The Legend of Zelda series is often accused of being too rooted in its traditions, and being unwilling to make any significant changes to a formula that for some has gotten old. For a while the series has become a much more closed experience than the more explorative original game in the saga, but with A Link Between Worlds players are given a level of freedom that the series has not seen for a very long time.
The narrative itself is pretty standard Zelda fare as a creepy fellow named Yuga is capturing the descendants of the sages who imprisoned Ganon in an apparent attempt to resurrect the demon king, and itís up to our familiar green-clad hero Link to stop him. Part-way through the adventure Link finds himself in an alternate world called Lorule, where he meets a dark counterpart to the titular princess named Hilda, who guides him through this familiar yet strange world.
Progressing through A Link Between Worlds feels very similar to A Link to the Past from the get-go as you visit the Sanctuary and Kakariko Village before heading off to the Eastern Palace in an order that is almost beat-for-beat identical, if cut down, from the SNES original. After making your way out of the first major dungeon the player is then given the freedom to choose which one to take on next. This player-initiated exploration becomes even more freeing thanks to dungeons being tackled in any order and lack of early item restrictions that in past Zelda titles would make the world feel awfully confined until later on in the adventure.
The game is remarkably lean, especially when compared to its bigger console brothers such as Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess. Beyond the opening twenty minutes or so the game never stops the player to lecture them on how to play the game they have been accustomed to for the past quarter of a century. Thereís no talkative sidekick or lengthy cutscenes as players are left to explore Hyrule on their own terms.
The game itself plays almost identically to A Link to the Past, taking the form of a traditional top-down viewpoint the series had largely stuck with until the advent of 3D technology. Link himself however is a lot more agile than his SNES predecessor was, and with the use of analogue controls the player has a lot more freedom to move around without feeling confined. The combat is quite snappy as Link slashes quickly with the sword and speedily fires off whatever extra items are equipped.
The main new gameplay element introduced for this latest instalment is Linkís new ability to merge into walls, transforming himself into a painting that can move across to new areas that previously would have been inaccessible. The technique has a profound effect on how the player has to think about the environment around Link in a completely different perspective, forcing them to analyse the landscape in a new way in order to access new areas.
Most dungeons can be tackled in any order the player wishes to, which becomes much more freeing when players make it into Lorule, offering a level of freedom not seen in the series since the original Legend of Zelda. Outside of the freedom to tackle the dungeons in whichever order you should choose, Link Between Worlds also changes how Link gets his items and how they are used. In past entries most major items would be acquired in the dungeons whereas now they are almost all unlocked for Link to rent very early on. A strange fellow wearing a Rabbit suit called Ravio sets up shop in Linkís house, offering the main items such as the bow, hookshot and elemental rods to either rent or outright buy later on.
If Link should fall in battle then all of his rented equipment will be taken back by Ravio, forcing players to pay up again to retrieve the necessary items. While it may sound frustrating in theory, the compact overworld and generous fast-travel options ensure that it never becomes too tedious making your way back to Ravio and setting off again. Any equipment that is purchased outright will be kept if Link is killed and has the benefit of being upgraded as well. Instead of having to scavenge for arrows and bombs, each item is now governed by a regenerating stamina metre, allowing players to experiment with items that previously would have had a high magic cost such as the fire and ice rods without having to worry about replenishing the magic meter.
Even though items generally arenít found in dungeons, most of them do require the use of a particular item from Ravioís shop in order to actually progress in them. Itís rare that any more than one item is absolutely required to finish a dungeon which does dampen the need to stock up on multiple items before setting off to conquer each one. Outside of the dungeons many weapons still donít get too much use, and when they are itís usually only to get to hidden areas in the overworld.
As is common with the series, each dungeon or temple ends with a boss battle. Players familiar with A Link to the Past will recognise several of the bosses who return from the SNES classic, with some even requiring new strategies to take down. Somewhat disappointing are the returning bosses that remain essentially unchanged from their original appearances, even if they are still fun to face off against for those who are new to the series.
While exploring Hyrule and Lorule there are a few optional side activities to take part in, ranging from mini games to hunting for heart pieces and lost octopus children that can be traded in to upgrade an item. The mini games include a few simple ones from A Link to the Past as well as some new variants of the rupee hunt, a Cucco-dodging challenge and a simple baseball game. They do provide for some momentarily fun distractions until you get the necessary rewards but they arenít as addicting or charming as, for example, the Battleships-clone featured in The Wind Waker.
Players who know the world of A Link to the Past inside out are going to know where many of the caves and secrets lay within the overworld but there are many new secrets to find as well. Linkís new wall-hugging abilities also allow for new areas to be accessed. Lorule is more segmented as itís not possible to walk from one side of the map to the other as with its light world alternative. Link must travel through fissures in both worlds to access new areas in the darker world, actually giving the player a reason to keep returning to the Light World once they make that first transition into Lorule. Despite featuring the same overworlds, enemies, dungeon locations and certain bosses A Link Between Worlds somehow manages to avoid feeling tedious to play through, even if taking place in a whole new Hyrule would have been more ideal. Some players may however feel fatigue with the world, particularly if the SNES classic isnít a game they were particularly in love with in the first place.
The game clocks in at around twelve to fifteen hours to finish the core story, depending on how much extra exploring the player chooses to partake in. There is however not a great amount of challenge to be found as itís more than likely that experienced players will make it through their first run at the game without being defeated, somewhat lessening the threat of losing any rented items. The fact that the dungeons in Lorule can be completed in almost any order also means the developers have kept the difficulty level constant throughout rather than gradually upping the ante towards the end. However after the end credits roll itís then possible to take on a much more challenging Hero Mode, in which enemies deal quadruple the amount of damage. It is a minor disappointment that this more challenging mode has to be unlocked, especially when in The Wind Waker HD the option is available from the beginning.
It may not be as beautiful as Ocarina of Time 3D, but A Link Between Worlds is still pleasant on the eyes, deliberately evoking the artwork that would feature in the manuals of the very early Zelda games. Screenshots really donít do the game justice as it runs in 60 frames per second even with the 3D effect turned on, and it really does make controlling Link much snappier and responsive than before. Zelda soundtracks are reliably great but this time around Ryo Nagamatsu has truly delivered a phenomenal soundscape combining both new tracks and epic reversions of classic compositions.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is easily the best handheld Zelda title since the days of the Game Boy Color, as well as being the strongest and most focused entry in the legendary series for easily the last ten years. Itís entirely feasible that in the future the game will be mentioned alongside the likes of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time as part of the seriesí greatest hits. The game feels fresh whilst still remaining true to the seriesí roots, filled with nostalgic throwbacks and making you genuinely excited for what direction the series will head in next. Going back to the drawing board, Eiji Aonuma and his team have crafted a truly amazing game that reminds you why you were a Zelda fan in the first place.