A Link Between Worlds is close to perfection. It hearkens back to the old days of Zelda, encouraging players to explore Hyrule to their heart’s content. It has a charming art style and some of the best dungeon designs in the series to date. And yet, it only succeeds; It never soars. Link’s latest adventure makes nearly every right choice from a mechanical front, but it never goes beyond that. The result is a product that could have been the next Ocarina of Time, but settles for Twilight Princess.
Set in the world gamers fell in love with back in 1991, A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to the SNES classic A Link to the Past. However, this time around, the dark parallel world of Hyrule has been given a name: Lorule.
Like most Zelda games, the first quarter serves as a glorified tutorial for the real adventure. Link starts the journey in a way almost identical to A Link to the Past. Unfortunately, it takes a while before A Link Between Worlds starts to differentiate itself from its predecessor and feel like an original product.
Aside from a complete overhaul of all of Hyrule’s dungeons, the opening moments feel lazy and without heart. The world map is largely unchanged and players can expect to encounter some familiar faces, such as the elder Sahasrahla, along the way. Even the Zoras revert to their original design in place of their contemporary blue look. It feels a bit too phoned in.
Fortunately, the quality increases dramatically once players reach the dark world. It’s here that A Link Between Worlds embraces its lineage more from a technical standpoint rather than an aesthetic one. Death Mountain is now a snowy terrace and the area around the first dungeon is now a dark forest inhabited by ghostly figures. Some dungeons have even been moved completely. And yet, for all its variety, it is the gameplay in which A Link Between Worlds triumphs.
After reaching the dark world, Link is quickly given his new objective and players are given an incredibly large sense of freedom in how they achieve it. Nearly every dungeon can be done in any order. The dark world is divided into different quadrants, each only accessible from certain gateways in the light realm. Unlike A Link to the Past, Link cannot freely jump between each world using a mirror. Instead, players are required to find dark-imbued crevices that exist all over the land, which link the two worlds together. It’s a brilliant mechanic and forces players to explore and find their own path to each dungeon. There is no handholding to speak of. A Link Between Worlds encourages exploration in a way that few Zelda games have for almost a decade. From a gameplay perspective, it is a flawless execution.
Nintendo has practically mastered the 2D Zelda design.
Although recent entries in the series still require that players think on their own, A Link Between Worlds thrusts you into a land that is ripe for the taking. Linearity is practically non-existent and ,because the game never aids Link along his way, the sense of satisfaction when overcoming an obstacle or cracking a puzzle is more sensational than it is in other series ventures.
The lack of facilitation translates beautifully into the dungeon design as well. Though each temple in the game is far too short, they\’re also some of the best conceived in the series. I was worried that, after so many years, Nintendo may have lost the ability to create a well-crafted dungeon that bears no clues. A Link Between Worlds shattered that reservation by forcing me to keep crawling through dungeon after dungeon into the wee hours of the morning. The design is so addicting and perfect that it is a shame the temples are so easy.
I never found myself stuck for more than ten minutes when trying to accomplish anything in the game. The puzzles are unique and knowing that you beat one all on your own is incredibly gratifying, but players should not expect to die much in this new adventure. This is unfortunate, considering the game features the most consequential death in the series to date.
Upon meeting his death, Link loses every item he has rented from Ravio without a pinch of refund. Items are no longer received in dungeons, though you can still find dozens of goodies that are well worth your time and effort. Instead, Link is temporarily provided them by one of the game’s major new protagonists. This is yet another area where A Link Between Worlds triumphs because it ensures for the first time in years that rupees are actually worth something. The items, such as the bow, bombs and hookshot, can also be purchased fully, albeit with a large fee.
Indeed, the 3DS sequel is bold when it strays from many classic conventions of the series. The star of the show is a brand-new mechanic that places Link on a 2D plane where he can cling to walls in order to reach new areas. The idea is ingenious and many of the dungeons and collectibles in the game revolve around this mechanic.
Unfortunately, Nintendo didn’t know where to stop. Every time I found myself stuck in the game, I was right 80% of the time in assuming that I had to cling to a wall in order to continue. It’s as if the developers grew a bit too excited with the possibilities of this new detail. It won’t bend your mind, but it will introduce you to many unique puzzles within the game. Still, this ability — like the game itself — is a breath of fresh air, especially since every other item in the game has been seen before.
A brand new item mechanic is a breath of fresh air.
This new entry in the franchise came at a great time. Compared to the lenient Skyward Sword, A Link Between Worlds treats players with a margin of intelligence. It is a beautiful design decision that brings back the sense of wonder that a gamer experiences with a Zelda game. Knowing that everything you achieved in the game was solely because of your merit is a reminder of why we play video games. It is absolutely perfect in regards to gameplay design.
But for every technical decision A Link Between Worlds nails, it sacrifices the charm and magic of what a console entry in the franchise meets. Don’t go in expecting the best of both worlds, because that is, unfortunately, not what Nintendo has accomplished. I would love to tell you that it embraces every positive element of what makes a great Zelda game, but I’d be lying.
The story is practically non-existent. Link is given an objective, the stakes are raised a bit higher, and then, another objective is given. The new characters, such as Yuga, Hilda, and Ravio are also nothing to write home about. I journeyed through Hyrule for hours, collecting everything I could, but none of it seems memorable in the long run. This new game lacks the charm and quirkiness of a console entry.
Where other games see Link encountering inhabitants of each region and a dungeon that revolves around those inhabitants, this new adventure feels lonesome and devoid of substance in some areas. There is never a higher purpose for exploring dungeons, merely rescuing the descendants of the sages. Defeating a boss in a temple won’t cure a mountain of its snowy hell or clean a poisoned ocean. It’s all a bit soulless. Even Zora’s domain — one of the few areas populated with character — is just a small room with three NPCs accompanying it.
While the game excels in spurring a sense of discovery when trying to find your next destination, it never stops to think about what should happen along the way. The result is a world that feels robbed of life and character at times. Between Worlds fails at trying to immerse you in its world. There is no moment where Link discovers a whole new area and has to investigate what has gone wrong with it. It’s merely dungeon after dungeon. It\’s a procedure, not an adventure.
For players who loved the original three games in the series, this won’t be a problem. But three-dimensional console entries have always offered their own perks, too. A Link Between Worlds does not blend what makes a great 2D and 3D Zelda together. It is only an excellent revisit of the former.
Unfortunately, Yuga may be the series\’ weakest villain.
A saving grace lies in some of its presentation values, specifically the music and graphics. This is the greatest-looking 3D game on the 3DS to date. Players will want to keep the slider all the way up as it sacrifices no frame rate in the transition. The visuals stand out as well with a wonderful mix between A Link to the Past’s character design and simplistic 3D models. Finally, the various musical arrangements are as excellent as Zelda fans have come to expect and each dungeon has its own theme, unlike previous handheld offerings. The milk bar serves as a standout — especially among an otherwise dull world — with a musical duo that will perform beautiful renditions of classic Zelda themes.
So it should come as a surprise that with all it tries to do, A Link Between Worlds forgets some of the most basic Zelda expectancies. It lacks the sense of magic that a console game effortlessly accomplishes. It is not the ultimate synergy of old and new; not the sure-fire formula for all Zeldas to come. However, it is an incredibly well-designed game that is equal in nearly every way to its prequel. Nintendo came so close to creating a masterpiece, but players will instead have to settle for an exemplar of gameplay design. It’s not a bad compensation.