The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (hereon in referred to as A Link Between Worlds) is an odd beast for me to review. On the one hand, I’ve never played its predecessor, A Link to the Past. On the other hand, should A Link Between Worlds really be compared to its ancestor? Or stand on its own merits, as a new Zelda wearing the vestments of the old? Thankfully, the question is moot; A Link Between Worlds is a great game in and of itself, with only a few niggles keeping it from greatness.
The story is minimal: Yuga, a foppish sort, intrudes upon the world and starts turning prominent characters into paintings, and it falls to you – unwitting blacksmith’s apprentice – to save the day. Unlike other Zelda games, A Link Between Worlds doesn’t dally about before throwing you into the game proper, and provides minimal hand-holding. It respects your ability to decide what you want to want to do at any given time, which can be found in one of the biggest changes to the Zelda formula: the introduction of the item rental system.
The item rental system allows you to obtain almost every item you’ll need to traverse all the starting dungeons at a fractional cost. Die and you lose them all, but A Link Between Worlds‘ liberal attitude to rupees, the in-game currency, means you’ll never be without them. Zelda purists will no doubt shudder at this deviation, but I think it works wonders; it opens up the world in a way that traditional Zelda titles, with their linear dungeon-to-dungeon approach, just can’t match.
Indeed, A Link Between Worlds feels like a game that is constantly trying to keep out of your way. There’s a quick travel mechanic for jumping between different sections of the map (a welcome addition); a fortune teller who’ll provide hints for rupees; and Hint Ghosts who’ll accept Play Coins for more direct guidance. All are optional but available to keep the adventure at a brisk pace.
This, unfortunately, is also felt in the enemy design and difficulty – none of the enemies you’ll encounter will pose a particular threat, and I only died four times throughout my entire playthrough, including the boss battles. The bosses, while unique and appropriately themed per dungeon, aren’t really that challenging.
There’s a Hero Mode once you’ve beaten the game that supposedly increases the difficulty, but whether or not you’ll want to play through the entire game again is another matter.
Instead, the dungeons themselves are the real stars of the game, each with its own particular character. The dungeons make full use of the console’s 3D capabilities, pulling some interesting perspective tricks and making a a lot of interesting vertical dungeon designs. Traversing these can prove a tricky task, and while some are less memorable than others, each fully utilises a particular item and, of course, the other major mechanic of A Link Between Worlds: early on, Link gains the ability to turn himself into a wall painting. This allows him to travel along flat surfaces and slip between tight nooks and crannies. Visually, the effect is striking, and the ease with which you can switch between dimensions proves to be incredibly satisfying. The time you can remain in this form is limited by an energy meter, resulting in some close calls as you scuttle along the wall looking for a perch to jump out of.
Link himself is a pleasure to control in A Link Between Worlds - he turns on a dime and is far more responsive than his kin. There were a couple of times I felt the inaccuracy of the 3DS thumb-pad undermining the precision with which he moves, but overall it never interfered with manoeuvering around the platforms and world. And there’s a lot to explore - A Link Between Worlds is riddled with hidden areas, mini-games, sub-quests and secret places to discover and participate in.
Whether it’s upgrading your arsenal, delving into one of several treasure dungeons, dodging chickens or participating in baseball (yes, baseball), the game offers more than enough distractions when you want a break from the main quest line.
The fact that the game is so inexorably tied to A Link to the Past may be its biggest downfall. While the changes to the item system and openness of exploration are huge, cursory comparisons done with maps and dungeon descriptions online show how closely the game aligns with its predecessor, and there are several coy references you’ll only pick up on if you played the original. Similarly, the art style – a specular, plastic toy box which I initially balked at but grew to love in its consistency – is in stark contrast to the pixel perfection of A Link to the Past precisely because it begs the comparison.
So instead of being a bold re-imagining of the Zelda formula and franchise, it can at times feel a little emotionless – a rote exercise in polishing that which has gone before. It wears nostalgia like an armoured carapace as a means to deliver a (frankly) much needed new direction for the franchise, while deflecting criticism from long-time fans.
Ultimately, A Link Between Worlds will hopefully be exactly that – a sturdy, reliable and interesting bridge to transport a treasured series over the brink between the old and the new. With increased difficulty and a setting to call its own, it could have been a classic. As it stands, it’s a great game with a ton of content for players, but it’ll be remembered as a sterling remake rather than for its own worthwhile merits.