and in a big way. Absolutely cannot wait to see what comes in the future following A Link Between Worlds. The team is on the right track.