Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS) Review

Every so often you'll encounter something which reminds you of just how damnably old you actually are. My most recent experience of this was the release of the 3DS' The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. As it is the first direct sequel to the world of A Link to the Past, I was quickly reminded by various media outlets that the SNES classic was released twenty-two years ago. Christ almighty, it certainly makes one feel like Methuselah.

I must say that despite my love for the Zelda series as a whole, it's nice to return to a familiar setting born of a time before the series had a more convoluted canon than the Fast & Furious franchise. Off the bat you're immediately plunged back into that iconic pastoral depiction of Hyrule, re-imagined in the sharp lovely graphics of the 3DS. You may think that simply reusing the same world map would hamper the sense of wonderment and exploration, but this isn't the case - Nintendo have changed the world enough to keep things fresh and feel as though Hyrule has developed somewhat over the time between instalments.

Unfortunately, there's a prevailing sense of deja vu hanging around like the lingering scent of an extremely smelly person on the bus. Stop me if you've heard this before: you are Link' the Hero of Time, Hero of Courage and Lord of the Procrastinators. And in typical fashion you begin the game in bed completely oblivious to the Machiavellian happenings all around you. Eventually you get dragged into the fray and become tasked with recovering the master sword, ultimate weapon of evil's bane. But by way of deus ex machina you'll fail stop the villain and must endure further trails in order to prove yourself. It's the same basic set-up as most Zelda games, and the exact same plot as A Link to the Past.  

Perhaps the reason for this opprobrious approach is because the game can never quite make up its mind on whether it is a true sequel or more of a remake. It fits more in the realm of remake simply because there are no shortage of similarities between the two games: the main villain's plan is essentially what Agahnim was trying to do (initially at least), you collect and use the same tools (boomerang, hookshot, bombs, etc), and even the Dark World has made a return - despite being destroyed in the series' canon. On the other hand there are enough changes to make the game feel like a fresh release.

Lead developer Aonuma has claimed that ALBW's version of Dark World isn't actually the same place, but rather just a similar realm. But to be honest, this seems suspiciously like an MP claiming it was look-alike they caught cottaging in the public toilets at 3am. It's geographical the same place. The only real changes are that it's now been given it its own back story and culture. Lorule has become a sinister society not too dissimilar from my native Hull where everyone dosses about and worships grisly monsters.

Regardless, the notion of history repeating itself is officially canon as of Skyward Sword; so like Phil Connors I've come to expect each new instalment of Zelda to simply tweak a working formula. In the credit of ALBW the developers have made a few bold design choices. Firstly, you now rent items instead of finding them; the Tories having apparently found a way to privatise even Hyrule. This changes the dynamics significantly: the world is open from the get go (dungeons can mostly be tackled in any order) and actually feels like a massive place ripe to be plundered. It helps that all the dungeons are well designed, and feel like real ancient places of immensity and forbidden secrets. You'll visit sprawling desert palaces, foreboding crypts and even a turtle shaped dungeon.

Unfortunately Link realised far too late that this was not the front entrance...

Previous Zelda games were a bizarre paradox of huge worlds that locked you in until you found the required trinket. This is no longer the case. Dying becomes penalised as you lose any rented item (though you can outright buy them later on instead), and I found there were enough optional items spread throughout the dungeons to keep things interesting (Tunics, master ores, etc). The only problem I had with this system was that I felt that as they could be tackled in any order, the dungeons didn't progress in difficulty. Unlike previous titles there didn't seem to be a scale which progressed alongside my journey. In Ocarina of Time for example, there was a sense of achievement every time you fought a new boss that was bigger and tougher than the last; managing to defeat it only by using the skills you'd learnt up to that point.

We all remember fighting OoT's equivalent of a terrible hippy neighbour for the first time.

The other major new game play mechanic is the ability to turn 2D and merge with walled surface. This is how you travel to and from Lorule (via cracks in the wall), and mastering it is vital in allowing Link to fully explore both realms and solve various puzzles. Going in and out of this mode is surprisingly seamless, and can be done on most walls allowing for experimentation. Trying to cross an abyss, prise an object off the wall by emerging from it, or flit through a small gap, can yield interesting results and really adds to the exploration factor. Whilst there's still plenty of the traditional hidden caves, bomb-able walls and hard to reach caches dotted throughout the two overworlds, you'll find yourself spending more time clinging to perilously high walls than a suicidal man on Valentine's Day.

Link's ability to materialise himself into fabric of the walls around him adds a sense of depth to the dungeons, something which I found many previous Zelda games lacked. One particular example that comes to mind is the Tower of Hera in Hyrule - to move from one floor to another in this colossal tower you are required to merge with the outside wall, scale it, and then look for platforms to either merge with or carefully drop onto. Such puzzles require a little lateral thinking, and there are sections which are almost as head scratching as the pissing Water Temple from Oot. Whilst dungeons in ALBW took the intricately complexity of the Water Temple's design, they thankfully feel far more interesting. Because let's face it: that level felt like it took place in the stuffy office of a water company.

Ultimately, A Link Between Worlds is an attempt at refining nostalgia. It tweaks the rigid formula of its predecessor, whilst ultimately paying it tribute with a myriad of references, rearrangements of the classic soundtrack and other visual cues. The game plays smoothly and looks stunning on the 3DS, perfectly capturing the unique 3/4 top down perspective of ALTTP.  It keeps enough to stay a quintessential Zelda game, but changes enough to been seen as quasi-sequel-remake. Think of it like Scotland: it wants to be its own independent nation, but still wants to cling onto the pound like a possessive ex-girlfriend.

And just like Alex Salmond, the main villain happens to be the creepiest bastard ever