The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds review: earning its name

By Steve Watts, Nov 14, 2013 10:10am PST

If any game this season was going to be unfairly pinned with high expectations, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was it. It's a direct sequel to one of the most revered and elegantly designed games of all time. It seemed almost cruel of Nintendo to put that hefty weight on its shoulders. Imagine my surprise when it actually lived up to the legacy. Simply put, this is the best Zelda game in years.

Most strikingly, it maintains a delicate balance between homage and originality. Nothing feels cloying or overtly fan-service. Instead, it plays like a game that carefully studied its predecessor, kept what still works, and updated what didn't. The result is a game steeped in nostalgia, but nonetheless modern.

Take for instance item rentals, which let you finish the dungeons in almost any order. It's easily the game's most radical shake-up to the formula, and it impacts so many other systems in subtle ways. Losing your rented items from falling in battle gives a sense of risk and danger that the series has sorely lacked. Rupees actually matter now that the game has a functional in-game economy, which also impacts the sale prices of items like potions and the allure of gambling games. Owning items also lets you upgrade them, with new effects that often go far beyond simple power-ups. And dungeons are more free to offer loot rewards for solving difficult, optional puzzles within their walls. That one small change, to rent or buy items, has ripple effects across the entire experience.

Speaking of dungeons, they've been trimmed down quite a bit. The traditional Zelda dungeon structure is to spend some time with puzzles to earn an item, and then some more time with puzzles that use that item. Repeat. Since the first half of that equation has been removed, the dungeons are tight little chunks of gameplay that test your mettle with a piece of specialized equipment. To compensate for the shorter dungeons, the world has become something of a puzzle box itself. In the Dark World of Lorule, you can often only enter a dungeon after finding a rift in an appropriate part of the Light World. Figuring out just how to get to the dungeons is its own puzzle. This, along with myriad secrets hidden in nooks and crannies, makes it fun to explore the world again.

Link squeezes through these paper-thin rifts by turning into a painting on the wall, which I feared would be gimmicky and awkward. In practice, it grants a whole new dimension to exploration, and fits so naturally with the other mechanics that it feels as if it could have always been a part of Zelda games. It's also one of the times that we get the best view of Link's expressive eyes and facial expressions, taking some slight cues from Wind Waker's fantastic art style.

Part of the success of the painting mechanic is how smoothly it controls. Popping in and out of a wall is super-fast, making it easy to do at will. That's just one piece of how refined the control system feels in general. The circle pad allows for omnidirectional turning and sword swipes. This isn't accurate to A Link to the Past in the slightest, but it feels like you remember. After 2D games that stuck with the four cardinal directions and 3D games that were stylus-controlled, I'm now pining for more that use this overhead perspective with omnidirectional controls. It just feels great.

The 3D effect is a practical necessity for only a handful of puzzles. The world is richer with it on, but those who have bought a 2DS should be able to manage well enough throughout most of it. The graphical style, on the other hand, leaves a little to be desired. While it looks fine enough in the overhead perspective, sometimes the close-ups during cutscenes do look a little boxy and goofy. It's a 3D art style trying to imitate 2D sprites, and the results are hit-or-miss.

It doesn't overburden you with cutscenes though, and the few are short and sweet. This is a game that knows how to get out of its own way. The story is straight-forward and snappy, and the broad strokes of it might as well be describing A Link to the Past. I found the simplicity all the more charming, and it's filled with colorful characters. It has surprises and twists that I actually didn't expect, but keeps the telling compact and manageable. The conclusion is even touching in that unique, simple way that feels like a well-told fairy tale. This is supposed to be a legend, after all.

And while memories of the A Link to the Past aren't strictly necessary to enjoy A Link Between Worlds, those who have played the 16-bit classic will find extra nuggets of joy in discovering how Nintendo iterated on and subverted its own tropes. For example, the Thieves Hideout in Lorule is once again combat-light and focused more on tricks, traps, and puzzles revolving around letting light through the windows. A companion follows you again, but as a more active participant. And the story behind that companion subverted the expectations set by A Link to the Past. From the Water Temple's smart use of multi-level adjustments to stealthing around guards using the 2D ability, again and again A Link Between Worlds finds new ways to put its own twist on the past.

This is never more evident than in the boss battles, some of which are remixed from A Link to the Past. The new bosses are absolutely inspired, while the returning ones have uniformly been imbued with new ways of tackling them. Longtime fans will certainly remember returning favorites like the floating eye-squid Arrghus, but when he's cornered and fires off an arching laser-like attack, it comes as a surprise. The original boss in the sand dungeon, meanwhile, has you frantically create your own platforms to give chase and strike while it briefly appears. The finale even reiterates a classic element of Zelda end-bosses, but the fresh approach made me smile from ear to ear once I figured it out.

The modernization is well thought-out throughout the entire experience, right down to the menus. While relegating the bottom screen to item and map selection is old hat for Zelda games at this point, Nintendo thought through other refinements. Your item menu itself can be sorted as you please, and a quick-select option lets you isolate a column (or set of columns) from that arrangement. This small change gives much more control over which items are available at a given time, beyond the simple two-button assignments. Maps are also automatically loaded when you enter a dungeon, so no more hunting around for them. Far from dumbing down the game, this makes the puzzles more complex from the moment you enter instead of needing to wait for you to get your bearings.

Quite honestly, I didn't realize Nintendo still knew how to make a Zelda game at this level of sheer quality. Though A Link Between Worlds may not become an enduring classic through the decades like A Link to the Past, it stands as a worthwhile successor and a modern masterpiece in its own right. [9]


This review is based on retail 3DS code provided by the publisher. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds will be available on November 22nd at retail and downloadable on eShop for $39.99. The game is rated E.

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