Making the direct sequel to one of the most highly praised Zelda titles of all time can't be an easy task. Like seriously, ask any Zelda veteran to name their favorite games in the series and A Link to the Past will be up at the top. But once again, Nintendo delivers an unforgettable adventure set in the world of Hyrule. A Link Between Worlds takes the strengths of the 2D classics, adds innovative, puzzle-solving gameplay, and brings the outstanding visual and musical presentation that the series is known for. In short, Link's next adventure a must play for portable gamers.
A Link Between Worlds doesn't take any plot risks right off the bat. You can probably guess how it starts: Citizens of Hyrule have been kidnapped by a trickster named Yuga, who has aspirations of becoming the ultimate evil and conquering the world, and a young boy garbed in green must venture out and save them. No surprises here. But that's just the beginning. While the story is straightforward for the majority of the game, revelations about the characters and plot twists trickle in towards the end. You'll have to wait awhile until the plot develops, but in the end the progression creates a captivating conclusion that you'll definitely want to see.
For those familiar with the SNES classic A Link to the Past (which was freaking awesome), ALBW has plenty of nostalgia that's wrapped up in beautiful, cartoony 3D visuals. It's a delight to visit shops in Kakariko village, lose your way in the Lost Woods, and warp back and forth through the rift between Hyrule (the light world) and Lorule (the "dark" world) to unlock the game's 10 labyrinths. But with all that nostalgia, you also get the somewhat unsatisfying feeling of retreading old ground. The Zelda series has always been about exploring a mysterious new world, but because ALBW is so closely tied to A Link to the Past, the layout of the environments and secrets felt somewhat predictable. That mystery behind finding the temples, exploring new areas, and meeting other characters in an unknown world was sorely missed.
While there's a lot of familiarity, there are several changes that open the game up, allowing you to tackle dungeons in whichever order you choose. It's a neat callback to the original Legend of Zelda that provides an enjoyable break from the linear formula of the more recent titles in the series. And it's all thanks to a charming, costume-wearing character named Ravio. Ravio sets up an item rental shop from which you can rent the series' mainstay items like bombs, the boomerang, and a fire rod. You can even load up on all of the items almost immediately, which is unheard of in a Zelda game. The new found freedom is a welcome change, but the downside is that you miss out on the excitement of discovering the hidden items in the dungeons.
The dungeons themselves are surprisingly different from the rest of the series, and are both challenging and thrilling. First, the dungeons are shorter than they normally are in a typical console Zelda title, taking around 20 minutes to complete--a reasonable amount of time for the gamer on the go. Also, the puzzle variety focuses on using the multiple floor levels in each dungeon, which can be more of a brain-twister than the typical block and switch manipulating of ALBW's predecessors. But like the previous games, each temple is themed after an item in Link's inventory, which must be used to get through the challenges. The dungeons rarely force you to combine the abilities of more than one item, which is a disappointing limitation of the renting system, but you will have to combine your items' abilities with Link's unique new transformation skill.
Early on in the story, Link gains the power to flatten himself onto walls as a painting, allowing him to move horizontally to squeeze through cracks and traverse platforms. The new mechanic blends well with the exploration aspect of the series and is easy and entertaining to use. You'll find yourself swapping forms to reach every corner of the dungeon to scrounge up all of the hidden chests and rupees--plus, the ability to flatten yourself against walls spawns mind-bogglingly challenging puzzles. I've been playing Zelda games my whole life and I generally find the typical Zelda puzzle to be a breeze. But, thanks to the new mechanic, there were definitely some instances that left me scratching my head.
Outside of the critical path, A Link Between Worlds also provides entertaining minigames, engaging side-quests, and intense Street Pass battles to take part in. The Street Pass feature allows you to send your Link to other players' worlds as a Dark Link, who passers-by can challenge in a player vs. AI battle arena. This mode makes for an entertaining distraction from dungeon diving and it's a great incentive to find the most powerful items and equipment in your playthrough. The typical Zelda collectible quests also return, and they are just as rewarding as ever. Whether you take the time to hunt down every possible heart piece or try find all 100 babies belonging to Mother Maiamai (a new character to the series), it's well worth the trouble. With Mother Maiamai's quest in particular, she'll reward you by upgrading equipment you own as you rescue her cute, little, squid babies. She can change a single shot bow to a triple shot, or improve the damage and range of your fire rod, which can be incredibly helpful down the line. Because of rewarding upgrades, the constant lookout for crying cephalopods is easily one of the most addictive side-quests in the series.
Link's new adventure is equally impressive outside the core gameplay. With the series' classic isometric perspective, A Link Between Worlds makes excellent use of the console's 3D capabilities. As a 3DS owner, I rarely push my handheld's 3D slider up beyond the halfway point, but the beautiful 3D effects of looking down on Hyrule and the multi-layered dungeons showcase the system's 3D feature fantastically, so I crank that thing up to full. Link pops out of the screen as he's launched into the air, flying enemies hover over the hero as they wait to attack, and there's a fascinating sense of depth as you look down from mountaintops and into bottomless pits. On top of the game's visual prowess, the music stacks up as some of the best in the series. The orchestral Hyrule and Lorule overworld melodies bring back memories of the SNES's A Link to the Past, and the themed dungeon music sets the mood for the fiery-, icy-, and watery-themed challenges that await with beautiful renditions of both new and classic tunes.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds takes you back to the rich, dual world of A Link to the Past, and brings interesting gameplay elements, outstanding 3D visuals, and challenging puzzles to make a fantastic Zelda title. If you've played the SNES classic, you might find the remade overworld a bit too familiar, but with Ravio's item rental system, tight dungeon design, and addictive overworld distractions, A Link Between Worlds stands strong on its own merits. This is definitely an adventure that every 3DS owner needs to play.