Before we get started with the review, an announcement. Starting soon, I will be writing a weekly article for a website called Gamemoir. This will not affect the weekly schedule I have set up with this blog, though I may move to writing more reviews here with more commentary being relegated to Gamemoir. I will link my weekly article with a brief description of the content when I’m giving an overview of the week’s poll results.
With that out of the way, let’s start the review.
The Legend of Zelda series is one suffering from Nintendo-itis. What I mean is that it’s a series that is regularly accused of complete and utter stagnation. The series has actually shown frequent signs of interesting innovation such as the jump to 3D in Ocarina of Time, the clock in Majora’s Mask, or the sea in Wind Waker. Nevertheless, the widespread belief has led to a certain amount of dissatisfaction with detractors frequently citing the linear progression of dungeons as a major problem in the series. So enters A Link Between Worlds, possibly the most derivative, yet oddly innovative Zelda game ever made.
A Link Between Worlds (“ALBWs”) is a direct followup to the SNES classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (“ALttP”). ALttP is one of the most well respected titles of the entire series, often being held in similar regard as Ocarina of Time. Because of this, a direct sequel definitely has a lot to live up to. In many ways, ALBW fails as a sequel. The reasons for this is that the barebones nature of most Zelda plots don’t lend themselves to sequels, and there is very little actually tying the two games together. Aside from the map, which is a beautiful recreation of the ALttP map, and a scant couple of familiar faces, it is difficult to see why Nintendo needed to actually revisit this classic instead of making an entirely new game. There is one reason, actually – nostalgia, a tool Nintendo employs perfectly to bring the overly familiar world to life for those of us who’ve experienced it before.
The story of the game revolves around a mad wizard, capturing prominent Hyrule citizens by turning them into paintings. It’s up to you, Link, to save them while delving into the hidden dark realm of Lorule in order to stop him from destroying both worlds. There’s a bit more to it than that, but the plot is barebones and extremely forgettable. This isn’t a problem as it’s only a setup to the gameplay, but, occasionally, the game likes to pretend that you should care about the characters in this game, which is just silly. Hyrule is where the first part of the game plays out in a way that almost identically mimics ALttP’s hunt for the pendants. Lorule replaces the Dark World, and you will spend the back two-thirds of the game solving puzzles there. All of this is just a setup to let Nintendo play with ALttP’s map, enemies and dungeons in new and interesting ways.
And ALBWs is rarely boring. Even while exploring the same map as ALttP, there are still lots of surprises in store, but no more so than how you approach each dungeon. Unlike most Zelda games, ALBWs throws out the linear progression of dungeons almost entirely. The old formula had you going to dungeon A, getting an item which you’d use to solve puzzles and beat the boss before using that item to access dungeon B and so forth. In ALBW, nearly all items are available from the start. A new character, Rovio, will allow you to either buy or, more economically, rent items for you to use in dungeons. This allows you to tackle whatever dungeon you want when you want with very few restrictions. Do you want to follow the same profession as ALttP? That’s an option. Do you want to stumble headfirst into the dangerous Turtle Rock before any of the others? That’s perfectly acceptable too. Renting items is dangerous, however. If you die, you lose all of your rented items and have to rent them again, which can eat into your wallet. This encourages you to hold onto your rupees in other to buy them so you’ll have them permanently in your inventory. Fortunately, there are considerably more rupees (currency) to find than in previous Zelda games, which makes the steep price tag of item ownership a little easier to bear.
The items themselves are mostly things longtime fans have seen before. Perennial items such as the hookshot, bow, and bombs get joined by less frequently seen ones such as the ice rod. There are a few new items such as the sand rod, which creates sand waves for you to walk on. For all items, there is a universal use bar. This bar depletes at different rates depending on the item you use and it regenerates naturally over time. This removes the need to find arrows or bombs to solve puzzles and gives you impunity to abuse some of the more destructive items, which is always fun. Interestingly, by finding a enough of a certain collectable in the game, you can power up your items at will. This allows for bows that fire three shots at once, or giant bombs for even more destructiveness. Even better, is that you get to choose which items you upgrade, though you must own them in order to do so.
The big gimmick of this game is the ability to meld with walls in order to traverse through cracks and past obstacles. Truthfully, with the non-linear design being as impressive as it is, this idea probably could have been saved for a future game. Nevertheless, it is a welcome addition and it leads to some truly wonderful puzzle solutions as you travel throughout Hyrule and Lorule’s dungeons. It seems simple enough, but the applications for its use are numerous, and Nintendo does a great job at never letting it feel stale or gimmicky, which is a feat unto itself. Like regular items, this ability is restricted by the universal power meter, meaning that you won’t be able to stick to walls forever.
In the end, every Zelda game is made or broken by its dungeons. ALBWs does not disappoint in this regard. As mentioned above, there’s a lot of smart uses of the wall meld ability. Also, since you enter every dungeon with the item needed to complete it, each dungeon has more time to make use of that item in its design than previous Zelda games where you’d only obtain the item near the mid point. The only caveat is that, since every dungeon can be tackled at any time, there is a static difficulty curve for most of them. This means that the game actually gets easier as you progress instead of more challenging. Somewhat more troubling is that every dungeon only requires a single item to beat, and there are very few examples in the game where you have to think with several items at once. This has a way of lowering the difficulty as compared to some of the later dungeons in most Zelda games where the puzzles could get really crazy. Despite this problem, most of the dungeons are fresh and fun, adding on a new spin to their ALttP counterpart, and few of them are boring to play through.
The greatest strength of the game and it’s greatest weakness is the nostalgia. Gamers who have played ALttP countless times will have one of two reactions when playing this game. Either, they’ll think it’s derivative to an extreme level, or they’ll find it charming as can be. It’s hard to say. The same enemies, designs, characters, and even some of the dungeons will turn off some. However, nostalgia is a powerful tool, and it’s more likely that gamers will find this a remarkable, yet familiar breath of fresh air from regular Zelda experiences. For games who are unacquainted with ALttP, there is nothing but good in this game. That’s the wonder of ALBWs. It can rely almost entirely on nostalgia to sell copies, but, stripped of that, it’s still a really well built game that should attract all sorts of newcomers.
As a Zelda game, ALBWs is a little easier than most, but its wonderful ideas, coupled with the stellar execution makes this one of the best Zelda games in years. For gamers unfamiliar with the long running series, ALBWs is a great place to start, offering a steady difficulty curve, excellent dungeon design, and unforgettable gameplay. Unfortunately, the lacklustre premise and on-going story doesn’t even begin to match the quality of the gameplay, and all of the characters are completely forgettable. This is a shame, though it rarely gets in the way of this portable gem.
Score – 9.0
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer