Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Zelda games have a problem. Which is a strange thing to say about a series that is so universally adored and which has never managed to produce anything less than stellar games. It’s this very popularity which creates the problem though. Nintendo have developed the core formula that the games follow for almost 30 years now, to the point that the games have become slightly predictable.

Each new game will have a slightly different hook. Wind Waker introduced a vast sea to navigate. Skyward Sword used the motion controls of the Wii to create the most in-depth sword combat the series had seen. Most innovative of all was the introduction of the Ocarina in the seminal Ocarina Of Time, which allowed Link to travel in time, control the weather and alter the time of day amongst other things.

But underneath these features, the games remain fundamentally unchanged from 1991’s A Link To The Past on the SNES. Link makes his way through a linear series of dungeons, collecting the items within each one until he can gain access to the final dungeon and the final battle within. It’s a formula that has served the series well, but one which fans are beginning to grow weary of.

Enter A Link Between Worlds. Ostensibly a sequel to A Link To The Past, ALBW returns to it’s predecessors version of the kingdom of Hyrule and tells an all new story within its established world. This time around the kingdom is being threatened by an evil from an alternate version of Hyrule known as Lorule. This allows for the same world-hopping gameplay as the original title, with Lorule taking the place of the Dark World.

It takes a lot of cues from it’s older sibling. The sound effects, music and visuals are all updated and reworked for the more powerful hardware of the 3DS, but it’s all recognisable as coming from A Link To The Past.

So far so Zelda. However it’s the changes here that make the game stand out from more recent entries in the series.

Link can rent items at any point in the game. Previously Link would have to gain each item individually, and only when the game dictated he should. These were located within the various dungeons Link would encounter and could only be tackled in the order the developers intended. Now if you have the Rupees you can get all the items within the first half hour. The catch being that if you get killed you lose all your rented stuff. Later on you are able to buy the items outright which costs substantially more than renting, but is well worth it as you can then have them upgraded. This means that the dungeon designers can focus more on creating interesting puzzles instead of locking off half of the level until you’ve found the correct item.

It’s a massive change which alters the flow of the game significantly but also allows for the other major change in the game.

Dungeons no longer have to be tackled in a specific order. If you want to go straight to the Ice Palace you can do that. If you’d rather attempt the Thieves Hideout first, then you can do that as well. Each dungeon signposts if there are any items you need, so you can go in prepared. It creates a fresh feel to the game as you can no-longer predict exactly what you’re going to run into next.

One of the main annoyances in the games from Ocarina Of Time onwards, was that of the “helper” characters. These would constantly push Link in the correct direction, ensuring that you were never stuck wondering where to go next. Some would pester Link regularly, while others would be borderline patronising as they explained the most basic of in game mechanics even as you neared the end.

Thankfully ALBW doesn’t have anything like this. As a result you’re more likely to stumble onto new and interesting things as you just explore the world. As a concession to newer players though there is a built in help system for those times it’s not clear what they should be doing.

Finally there is what is the probably the most traditional of the new mechanics. Link now has the ability to merge in to the walls and surfaces he encounters, becoming a 2D painting that can manoeuvre through tiny gaps. This has many applications, not all of which will be immediately obvious, and it encourages experimentation. It has some especially excellent uses in the boss fights throughout the title.

It is also the way that Link travels between Hyrule and Lorule, as he slides into cracks in walls. As with the Dark World from A Link To The Past, Lorule is a twisted mirror of Hyrule. The layout of the world is the same, but it’s inhabitants and its structures are radically different. It creates the basis of some excellent puzzles, as Link travels back and forth between the two.

It’s hard to find anything to complain about here. The whole package is highly polished and refined and is without doubt one of the best Zelda titles in  recent years.

For players who may have gone off the Zelda games, or have just never played one before, this acts as a great way to get into the series. For Zelda fans it’s a glimpse of what Nintendo could potentially do with the series going forward.  It’s certainly a must have for owners of 3DS.

The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is out now on Nintendo 3DS.

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