Despite the core mechanic of A Link Between Worlds involving the hero transforming into a very two-dimensional painting, it’s actually the third dimension that plays the biggest role in the title. It’s a game perfectly suited to the 3DS, and one which makes incredible use of 3D features, more than any other game on the market has ever come close to achieving.
While in the previous 3DS Zelda outing – a remake of the N64 title Ocarina of Time – the 3D effect was only used to draw you into the game, A Link Between Worlds takes the excellent top-down gameplay of A Link to the Past and completely transforms it, with a fully rendered environment which you can peer directly into.
It’s magnificent, but then again The Legend of Zelda always is, and despite the gameplay largely taking place from a top-down perspective, most of the cutscenes and many playable sections pan the camera down, showing you how detailed and grand the world – or rather worlds – of A Link Between Worlds can be.
So, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a lazy attempt to take the style of A Link to the Past and make it seem as though it’s in a three-dimensional environment. While it achieves that through the gameplay, the style could be considered more akin to a home console Zelda title, where they’ve instead put the camera in the sky above rather than behind Link. It looks great in motion, and really plays into the strengths of the game.
And yes, as the title suggests, there’s more than one land featured in the game. As well as the beautiful and familiar world of Hyrule, there’s the darker land of Lorule, devastated by forces unknown. In this secondary land, some of the architecture and landscaping remains the same but everything else is extremely and eerily different – it’s a much darker, barren and more dangerous land. It’s here that the last two thirds of the game mainly play out, although you’ll be hopping between Hyrule and Lorule through portals to reach inaccessible areas and complete the challenges that Link faces.
It’s a game which expects you to have some degree of prior Zelda knowledge, though if you don’t then you’ll soon learn as you’re thrown into the first dungeon within minutes. They’ve moved away from the touch controls of the previous DS games, instead focusing on a solid button-based form of swordplay, with the touch screen now being used to equip various items and check your map, even dropping pins to keep your place. It’s a menu system which has evolved from OoT 3D, and it’s extremely useful, so much that it’s now hard to imaging playing Zelda without it.
As the two worlds mirror each other, this game wonderfully echoes A Link to the Past, with many references and small blanks to fill in which only series veterans will know. There are direct links to various games in the series through characters, items and settings, and it really feels like a celebration of the series, though one which has plenty of new features and an original story which may include plenty of fan service, but still feels fresh and as though it can stand alone, as you can see in a new villain, Yuga, collecting descendants of the Seven Sages and transforming them into paintings, with his menacing Ganondorf-meets-Ghirahim style.
There are two new main features which really set A Link Between Worlds apart. The first is a simple mechanic, allowing you to turn into a painting and traverse walls two-dimensionally. This, perhaps surprisingly, really adds to the exploration aspect, allowing Link to reach new areas over gaps or through bars, as well as travel between the two worlds through cracks. It’s so simple that it becomes second nature; there’s no “which item will I use here?” at the multitude of sections which require wall-walking, and you’ll think about it as much as you would hitting a switch with your sword – it’s not a gimmick at all, it’s absolutely a core mechanic.
The second new feature is a huge one, which completely shakes up the set-in-stone Zelda formula, allowing Link to tackle dungeons in any order without progressively collecting items to be equipped and instead renting them from a new character, Ravio. All of these items rely on a magic meter, so there’s no collecting bomb bags or arrow quivers, but Ravio – the fiend – will take them back if you fall in battle, leaving you to pay the rental fee once again, unless you buy the individual items to keep, and therefore upgrade, down the line.
So it’s very much a case of picking and choosing what you think you’ll need and then perhaps needing to backtrack as you find you don’t have the right items, or instead just paying up and taking all of the items, with the knowledge that you’ll lose them along with your last heart. It makes for a tougher experience, and one which may annoy series lovers and even newcomers, though once you settle in and realise the potential – that you can go where you want, and play the game in whichever order you choose – the experience is simply glorious. You may find that you still miss the game progressively ramping up the difficulty and offering harder puzzles with all the equipment you’ve collected, however.
And while the temples don’t really span lengths of the game world, they do reach very high, which adds an incredible degree of verticality to the gameplay, leading to some phenomenal level design with amazing and unique puzzles, something which the series is heralded for. It’s really a way of showing how well the developers know the system too, with the 3D effect offering genuine advantages with travelling between floors, as well as within puzzle sections themselves. It might be something that’s lost on the 2DS, or with the slider down, unfortunately, but it’s a genuine triumph in design.
Even just getting into some of the dungeons can be as much of a puzzle as the challenges found inside – you’ll often have to make your way to a section of Hyrule just to reach the corresponding area in Lorule, and then you might find yourself hopping between worlds just to get to the entrance. Thankfully, when you finally get there, there’s a save point, and there are many of these littered across the map which paves the way for a simple and useful fast travel system.
One thing which Zelda games rely on is a solid art direction, and A Link Between Worlds doesn’t falter in this area either, with the glorious art of the two dimensional paintings – and Link when he’s in a wall – reflecting what we’ve seen in the series’ in-game art and cutscenes before, bringing it to life. Since the environments are fully rendered too, it’s much more than your standard top-down Zelda game, and something that really needs to be experienced to take in the vibrant colours, fully 3D models and smooth visuals.
Of course, with two worlds there’s a lot to do, with collection side quests allowing you to upgrade not only your sword but purchased equip-able items, and other non-equip-able items to collect around the environment, as well as pieces of heart, mini-dungeons and a challenge area. It’s a game which boasts dozens of hours of gameplay in one playthrough, and beyond that there are all the collectibles, the harder Hero Mode and StreetPass features, allowing you to battle against other players, with their stats and items in the form of an AI-controlled Dark Link.
It’s also worth mentioning the music even though it doesn’t play as big a part in this game as it has in previous titles. It’s wonderfully orchestrated, taking cues from the recent symphonic Legend of Zelda performances, and each sword or item hit has a distinct, satisfying sound – it’s all fantastic stuff, above and beyond what you’d expect from a handheld game. There’s even a distinct change in sound between Hyrule and Lorule, as well as a subtle dampening effect when Link climbs into a wall.
A Link Between Worlds is perhaps the greatest handheld adventure that the series has offered. It really shows what the system can do, and it’s as if the 3DS was building up to this moment, only now realising its true potential with 3D playing a big part in the level design, and 2D wall-walking playing a huge part in the gameplay.
It’s true that the new item system might be seen as too much of a deviation, but it really opens up the potential of the two worlds and makes each adventure more unique. It’s a tougher experience, and clearly built for fans, though with a curve suitable enough for newcomers too. You should know what The Legend of Zelda offers by now – unparalleled level design, excellent music, an intriguing story and a core mechanic that feels completely natural and necessary.
And you shouldn’t expect anything less than that from A Link Between Worlds.