Staying relevant isn’t anywhere near as tricky as staying fresh. Video games, perhaps, have the hardest time of it, as so many franchises lose their way or get traded off to less skillful developers who have trouble maintaining the level of quality fans have come to expect. With the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo has managed to both honor a highpoint of the storied series while simultaneously moving it forward. By embracing the core concepts that have made the franchise enduring and eschewing some of its more formulaic elements, Between Worlds has secured a spot amongst the top Zelda games of all time.
As a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Between Worlds largely succeeds at replicating the look and feel of the SNES classic. Like that seminal work, gameplay takes place from a top-down perspective, though in this instance, everything is fully-rendered in 3D. It’s a brilliant way of visually tying Between Worlds with the original aesthetics of the Zelda series without sacrificing the graphical fidelity that players have become accustomed to. While I would have equally enjoyed a true, 16-bit visual style, Between Worlds has its own charm that suits the intent of this game perfectly.
The overworld is essentially the same as the one in A Link to the Past, but has been heavily modified to optimize exploration. Some of the geography has been reworked to make getting from point A to B much easier, and the quick travel waypoints are perfectly spaced out. Whether by foot or air, Link is able to travel with ease. Hyrule has never looked prettier, too, with the terrain and towns more detailed and polished than ever before. Everything in the game looks beautiful, especially the stunning water effects on display in the overworld and in dungeons. I was shocked how Nintendo was able to adhere to the basic visual tenets of an overhead Zelda game while still making Between Worlds look like a contemporary title. The lighting effects alone put many other games to shame! For those rocking 2DSs, rest assured that Between Worlds looks great in both 2D and 3D. Some of the graphical effects do have more impact in 3D, but nothing that will negatively impact gameplay. You’ll be happily staring at the screen no matter which system you own.
The premise of Between Worlds is one of the most engrossing that a Zelda game has had in some time. Hyrule has been besieged by a madman named Yuga who is running around turning people into paintings. In trying to stop Yuga, Link learns of a dark and distorted version of Hyrule called Lorule, which is ruled over by Princess Hilda. Link must fight to save both worlds by uniting the seven sages and putting an end to Yuga’s plans. I was pleased with the narrative, as it played with the idea of the Light and Dark Worlds of A Link to Past, yet forged its own identity by not directly copying the dynamic between the two. Lorule is crumbling to pieces and its denizens are very reflective of the chaos that surrounds them. While not as poignant as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask‘s dystopian tale of Termina, Between Worlds looks at the consequences that brash decisions can make, while also showing how that adversity can both positively and negatively change people. There’s a twist in the plot that I actually didn’t see coming, by the way, followed by another that just had me grinning like a fool. Fans will be very pleased with the story that Between Worlds has to tell.
Much has been made of Link’s ability to turn into a living painting, and with good reason; it’s very clever. From the beginning, Link is given an item that allows him to merge with walls and become a flat caricature of himself. In this form, Link is able to travel between Hyrule and Lorule through transdimensional fissures. It’s an interesting play mechanic, as it benefits overworld and dungeon exploration. Link can align himself to different positions on walls in order to access seemingly unreachable spots. There were also many a puzzle where I found myself taking decidedly different approaches to solve than I was used to. Being able to merge with the walls came into play during boss fights, as well, which I found exceptionally well done. Watching a boss smash itself into a wall because it was trying to ram Link was just too satisfying and really encapsulated the innovative spirit of Between Worlds.
The other big change Between Worlds brings to the table is the ability tackle dungeons in any order. As opposed to the linear progression of most Zelda games for the past 15 years or so, Between Worlds gives players the freedom to decide how they want to proceed through the game. This lack of rigidity is made possible by a new approach to item dissemination. Rather than find a new item in every dungeon, nearly the entire inventory of tools and weapons Link can use are available almost immediately. There’s a catch though, in that Link can only rent the items, at first. The enigmatic Ravio, a purple-clad, bunny hooded merchant who provides Link with these items, charges a heavy price for each, with the stipulation that if he should fall in battle, anything being rented will come straight back and have to be paid for again.
These changes are absolutely liberating in practice, as the whole of Hyrule and Lorule are at the player’s fingertips for the duration of the game. While it might seem counterintuitive to give the player so much power from the start, the checks and balances in place do wonders to keep the game from devolving into a trivial free-for-all. For one, progressing through the overworld is challenging even with all the items at a player’s disposal. The same goes for the puzzles in the dungeons; Between Worlds is outright devious in how it challenges the player to think creatively with the tools in their possession. I found myself stumped more than once during the game, having to work out what I might have missed or if I was using the right or wrong items. The game also metes out certain upgrades and abilities the further the player progresses, which further prevents the player from blazing through the game without resistance.
Letting players decide how they want to work their way through Between Worlds incentivizes exploration, too. Being able to move freely on the map made me more inclined than ever to poke around every nook and path in Hyrule and Lorule to see what I’d find next. Though the game offers players guidance when they need it, for the most part, Between Worlds isn’t inclined to hold anyone’s hands. As a result, there’s much more cause to wander and explore because there’s no better way for the player to figure out where to go next. I can’t remember the last time Hyrule or any other Zelda overworld felt so inviting and mysterious. Here’s hoping that Nintendo is more cavalier about dungeon progression and world exploration in Zelda for Wii U!
Sidequests aren’t in as much of an abundance this time around, though the quests that are present are very fun. One of the best is working to upgrade Link’s items, which is accomplished by seeking out and rescuing Mother Maimai’s 100 lost babies. The lost children are scattered across sections of Lorule and Hyrule, and though not required to beat the game, offer the sort of reward I wish more Zelda games would include. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as amplifying Link’s arsenal, and the game doesn’t stop with the basic stuff, either; expect to comb dungeons for precious Master Ore to level up the Master Sword (which has a ridiculously cool effect on the blade that I won’t spoil here) and scour for other goodies to make Link himself more powerful. This sort of fan service has been lost since Majora’s Mask, and is another feature I hope makes its way into the next Zelda game.
Between Worlds is the latest landmark Zelda title and another excuse to buy a 3DS. The story is engaging, the graphics are wonderful, and the gameplay is rich and varied. I spent hours playing through the game’s story and am looking forward to completing Hero Mode with its higher difficulty (and a bit of bonus content that makes it worth the additional playthrough). I’ve sat and weighed the positives and negatives, and other than the sidequests being a bit on the skimpy side, I honestly can’t find anything wrong with the game worth mentioning; it’s as pure and powerful a video game experience as anyone could hope for. Between Worlds is an amazing title that Zelda fans won’t soon forget. Whether this is your first Zelda game or not, be sure to find the time to play it, and soon!
+ Excellent graphics; Classic combat is as fun and precise as ever; Clever puzzles; Wall merging; Non-linear dungeon progression; Wonderful story.
– Not many sidequests to engage in; The game eventually ends (lol).